SKC Abroad: Americans in Paris

While traveling, I’ve always treated grocery stores and food markets as cultural institutions. Sure, they are more lowbrow than, say, the Louvre, but I think observing the shopping patterns of locals gives you living, breathing cultural insight you just can’t get from art enclosed behind a class case or trapped within a frame. (Early today, Alexis talked about browsing cookbook stores like cultural places, too.)

While abroad in Paris last year, my pilgrimages to grocery stores and open air markets probably outnumbered those to churches (I hope my eighth grade confirmation teacher isn’t reading this).

The trips were eye opening, delicious, exciting, and…humorous. My favorite experience came at La Grande Epicerie, the Louvre of Parisian grocery stores. The store’s organization reminds me of an impeccably dressed woman with that certain je ne sais quoi. I couldn’t recommend it more highly (though I warn you not to go shop after happy hour, as it’s plain dangerous, fiscally speaking). No matter how many times I visit, though, there’s one part of the store that I always puzzle at: the international section.

I chuckle to myself when I pass the strata of shelving labeled “Etats Unis-Canada”. When quarter-life American cooks talk about French food their vocabulary overflows with words like croque monsieur, croissant, boeuf bourguignon, savory tarts, brie, wine, more brie, nutella, crepes, leeks vinagrette, perfect roast chicken, macarons, mousse au chocolat…. (Maintenant, j’ai faim.) But do we ever stop to think what they associate with America? As you’d expect, the shelves in the U.S. section do feature a few top items like Vosges chocolate chip cookie and brownie mix, but the real bounty is basic: Jolly Time and America’s Best Popcorn, Mississippi Belle Pancake & Waffle Mix, Betty Crocker Brownies, Cheesecake, Peanut Butter, Molasses, Karo Corn Syrup, BBQ sauce, Ketchup, Canned Cranberry Sauce and Pumpkin, and oyster crackers (New England Clam Chowder, anyone?).

If you are what you eat, we Americans must be pretty sweet, and pretty BIG. Not to say we all can’t enjoy some of these sweets from time to time, but I’m almost insulted the food culture we are known for is instant baking, HFCS, and hot dogs (pronounced with a french accent, of course).

Don’t blame the La Grande Epicerie buyer. Even well-educated, delightful Parisians like my host family had some interesting beliefs about American food culture. Within une heure of meeting my host father, Jean Jacques asked, in earnest, if we should pick up some peanut butter on the way home. I’m as guilty as the next girl of inhaling PB straight off the spoon, but in Paris? I was set to enjoy new food and leave behind my brown bag pal, PB&J (straight up, or with roasted strawberries if you want to roll out the red carpet). I’m proud of American food, I really am. But I really didn’t miss High Fructose Corn Syrup or Wonder Bread while I was gone. And I certainly didn’t need ketchup on my pasta, to my host family’s surprise.

One Parisian website assured me that I could still find a hot dog “New Yorkaise” . Thank Dieu. But I was wondering where I would go when in search of food that I did miss from the motherland, healthy, lighter fare to serve as a foil to treats like tartiflette.

So I headed to places like Merce and the Muse, a coffee house owned by an American; Bob’s Juice Bar and Kitchen, a juice joint and brunch spot that smells like wheatgrass (it was started by an award-making filmmaker and Harvard grad), and Rose Bakery, a charming farm-to-table spot with a constant salad rotation as well as distinctively British and American treats, such as pound cake and famous cylindrical carrot cakes.

These spots aren’t tacky and touristy. I found myself surrounded by young families, mothers and daughters, and giggling and chatting in French. That’s not to say there wasn’t any English spoken, but they are all spots that attracted food lovers first, no matter the mother tongue.

It’s totally understandable that you’ll miss American comfort foods while travelling thousands of miles away from home—whatever comfort food means to you. Those moments of intense cravings for something familiar, something delicious, something you just can’t find in your new digs, are powerful moments. They prove that food is associated with so much more than just calories and fuel—they remind us of home.

For when food-borne homesickness does strike, I’m offering up a few food-related Dos & Don’t for Americans abroad who want to be eat more like Parisians.

**How to: Enjoy French Cuisine as an American**

DO. Order le “hamburgeur”. But make sure to pronounce it with a French accent. And don’t ask for American cheese; chevre will suffice. Eat fries with a fork, dipped daintily in aioli, or if you must, ketchup.

DO. Buy muffins at farmers markets. Markets in Paris have a surprisingly global influence. At the Marchée Bio Raspail, paella, muffins, tomato sauces and hot chocolate are just some of the foods you might see on the reg.

DO. Eat Haagen Dazs if your Parisian host family buys it, even if you’d rather be eating Berthillon.

DO. Smuggle some peanut M&M’s across the Atlantic. My 24-year-old host sister loved them (by the way…that whole sweet and salty genius idea of the Pretzel M&M? That’s ancient history to Parisians, who invented the caramel au beurre salé).

DO. Bid au revoir to Splenda/ Sweet’N Low/ Stevia/ Equal. The French say non to artificial sugars, and I recommend you adapt that healthier habit while abroad. You won’t miss the taste, I promise.

DON’T. Make special requests of waiters and waitresses. Be SURE not to call a waiter “garçon” (highly offensive, like calling a server at Eleven Madison Park “bro”) and be well aware that your special requests will only confirm the misconception of Americans as needy and entitled. Chefs take pride in knowing what is best for a dish. If you ask chef to cook the heart and soul out of a steak, he will not be pleased. In fact, a great way to honor the chef is to solicit your waiter/waitress’ recommendation and go by that.

DON’T. Snack, at least not regularly. Part of the reason the French don’t get fat is their discipline when it comes to eating three real meals. Kids might have a “goûter”—a piece of toast with nutella, for example—but no college-aged Parisian eats sweets like that very often.

DON’T. Go into Starbucks. Or take coffee on the go. I’ll never forget the disappointment in my professor’s eyes when he spotted a Starbucks paper cup I’d brought along on one of our museum visits. I felt like I had stabbed him in the coeur. The to-go cup, while seen as hip by some young Parisians, is an offense to the art of the table and the religious ritual of eating. It’s tacky, and the coffee isn’t even that good to begin with.

DON’T. Order an iced drink. I did this once at a Le Pain Quotidien and received a confused look, followed by a cup of ice and then a mug of coffee. It’s plain awkward and simply not done.

DON’T. Be embarrassingly drunk in public. Drunken stupors are the antithesis of chic and will make you stand out from the more discerning Parisians. Hold your liquor, and stay in control. You didn’t come to Paris for Keystone [Light].

Brooke Elmlinger, a junior studying French and the art of the dinner party at Dartmouth College, is guilty of spending NYC lunch breaks browsing urban farmers markets.

Originally posted on Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

3 Responses to “SKC Abroad: Americans in Paris”

  1. Amanda

    March 6th, 2012

    Wow! I love this summary of Do’s and Don’ts that you’ve compiled. I’m living in Spain for the year, and I’d say that you could apply the exact same rules to culinary life in Spain. Great article!

  2. Caroline

    March 6th, 2012

    Fantastic! It’s interesting that you address the issue of identifying and defining “the American cuisine” …perhaps its time we revisit that idea. Can we escape the applie pie/burger/hot-dog reputation that’s fueling our country’s demise? I think it’s time we gave it a shot. Great post, Brooke!

  3. Kristin

    March 7th, 2012

    Very funny post! For any doubters, I’ll go ahead and second all of your eating tips, and say that they apply to most countries in Europe. In fact, those are probably safe rules to follow any time you are travelling.

    The American section in German supermarkets was exactly the same. All instant baking mixes and canned vegetables. I wish we could gain more notoriety for the food we actually do eat… then perhaps one day you could find a nice green salad in Paris–with no canned corn! Imagine!

    The things I missed most while abroad were fresh vegetable salads and some of the special international hodgepodge foods we have here: salsa, sushi, pho. I found a new level of appreciation for America’s “melting pot” status! Amusingly, there was at least one thing your host Dad got right: the most popular craved food among my fellow students was, in fact, peanut butter!

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