I had the good fortune to move with my family four years ago to Paris, France. We moved into an apartment in the 16th, the only expats in the building.
That first day, the day of our move, I kept waiting for the neighbors to stop by and introduce themselves. Maybe even bring a basket of muffins. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn regarding Parisian culture. Parisians seemed cold and rude those first months; chilly neighbors, motorcycles driving on sidewalks, dog poop and cigarettes everywhere, disrupting my expectations as to how the world should behave. I didn’t realize how very American I am until I lived in Paris. That first year was tough; I was newly pregnant, lonely, and missing the familiar comforts of home.
But there is another side to Paris. If you are a tourist, you will most likely see Paris at her best; dressed in her elegant evening clothes and displaying her wealth. You will visit museums and shops, you will sit at a cafe. It’s lovely.
If you live in Paris, you will see her other face. She’s a petty, impatient, and complicated lover. You will get soaked in her rains, you will ruin boots in her puddles. But if you are willing to stay open to her, she begins to unfold her deepest treasures, the ones tourists never see. Paris, in fact, gave our family so much that I didn’t even see it all until we left.
One of the biggest gifts that Paris gave us was food.
My food education began on the streets and markets and in the homes. Paris would turn every concept I held around food on its head. First of all, being a vegetarian is considered a kind of stupid thing to do. It’s not fashionable to be a vegan, to be gluten free, to have allergies or sensitivities. Actually, to run around protesting that you can’t eat something due to “allergies” is distinctly “Americaine”.
Having children who are vegetarian or picky eaters is seen as a serious shortcoming in parenting, as distasteful as having a child who picks her nose at the dinner table. Food is a national heritage, and learning to eat like a Frenchman is as important as learning to read and write. A child who eats chicken nuggets at dinner while the adults eat oysters is equivalent to raising a barbarian. The children are taught in the markets with little touches and tastes and encouragements from the vendors.
In Paris, it is fashionable to eat well.
What does it mean to eat like a Frenchman? Eating like a Frenchman means food is a form of art you create three times a day. I lived near the marche du passy, a world class market that is open every day except Mondays. I learned to buy only what I planned to eat for the day, to buy small portions of seasonal and local and extremely high quality food. I learned that a good eater is one who is open to all kinds of tastes and sensations, an eater whose palate is not constrained. I learned that eating meat was different when the meat was entirely grass fed, local, and the portions were miniscule. Small portions, meals cooked with not a single leftover- this is what it means to eat in France. Food is much more expensive, because farmers are important and well compensated. A forty dollar chicken is an actual fact of life in France, but that chicken is a heritage breed with a taste that is full and complex, the meat is a golden yellow, a bird that is a far cry from the bland beasts we consume in the US.
This is what my turkey looked like last Thanksgiving. Butterball anyone?
There are meals, many dishes, that people eat in France that have been unchanged for decades. A roasted chicken with green beans? Why change it? They have been eating the same dish for generations because it is simply good. Why add curry or ginger when the actual bare roasted chicken is in itself everything?
Most of the food in the market is local and seasonal. This is not a fad. It’s always been like this. They have always eaten tiny spring potatoes from ile de re, and when those potatoes disappear from the market it is time for the green almonds to appear. When green almonds are gone, they will have peaches. A peach may cost you three dollars, but it will be perfectly ripe, taut, juicy, rich, impeccable. It will be good. It will not taste like plastic. A basket of strawberries could cost you eight dollars, but until you taste those tiny fraises des bois, you have not tasted a strawberry. And then they are gone, and will not reappear until the earth has travelled around the sun one more time. You will not find a green almond in the dead of winter.
The French meal that will always stand for me as the most incredible meal I have ever eaten on Earth consisted of only three ingredients; pasta, butter, and a truffle. Our upstairs neighbor had a little plane, and the husband (a very lovely French Morrocan man) flew it from time to time. He had flown the plane earlier that day to Alba, Italy, to hunt for a white truffle. This dinner was special to me in many ways; it was one of the first times I had been invited to share in the company of Parisians with nary another expat in sight (expats tend to clump together in Paris). It was the first time I was fully immersed in a rapid fire conversation of Parisian slang (even though I studied French for ten years, the French spoken on the actual streets is distant from the way it is taught). It was the first time I had ever seen a real white truffle. He had found it with the help of pigs, of course, in a field that was policed by several old men sitting on long tall ladders to make sure no truffles were stolen after being found. This truffle was the size of my balled up fist, and the price? Maybe close to a thousand dollars? I’m not exactly sure. But it was rare. We passed it around with reverence before we ate. I took a deep sniff, as if smelling brandy in a snifter, and felt heady with the intense, earthy, fragrant, lush smell of fresh truffle. My hosts cooked up a big pot of fine linguine and stirred in some melted butter. The truffle was passed around the table and we each shaved as much as we wanted on top. Heaven. Absolute heaven.
In France, I learned to honor and respect food. I learned to open my palate to the many textures and gifts of this earth. But more than anything else, I learned that seasonal eating, eating locally was one of the most profound lessons of mindfulness on the planet. Eating, cooking, the French way, became a spiritual practice for me. I cannot say I am a better woman, a more patient or enlightened woman; but I can say I am a woman who takes the time to cultivate beauty on her plate every single day.
I used to be a woman who would throw tofu and melted chocolate into a blender and call it chocolate mousse. Today, I am a woman who keeps a kitchen stocked with butter, cream, and homemade chicken stock.