The best meals I ate in Paris last week— and later, south in the Languedoc region— were the ones I prepared in our own kitchen, and ate at home.
I didn't plan it that way, and it's no criticism of French restaurants, but it was a revelation.
It started because of jet lag. My lover and I were hungry, and awake, when we arrived, late, in the city. We were staying at a friend's apartment who lives around the corner from one of the original cobblestone roads to Rome, Rue Mouffetard, where there are several farmer's market stalls, and plentiful delis, patisserie, and charcuterie shops, who spill their talents onto the street.
You can't walk out the door without being hit with the smells of roast chicken and potatoes, shellfish paella, fresh garlic, ripe cheese, boxes of strawberries from Spain. You're offered wine samples in the street. The Nutella and banana crepes are sizzling on the outdoor burners. The artisan's boutique of olive oils and vinegars beckons, so luxurious in its offerings it makes the wine shop look slack.
It was a fantastic scene, and also very familiar, because Paris's seasonal offerings are just like what we're eating from our farm co-op in California. The tomatoes are from Spain instead of Baja. Everyone on Le Mouffe was loading up for Easter supper, and that felt as cozy to me as any crazed Wednesday at the Santa Cruz Farmer's Market. We have our own olive orchards in Northern California, so it isn't unusual to me to point and say, "Oh yes, I want to try that one, and that one, and that one," in tiny paper cups.
This isn't the way I grew up shopping and eating... no, my childhood was spent with my Mom, marveling at the frozen food section at the supermarket. I was as enamored of "TV Dinners" as the next '60s kid parked in front of My Favorite Martian.
But when the early organic food revolution hit California in the 70s, I was luckily in the geographic center of it. I became an early adopter simply by opening my mouth and sighing with pleasure. Plus, despite my era-changing background, I still knew how to use a knife and a iron skillet.
As our week went by in Paris, I saw that the other heavenly thing about home-cooking, was that I could escape my unease and humiliation about how to "act" in a Parisian restaurant.
My French language skills are up to parsing the right words, reading the menu, sounding like an articulate three-year-old. But my physical bumbling in the restaurants— the way I kept inadvertently breaking fashion and decorum rules— embarrassed me so dearly, I was close to tears sometimes. You wouldn't consider me anything other than "well-mannered" if you saw me at an American eatery. But by Parisian standards, I am a total disgrace, and I will never even be able to count, let alone understand, all the ways I "offended."
It was different on the Paris street. At the delis, the cheese and jam shop, the tent with the melons, the shopkeepers were enthusiastic and tolerant; they joked with me. My smiles and enthusiasm and Cowboy Earth Boots were fine. The Euros spilled out. If I came across like Minnie Pearl, it was fine with them!
Back at our apartment with my zucchini, garlic, and Camembert omelet, my butter lettuce salad with raspberries and vinaigre de figue, I could literally put my feet up while I enjoyed our supper. I splattered homemade mayonnaise in a new potato salad and guzzled my Bordeaux. Later at night, I'd wander out in my clogs and umbrella, and flirt with the tart girl, who serves quiches right from her window. I could lick the caramel from the waxed pastry wrapper that enclosed the fruits des noixettes I picked out in the sweet shop— a sticky pie made of five kinds of nuts and syrup.
I was like a kid at a county fair, my fingers in everything. "Quelle est votre confiture favorite?" I asked the gay cheese boy, pointing at all the fruit jam jars sitting above the creme fraiche pot. He was absolutely set on the Cherry, and showed me the fromage that makes you moan when you slather the two together.
Because I'm so spoiled in Central California, I can't say any of the French veggies or fruits were unusual quality. They were fine. But the bread— The Bread— is on another level of sensation.
Bread is not traditionally put in plastic bags in France. Once a loaf has gone hard from being in the air, it's either "pain perdu" or it's in the trash. No one would dream of freezing it, or making it "last longer" than forty-eight hours.
Because freshness, and everything that goes with a fresh baked piece of bread is so crucial, the French don't bake just once a day, but twice. The evening shopper has as flavorful and crispy a baguette as the one who shops at dawn. Le Pain is baked twice a day to fulfill everyone's expectations.
And the varieties! I can't even tell you all the types I crunched... every boulangerie has their own recipe, their variation on country-style breads, traditionelle, Parisian-style, nouvelle mixes; it's ENDLESS. The terms "white," "wheat," or "rye" have no meaning here, because it's more like three thousand instead of three.
Typical French shoppers go out every day or two. When you go home, you eat at leisure with your family. I can't tell you how amazed I was to spend two and a half hours at a table, again and again, with families which included teenagers enjoying themselves, eating everything, all blabbing at once.
I last saw these particular young people when they were toddlers, (I lived in France, in farming country, in the early 90s) so of course, then, our kids were tied to our apron strings. But now they're still at the table! I don't mean to say there's no generation gap— the funniest thing about my travels was listening to French parents rail about the same adolescent outrages that my peers do at home. But the family meal was the place where everyone come together, no matter what.
Americans wouldn't recognize how much time, energy and domestic satisfaction is lavished on food here, as a matter of course. But French culture is in a state of sustained shock that over the pressures applied to them to jump on the global bandwagon of speed-eating and homogenization.
In the States, the slow food movement is galloping; we see a wellspring of sustainable agriculture practices, and desire for all that is fresh and homemade. Of course it hasn't brought Safeway or KFC to its knees, but it's remarkable.
Meanwhile, in France, the most intense gossip I heard when I returned to my old village in Languedoc, concerned the suicides of two local farmers who had lost everything, the French terroir equivalent of a Great Depression. The experience of the European Union, at least among my old neighbors, is one of being culturally robbed and financially bankrupted. I wish I could have understood more in my brief visit, to explain what's going on, but the feeling was unmistakable. The starkness of class divides, and feeling of ancient traditions in chaos— I didn't need a translator.
Back to Paris. One day, I'd like to be able to dress, speak, and behave myself well enough to take a seat in the French-Korean restaurant around the corner of Rue Mouffetard, or the interior of Le Chartier, without everyone staring at me like I was Sasquatch. I'd love to pull it off. But in the meantime, I won't be forsaken by the farmers, the bakers and butchers, the sticky jam makers, no matter where I travel. I know what it's like to get my hands dirty.
Photos: Jon Bailiff