In Defense of American Food

Not long after moving to Paris, I was convinced that I had found food heaven. Quaint little bistros on every corner, fresh baguettes, biting into a croissant or pain au chocolat still warm from the oven. I would move here for the cheese shops alone. And the farmers markets that pop up every day of the week in different parts of the city (Tuesdays, I pass one on my way to and from the girls’ school when I go to read with Ruby’s class. Wednesdays and Sundays, there’s one just a few blocks from our house.) The grocery stores have an entire aisle devoted to yogurt.

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And I haven’t even mentioned the wine. Eating here is good, real good. But slowly, some cracks have begun to appear. The bistros, while most of them serve good-enough food, are not the classic French perfection of the past. I’ve had some (gasp!) just ok meals here. The beer is pretty terrible in the majority of places. The espresso, though everywhere, is mostly controlled by the Café Richard monopoly and is frankly, not very good. (Side note: how can one coffee company provide the coffee to what seems like all of the bistros and boulangeries here?? Is that allowed?? And why do French people, who clearly love their espresso, not do something to get some good coffee here? Why have they not organized a strike, like for everything else?)

And apparently some American traditions are slowly making their way over here, as evidenced by this article I saw in the paper the other day.

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Yes, there is a major argument brewing here on “doggy bags,” with some people advocating doggy bags to reduce food waste, and others arguing that doggy bags create more container waste, and people rarely eat their leftovers anyway (oh, and that French refrigerators are too small for that sort of thing, and by the way French restaurants make sure to serve only the most reasonable portions unlike in the U.S. where portions are, and I quote, “gargantuan"). But most importantly, it’s just not done, chèrie. Personally, I think they find the term “doggy bag” to be offensive to their ever-present dogs. In fact, the article asserts that name would never fly, and instead it would be called “gourmet bag” or “rest-o-pack”. 

More than anything else, I’m fixated on the problem of breakfast here. Yes, croissants and pain au chocolat are delicious, but do people really eat them for breakfast every day with their espresso? And yogurt, obviously. How do people get any fiber in the morning? And aren’t they starving by 11am? The cereal selection in the supermarkets is atrocious—it appears to be a combination of bad muesli and the worst of kids sugary cereal. There are no breakfast bars to speak of, and the only oatmeal I can find is the quick-cooking kind. I’m baffled. And so, I went to the Grande Epicerie at Le Bon Marché, which is a huge and beautiful food shop that takes up almost an entire block. I was planning all the delicious food I was going to buy when I came across the “USA” section and was promptly horrified. 

USA aisle at La Grande Epicerie

This seemed to me to be about the worst of the worst of American food (which let’s face it, can be pretty awful.) Canned soup, bottled salad dressing, three kinds of marshmallow fluff, and every kind of syrup imaginable. It was bad enough that I walked quickly away, for fear that someone might take me for an American, and believe these are the foods I eat every day. (Now don’t get upset. I’m not saying that I don’t ever buy fluff—I’m pretty sure that Piper ate a fluffer-nutter sandwich for lunch every day for the better part of 1st grade—but the nutritional value of the products on these shelves is approximately zero, when there are actually commonly eaten foods from the U.S. that are good for you!)

So when friends and family started arriving for visits, I started making a list of what I really wanted. Real oatmeal so I can make granola! Healthy breakfast bars! Black beans! (why oh why do these not exist here??) Two boxes of frosted shredded wheat cereal for the girls (yes, they were strawberry and chocolate flavor but at least there is some substance in there) which I am now rationing out so as to make the last box last as long as possible. 

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And salsa. Glorious salsa. Glorious spicy salsa. For Chuck’s birthday, I had attempted to make one of his favorite dishes, veggie enchiladas—I bought some decent corn tortillas, substituted canned kidney beans with “chili spices” for black beans, and used a jar of the only “medium” salsa they had. 

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It was Old El Paso, so I thought how bad could it be? Bad. It could be very bad. It tasted like jam. And sure enough, when I checked the ingredient list, there after “tomatoes" was listed “sugar”. Say whaa? All I can say is that when Amy Lin arrived with a bottle of one of our favorite salsas from the U.S., I almost kissed her. And I have hidden the bottle away because I can’t decide how to use it, and once it’s open, we’ve got only about a week to finish it. (Who am I kidding. When we open that thing, it will be gone in hours, not days. Chuck may just drink it straight from the jar.)

Which brings us to International Day at the girls’ school. Just before (the 2nd, but who’s counting) Spring Break, the school celebrates International Day by inviting all its students to bring in food from their countries and dress in their native costumes or country colors. And their school is really an amazing place—each of their classes has about 15 different countries represented. It truly is international, and there are actually very few Americans. So I was racking my brain as to what traditional food we could make that wouldn’t live up to the stereotype as evidenced by the USA section at Le Bon Marché. I decided to go with a healthy snacks theme since the food would be eaten before lunch, and here’s what we came up with: trail mix and “ants on a log”. 

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The girls made them with me, and Piper wrote out ingredient cards to go next to them. Then they dressed in good old red, white, and blue, and had a blast representing their country. My motto— USA: not all our food sucks. 

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e© Molly Pisula 2015