Authors: David Lebovitz
Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues
Before I moved to France, my preferred mode of eating was to belly up to the table, position myself strategically over a plate heaped with food, grab the remote, and obsessively tap the “up” button until I reached whatever Hollywood gossip show I could find.
Then, while watching reports about which supermodel might have swallowed a carrot stick by accident, or waiting for a round-table analysis of why a paparazzi-surrounded celebutant would uncross her legs at the wrong moment, I’d have a go at shoveling whatever was piled on my plate into my mouth. My fork was used to spear chunks of food, and
also did double-duty as a makeshift knife—albeit a very dull one. I didn’t care how I looked, and I’d attack my plate of food with the fervor of a starving wild beast.
Not wanting to out myself as the ill-mannered
that I am to my cultivated counterparts, I always,
use both knife and fork when dining with the French. Which also forces me to slow down when I eat. Early on, I learned to mimic them, steadying my food precisely in place with a fork while using the knife (a real one!) to cut refined, reasonably sized morsels that traveled from plate to mouth, piece by bite-size piece. Once you’ve picked up the knife at a French dinner table, don’t even think of putting it down until you’re done eating.
During my days as a backpacker traveling through Europe, I remember people staring at me as I yanked back the skin of a banana and jammed it in my craw, gnawing away at it like a savage until I reached the last nubbin, then tossing the peel aside.
Watch a Parisian eat a banana: the skin is carefully peeled back, the fruit is set down on a plate, then eaten slice by painstaking slice, using the tines of a fork with the aid of a knife. I’ll admit that I still eat bananas like my primordial predecessors, but only in the privacy of my home. Outside of the house, though, I avoid fruit. It’s just too stressful.
than fruit are fillets of white-fleshed fish with those little pinlike bones that are barely discernible—until you get one lodged in your throat. The French always leave them in, because they say they keep the fish moister during cooking. (They also don’t seem to have any personal-injury lawyers lying in wait either, so there’s even less incentive to pick out those little throat-blockers.) I always hate to pluck bones and half-chewed fish out of my mouth, which is the least graceful thing one can do at the table. The French never seem to have any problems and manage to pull it off without jamming their fingers around their gums, like I have to.
Another challenge is salad. I’ve been warned never, ever to cut lettuce with a knife and fork in France. It just isn’t done. Instead, the leaves are speared onto the tines of
, then folded over with the aid of the
knife that you’ve already got a death grip on. It’s not too much to ask when dealing with large leafy greens like romaine and
—but a tangle of weedy
I’ve yet to find a way to enjoy a big mound of those flimsy greens without wayward stems flinging dressing Jackson Pollock-style all over the front of my shirt. So I only eat them at home when no one’s looking, from a big, deep troughlike bowl that I can either bring up to my chin or lean my face into.
If you’re having trouble mastering the knife and fork, fear not,
a culinary revolution has taken Paris by storm in the last couple of years. It’s not those dreaded square plates with a useless scribble of sauce or porcini powder around the rim. Or those silly
—salads and desserts packed into little glasses—where the more unlikely the pairing of flavors, the more press they get. Nor is it a three-star chef’s foamy folly or anything that’s been compressed, jellified, aerated, or infused.
, which is eaten—amazingly—while walking!
Some blame the phenomenal success of
on the lack of lunch time allotted during the thirty-five-hour workweek (too much work is the government’s fault), or the high restaurant prices in Paris (which the government gets blamed for, too), or simply the desire for something convenient. I think if I spent less time filling out bureaucratic paperwork, photocopying it in quadruplicate, then waiting interminably in line to submit it, I’d definitely have more time to do things around here, like sit down and eat. So I’ll blame the government as well.
These days, it’s not at all unusual to see time-pressed Parisians barreling down the sidewalks, chomping off a bite from a demi-baguette that’s been split open and jammed with a few wedges of Camembert or
, then glued back together with a big, creamy smear of butter. I find lunching while en route nearly impossible, since I’m such a messy eater and whatever I’m wearing gets littered with too many of those invasive little crumbs. So I stick to eating sandwiches in public using a knife and fork, like Parisians still insist on doing with their burgers. “It’s not
to pick this up!” they’ll exclaim. And yet I do it, much to their amazement.
But I wouldn’t dream of stopping into a branch of the nefarious McDo,
which Parisians flock to with surprising fervor. I’ve gone only once since I’ve been in France, breaking my fifteen-year boycott in a weak moment when I was on the brink of starvation on a French autoroute. I noticed that the traditional rules of etiquette were tossed aside by McDo diners, as evidenced by the multitude of paper and plastic wrappers that littered the tables and floors from the overstuffed trash cans. The other diners around me were picking up their food with their fingers—even their hamburgers!—and drinking soda with their meal (which is odd, considering wine was happily available) amid a few nods to the region, like the faux farm scenes painted on the walls, the chèvre option on the cheeseburgers, and the merciful absence of plaster clowns lurking about.
It wasn’t especially fast nor was it especially cheap. Nor was it any good. Other than the fact that it was open in the late afternoon for lunch, a rarity in the countryside, I didn’t see the point of ever returning to one; unlike the French, who like it so much that every six days, somewhere in France, a new McDonald’s opens.
I think it may be because McDo is one of the few places where the French can let down their guards—and their knives—and relax and enjoy their meals without worrying about minding their manners. In fact, maybe I should give it another try. After all, I’m pretty adept at eating hamburgers. And there isn’t any of that annoying fresh fruit on the menu, either.
The first time I cooked dinner for French people in my little kitchen, I assumed that half a chicken would be the right amount for each person, American-style.
But I’ve cut back on my shopping, since the French are content, and patient enough, to fuss endlessly with a lone chicken leg for much longer than I thought humanly possible. I derive endless fascination from watching them extract each and every morsel of meat from a bony wing with finely honed, surgical precision.
Although I’m getting over my fear of eating fresh fruits in public, dried fruits don’t pose a similar problem. I like to use them when making a
, a typical North African casserole that Parisians have taken a liking to. I find sun-dried apricots, French prunes, Armenian peaches, and Iranian dates at Sabah, an Arabic market that sits on the corner of the busy marché d’Aligre (see Resources, page 271). The tight aisles are crammed with everything from olives and preserved lemons, bobbing away in their brine, to sacks of nuts and dried fruits from all over the world. Although they have a pretty fascinating selection of spices, I make a trip across town for saffron to Goumanyat (see Resources, page 271), which specializes in saffron and is truly a mecca for spice-lovers as well.
4 ounces (125 g) dried apricots
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs, and each breast cut in half crosswise, leaving wings attached)
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons paprika
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons coarse salt Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (30 g) butter, salted or unsalted
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock (if using canned, use a low-salt brand) or water
⅓ cup (10 g) chopped fresh cilantro, plus a bit extra for garnish
1 tablespoon honey
Juice of ½ lemon
¾ cup (75 g) blanched almonds, toasted
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
Put the apricots in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Set aside.
In a large bowl, toss the chicken pieces with the ginger, turmeric, paprika, saffron, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.
Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven or similar ovenproof casserole. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent.
Add the chicken and cook for 3 minutes, turning the pieces with tongs to release the fragrance of the spices. Pour in the stock, add the cilantro, and cover.
Bake for 50 minutes, turning the chicken pieces once or twice while they’re braising.
Remove the casserole from the oven. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to a deep serving platter, then cover with foil. Return the casserole to the stovetop, add the honey and lemon juice, and reduce the sauce over medium-high heat by about one-third. Taste, and add more salt if necessary.
Return the chicken to the pot, add the almonds, and reheat in the sauce. Transfer the tagine back to the serving platter. Drain the apricots and spoon them over the top, then garnish with additional cilantro.
Although tagine isn’t traditionally served with couscous, I do at home, as they serve it at one of my favorite North African restaurants in Paris—L’Atlas, which faces the Institut du Monde Arabe. Another favorite is Chez Omar, a former bistro that’s become a rather popular and slightly trendy North African restaurant. They also serve one of the most authentic versions of
If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be standing over an ironing board, pressing the wrinkles out of pajamas and kitchen towels, I would have told them they were insane. What kind of idiot irons his pajamas, let alone kitchen towels?
Fast forward to today, and you’ll find me dutifully each week working a hot iron back and forth over my dress shirts, polo shirts, T-shirts, jeans, pajamas, pillowcases, dinner napkins, and yes, my kitchen towels, making sure I’ve eradicated every last wrinkle, crease, and dimple.
Shortly after I arrived in Paris, I happily discovered the
, the French version of tag sales, where you snag great deals on household items for much less than in the fabulous, and fabulously pricey, department stores. About the same time I also discovered linen. Specifically, vintage French linen sheets, pillowcases, and kitchen towels. When I took hold of the thick, heavy fabric with its starchy, clinical crispness, I was hooked and began manically stockpiling as much as I could carry home on the Métro.
Each time I came upon a stack, I thought I’d uncovered a rare find and would buy the whole load, certain I’d never see such deals again. Months later, when I could barely close my closet, I learned that fine linen is common in France and all my hoarding wasn’t necessary.
Unfortunately, once my cabinets were packed with all those beautiful linens, I also realized they’d come out of my mini washing machine in a wrinkly ball, looking like one of those Danish modern white paper lamps: a tight, wadded-up sphere of sharp pleats and folds. So unless you’re a masochist and enjoy waking up after a rough night with bruises and abrasions on your arms and legs—which I don’t—those sheets need to be starched, ironed, and pressed into submission.
Not that all that many people get to check out my sheets and pillowcases, which I now send to the laundry since if I hang them up to dry for two to three days in my apartment, it’s impossible to walk around the Christo-like maze. But in Paris, people
check out how others dress. I recall an enlightening story by a travel writer who, because of her profession, had spent time in a lot of unusual and exotic places. If you’ve traveled to any of them yourself, you know that one of the pitfalls of being a foreigner is that you can become a magnet for hucksters harassing you to purchase something that you probably don’t want—jewelry, a carpet, a leather jacket, their sister. (“She is virgin—many times!” was one particularly ineffective sales pitch, I remember.) Most women are certainly no stranger to tenacious,
pesky men hitting on them in foreign countries, suggesting a
So the writer decided to start dressing in the native garb when she traveled, and immediately the touts started dropping like dead
, and people began treating her like a local.
Even though Parisians outfit themselves in nearly the same Western-style garb as we do—some combination of pants, shirts, dresses, and jackets—closer inspection reveals subtle, telling differences. And it’s helpful to know about them if you want to blend in.
Parisian men wear shoes that are long and skinny with narrow, hard leather soles and, except in August, a scarf tied with great élan. No Parisian would dream of walking around with a scarf just dangling around his neck. It’s always arranged with a complex series of knots so elaborate, I think some of them use a sailing primer for guidance. Jeans are
, although you won’t see any baggy ones or brands boasting a “relaxed” or “comfort fit.” No matter what the material, pants are always form-fitting, to make everyone’s butt look good, which I hope is a look that never becomes passé.
Sport coats are much more common than the polar fleece jackets with all those toggles and zippers and pockets that pragmatic Americans tend to favor. I take that back. You do see Parisians wearing them, but it’s obligatory to have English-language patches with words like “rugged” and “sporty” sewn up and down the sleeves, plus a few arbitrary sailing flags and reflectors, even though we’re hours away from any ocean—and I can’t imagine a scarier sensation than feeling the spray from the dubious waters of the Seine on my skin.
Speaking of the sea, there’s one particularly unfortunate fashion gaffe that’s taken Paris by storm: the
gilet de pêcheur.
Yes, the last remnants of your high school French are correct; it’s the fisherman’s vest. Parisian men have adapted them for everyday wear, and it’s not uncommon to see French dudes proudly patrolling the streets in heavy-duty khaki vests laden with pockets and buckles piled on top of each other and straps dangling every which way.
Gilets de pêcheur
notwithstanding, you always want to make a
, so it should be a priority to look your best if you want to fit in. No torn jeans unless they’re torn intentionally. Words on clothes are fine, but only if they’re printed up the back of your shirt or diagonally across the front. Preferably in gold. And slogans needn’t shy away from sex: I was having dinner at Chez Michel, a casual but fairly nice restaurant, when a man entered wearing a T-shirt that said, “If you don’t like oral sex, keep your mouth shut.” I doubt he knew what that meant. If he did, he was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps the city of Paris needs to add fashion police to the other duties of the gendarmes.
Zippers need not be limited to the groin: shoulders, sleeves, knees, up the legs, behind the legs, and across one’s backside are all locations that are acceptable, even encouraged. I’m not sure why anyone needs a zipper across his chest or shoulders, but I sure hope all those folks strutting their stuff on Sunday afternoons in the Marais take extra care when zipping up: the brazen tightness of their clothes makes me certain there’s no room for undergarments above (or below) the waist. It’s embarrassing enough explaining how certain things get stuck in your zipper; I don’t know how you’d explain how you got your shoulder blade jammed in one.
In the old days, before the dangling fanny pack, the most obvious giveaway for Americans was our sneakers. One glance at our padded feet was all it took to peg us as hailing from the home of Air Jordans. Now, thanks to
, you’ll find Parisians pounding the pavement wearing sneakers too, especially the younger generation, who’ve dubbed them
The difference is that Parisians wear
because they’re stylish, not because they’re comfy. So go ahead. It’s fine to wear sneakers. But make sure they’re hip, racy—and expensive. Or purple. A good rule of thumb is that you can wear them in Paris if they cost you at least half of what your airfare did to get here.
I don’t wear sneakers much, but as hard as I try, I’m unable to squeeze my feet into the stiff leather shoes that Parisian men favor. It’s beyond me how Parisian gents are able to wear these shoes on the city’s hard and treacherously slippery pavement. Consequently, my black, lug-soled Trippen shoes from Germany make me an outcast and invariably draw stares.
Maybe it’s because the smooth soles are easier to wipe clean than my deep-grooved soles if you step in the minefield of sidewalk dog droppings. The downside is when racing through the market in the springtime, I have to stop and take a stick to flick out the cherry pits that get stuck in the bottoms or else people look up, expecting to see a seasoned hoofer tap-dancing his way toward them as I click around the city.
Not only is it okay to wear sneakers nowadays, but another recent change you’ll notice is that it’s now cool (and cooler) to wear shorts in the summer. But wait, don’t drop those trousers so fast. If you plan to venture outside in
, they need to hang below the knee, please. Even in Paris, one must follow the rules set forth in the global transatlantic Treaty of Taste: shorts must never be wider than they are long.
(Exempt from this rule are the big, busty “working women” on the rue Blondel, whose girth generally exceeds their height. They get a pass.)
So sneakers are okay, shorts are sometimes okay, but never wear both in combination with a fanny pack. And,
, don’t even think of adding an oversized water bottle. Because I’d rather have you dying of thirst than dying of embarrassment.
One combination that always works in Paris is
You can’t miss with a crisp disk of meringue topped with a scoop of coffee ice cream, warm chocolate sauce, and candied nuts.
There’s a misconception that the French don’t like cinnamon. Once when I was giving a cooking demonstration, a Frenchwoman in the front row spoke up just as I was about to add a heaping spoonful of cinnamon to something: “Why do you Americans put so
cinnamon in everything?” It’s true, we do tend to be rather generous with it, and it ends up being the predominant flavor. So I’ve started using less and appreciating it as a subtle, spicy accent rather than giving it star billing.
Although I’ve given you a recipe for coffee ice cream, feel free to substitute another favorite flavor, or use a store-bought premium brand.
For the meringues
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
Big pinch of coarse salt
6 tablespoons (75 g) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Espresso-Caramel Ice Cream (recipe follows)
Chocolate Sauce (recipe follows)
Candied Almonds (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 200°F (100°C).
With an electric mixer or by hand, begin whipping the egg whites with the salt at medium to high speed until they thicken and begin to hold their shape. While whipping, add the sugar a tablespoon at a time. Then beat in the vanilla and cinnamon. When done, the meringue should hold a soft but glossy peak when you lift the beaters.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and divide the meringue into six equal mounds. Dampen a soup spoon and make an indentation in the center, slightly flattening each one as you create the indentation.
Let dry in the oven for at least 1 hour, then turn off the oven and let the meringues dry out for another hour. (If you lift one off and it feels dry, you can take them out earlier.) Remove from the oven and cool completely.
Place a meringue in the center of a shallow soup bowl. Add two scoops of ice cream, spoon warm chocolate sauce over the top, then sprinkle with almonds and serve.
Baked meringues can be stored in an absolutely airtight container for up to one week.
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
Pinch of coarse salt
6 large egg yolks
¼ cup (60 ml) strong brewed espresso, or more to taste