Living in France, you quickly take note of the big cultural differences: the French speak French, they complain about everything almost as much as I do, they have a knack for nonchalance par excellence (which I’m still working on acquiring), they are still champion smokers. After a while, you also pick up on the little things … like obsession with peanut butter.
It’s a really funny observation when it first strikes you. Peanut butter is not at all a common food item in France. When you go to the supermarket, you see lots and lots of jellies and jams of every conceivable flavor (including at least a dozen varieties of plums), an entire section of Nutella, more varieties of honey than you knew existed, and chocolate … shelves and shelves of really good chocolate. But you don’t see a lot of peanut butter. It’s still “exotic” here. Little French boys and girls never grew up on PB&J sandwiches the way we did. That’s why, I think, the French are absolutely enamored of this most American of foods. The proof: my luggage every time I travel back from the United States.
It started, lo, two years ago, when my now brother-in-law Guillaume first asked me if I could possibly bring back some peanut butter M&Ms the next time I traveled. Little did I know at the time, these little gems are not made in France like other M&Ms products. As a result, they’re not at all easy to find here, and when you do, it’s after import duties have been levied and the cost is astronomical. (I’ll never forget the shock of seeing a 40-euro bag of peanut butter M&Ms at the Grande Épicerie in Paris!)
That first request from Guillaume started a family tradition. Now every time I come back from America, I bring back several bags of peanut butter M&Ms for everyone, but I’ve also started to broaden their horizons. The latest additions to my cargo have been Reese’s white chocolate peanut butter cups (at the suggestion of a Twitter friend who follows my blog) and peanut butter Snickers (after Michel discovered them, thanks to my mom).
It’s with a certain national pride that I always venture back from my native land laden down like a pack mule with peanut butter products. Despite the fact that “peanut paste” had its origins among the Aztecs of Mexico and was originally patented in 1884 by a Canadian from Montréal, peanut butter in its current, delectable form really is an American creation. At least that’s what we learn in elementary school! (Merci beaucoup, George Washington Carver!) Disputed as its history might be, I’ll continue to defend it as America’s finest culinary export … a claim the French seem ready and willing to embrace wholeheartedly.
Incidentally, next Tuesday (January 24) is National Peanut Butter Day in the United States. American expats, don’t forget to celebrate it with your favorite French peanut butter fanatics! And if you’re in need of some peanut butter M&Ms for your festivities, let me know. I just might be able to help!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved