We have an expression to describe something that’s quintessentially American: “as American as apple pie.” The truth be told, though, apple pie isn’t all that American; they have apple pies in every culture where folks grow apples, and the French themselves make some pretty amazing variations of this “American” dessert. On the other hand, it’s pretty difficult to find a dessert more American than carrot cake. Even though it’s known here in France, it still has an air of mystery about it. It’s not at all easy to find, except in some American bakeries (like my favorite, Sugarplum) and at Starbucks (although I don’t recommend a mass-produced carrot cake that’s been deep-frozen, shipped from who knows what cake factory, and then thawed out in a display case).
If you’ve been following my story here on je parle américain, you probably remember that last summer, when Michel and I were babysitting our niece and nephew in Metz, we introduced the kids to this dessert that had recently become a favorite of their Tonton Miko (that’s Michel). The kids had a great afternoon helping us mix the cake but, when it was finally out of the oven and iced with homemade cream cheese icing, they refused to even taste it. A cake with CARROTS in it? Yeah. Not so popular with the four- to seven-year-old crowd. It wasn’t half bad for a recipe from the internet, but it wasn’t a great success either — even with the adults. Continue reading Carrot Cake, Part Deux
Yesterday was my second Fourth of July here in France. Expatriates around the world know the feeling: you’re in a place that’s become your home, but on a day like the Fourth, the separation from your homeland feels wider and the differences seem more pronounced. You seek out a way to feel as “American” as you can, no matter how far from America you are. And we all have our ways of doing that …
For example →
Last year, I decided to seek out an historic American bar here in Paris and toast America’s birthday with the drink special of the day: The General Washington. Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, and it almost ruined my day. This year, Michel and I decided instead to celebrate by having a picnic on the banks of the Seine with a group of our friends. We asked everyone to bring something quintessentially American or, in the alternative, to come dressed as an “American.” Knowing this particular group of friends and their penchant for dramatic flare, I was sure to have material for my next blogpost. Continue reading As American as Apple Pie
Thursday, I wrote how ecstatic I was about the opening of a Chipotle Mexican Grill here in Paris because I could finally get my Mexican fast food fix. Obviously, like any great international city, Paris has an array of good Mexican restaurants, but every now and then, you just crave that mass-produced, no-surprise flavor you get from fast food. Before coming to live in Paris, I had become a big fan of Chipotle, so when I first heard that they’d opened a location here, I made plans to go there for the lunch the very next day.
Now, before I get to my review of Chipotle Paris, I should note for those of you who are not aware that American fast food often undergoes a slight transformation when it crosses borders and oceans. It makes sense, I guess, that fast food restaurateurs want to ensure, while staying true to the brand, that what they serve overseas will also appeal to the local palate. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered this as a high school student traveling to London in 1989. After just a few days of subsisting on the rather bland English fare served up at our hotel, a few of us set out on a foraging mission to find something quintessentially American. (After all, you can only eat roast beef and garden peas for so long.) We descended on the first Pizza Hut we could find, already salivating over the Super Supreme pan pizzas we were going to order. We weren’t at all prepared to find on the menu such “foreign” creations as prawn pizza or chicken and sweet corn pizza. The same is true in France, of course, where even KFC and McDonald’s offer several menu items that were clearly dreamed up by a kitchen team with absolutely no American members. Take for instance, the most recent addition to the French “McDo” (pronounced “mac-doe”) menu:
Even so, my expatriate palate still longs for the familiar, even mundane flavors of home:
cheap and readily accessible peanut butter
Krispy Kreme donuts (because, I’m sorry y’all, but a French beignet can’t even touch a Krispy Kreme donut)
pimento cheese on white bread (because I’m from the South, if you didn’t pick up on that from the “y’all” I just dropped)
a veggie “burger” that doesn’t consist of a potato pancake stuffed with peas and carrots, and—of course—
Mexican fast food.
Well, I am pleased to report that I can now cross Mexican fast food off the list! Today, thanks to a fellow blogger’s post in the Americans in Paris Facebook group, I made the joyous discovery that Chipotle Mexican Grill has opened a location right here in Paris! (Click here to read her review and see pictures from Chipotle Paris.) I may not be able to find pimento cheese or good donuts here, but I can now gorge on quality, mass-produced guacamole to my heart’s content!
About a week ago, I stumbled upon Tremé, an HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story of several New Orleanians struggling to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. On a grander scale, it paints a poignant picture of a unique culture determined to preserve itself against the odds. In a few days’ time, I had already watched the entire first season; I hadn’t felt such an immediate attraction to a television series in a very long time, and I simply couldn’t stop watching it. The music and the scenery brought back memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans a few years after the hurricane, and I decided that I needed to see it again one day and show its magic to Michel.
And, of course, all this happened in the days leading right up to Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday marking the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of self-sacrifice called Lent (or Carême, in French). It’s the culmination of Carnival season, when you’re expected to indulge (notably in fatty foods—hence the name) in advance of the solemn season that follows. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans—whether at Carnival season or even in November—you know that no one does decadence quite like the Crescent City : think shrimp po’ boys and spicy gumbo, warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, and Hurricanes in go-cups.
But why does New Orleans indulge so well? Perhaps it’s because the city can trace its very origins—however tenuously—back to Mardi Gras :
So, while we’re on the subject of American cultural exports, let’s consider Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is certainly the most widely-recognized American export to the world: certainly more so than Ford, or Levis, or even McDonalds. Here in France, ordering “un Coca” is as commonplace as ordering “a Coke” back in the U.S., but there is a difference here—and I’m not just talking about slightly smaller cans and much higher prices—I’m talking about the taste.
To be upfront about this, I haven’t been a “regular” Coke drinker for quite some time. With my metabolism, I just can’t afford all those extra calories, so I almost always drink Coke Zero. Every now and then, though, when I want to splurge, I do have regular Coke (or “Coca normal” here). The first time I drank a Coca normal here in France, I was struck by how good it tasted! Was it that I hadn’t had one in a while? Or was it some special recipe for the French market? (I knew that in certain markets, the recipe is tweaked to appeal to local tastebuds.) Continue reading Why Coke Tastes Better in France
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. Continue reading What is it with the French and Peanut Butter?
I’m often asked if it’s hard being a vegetarian in Paris. The question makes a lot of sense. After all, when you think of French cuisine, you probably conjure up images of bœuf bourguignon, coq au vin, foie gras, even escargots. And ham, well, ham is practically its own food group here. The truth is, though, that between cheese crêpes and savory tarts (as long as there are no lardons in there), I’ve never really had much trouble finding something to eat. But one of the best things about being a vegetarian in Paris isn’t even French …
Yesterday, we went for a long walk in the countryside with the kids. We searched out the neighborhood farm, where we saw THREE TRACTORS and smelled COW MANURE! Then we walked out into the fields and saw a DUST DEVIL and got shocked by an ELECTRIFIED LIVESTOCK FENCE! It was a big day! So what could the uncles think up to top a day like that?
This morning, we told the kids that our project for the day would be to make very special American cake: a gâteau aux carottes.
Carrots?! Carrots in a cake?! Ugh.
Well, yes. There are little pieces of carrot in the cake but there’s no carrot taste. Tonton Michael doesn’t even like carrots. There are little pieces of nuts, too. You’ll see! It’s good.
So, judging by the traffic on the Facebook pages of my friends back in the United States, the French 75 is all the rage these days. I can understand why. This classic concoction of gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, and champagne is quite refreshing on a hot summer day—the perfect elixir against the oppressive heat currently smothering South Carolina or DC, where most of my American family and friends live.
Interestingly, this cocktail was created at the New York Bar in Paris back in 1915 by the barman Harry MacElhone (who later acquired the New York Bar and changed its name to Harry’s New York Bar). I say that this is interesting, not because I happen to be in Paris while this drink is apparently undergoing a renaissance in America, but because my perception of Harry’s New York Bar was soured during my first and last visit there on July 4. (You can read about why here.) I swore off Harry’s after that, but maybe I owe it to myself—and to my friends who are French 75 fanatics—to go back at least once more to imbibe this classic in the very place of its birth. And maybe this time, the waiter will actually know what I’m ordering. Continue reading The French 75