Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Eating "Red White and Blue" in France

Métro & McDo

There is much ado made and hoohah raised about American products showing up on French supermarket shelves.  David Lebovitz wrote a blog about it:  10 Goofy Foods You’ll Find in a French Supermarket.  Among them were pop-open ready-to-bake crescent rolls, corn syrup, Lay’s flavored potato chips and Harry’s American Bread.  Yup, tasteless sliced white bread in the country of the baguette.  Mon Dieu!
     David’s right.  There are more and more American “foods” appearing on French supermarket shelves... and unfortunately on people’s plates at home as well.  And little of it is healthy or nutritious.  Whether that - combined with McDonald’s and other fast food joints - have anything to do with the rising obesity rate among the French can be debated, as can global warming, but it’s pretty much a given.
American sandwich bread.  No match for baguette

When I first arrived in Paris, I knew no one.  Far from home, I was living out of a suitcase and out of a hotel room.  I visited the U.S. Embassy to see if there were any jobs going or apartments listed.  The answer was no to both.  But I did make friends with the Marine guards, thanks largely to a mini-skirt and a fair set of legs.  Not only did that lead to open invitations to their weekly Friday night dances, but also access to the Embassy’s PX.  Some of the Marines would let me accompany them inside to buy things that my homesickness made me lust for.  Can’t remember now what they possibly could have been, but peanut butter was probably on the list.
     Now, many years hence (or is it thence?), I ask myself why, if you weren’t brought up on the stuff - American junk food, that is - why in the world would you find it desirable?  And yet some of these alien culinary invaders are welcomed here in France, by the French, who have a reputation for being gourmets.  Go figure.
     A few years after the Marine shopping sprees, I had pretty much acclimatized to Things French.  To the point of having borne two dual-national children.  When they were so small that they could fit in the supermarket caddy - well, maybe not both at once - there was a store in Paris that was a kind of PX for non-Embassy people. (There were about 10,000 Americans working and living in Paris back then.)  Luckily for me, it was in my neighborhood, and I had a car to cart the groceries home in.  By then, a non-American peanut butter - Dakatine - had made an appearance in select French stores, but it was too oily for PB&J sandwiches although great for baking peanut butter cookies that need a bit more oiliness.  (I just found out that although it’s very popular in Africa, it’s actually made in... Strasbourg, France!  Oh, the shame!) 
Fanta is a Coke brand
     Another thing we bought at that store was corn flakes, which now you can find anywhere.  Ah yes, and maple syrup.  Let’s not forget that!  What good are pancakes, or indeed crêpes, without maple syrup?  A third thing in the caddy was typical North American honey.  Very different from the myriad kinds of honey you find here, which are all delicious but (to the trained American palate) just don’t taste right on a slice of toast in the morning, even if it is baguette.
Pancake mix?  In the land of the crêpe?
     My daughter on the other side of the Atlantic just reminded me that we also bought Oreos and Animal Crackers and jello.  I believe her even though I’ve always found jello pretty foul.  (Sorry, Mr. Cosby.)  But I guess I felt I couldn’t bring up American children, even abroad, without subjecting them to that rite of passage.

On a more gastronomic American food level, special hurdles arose around the end of November.  One big problem was finding a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.  Not that France doesn’t have turkeys; they were transplanted here in the days when France had colonies in the New World.  No, the turkey problem was finding one ready for the oven in November because French poultry breeders only sold them for Christmas dinner, which is one month too late.  The names of butchers who would stock turkeys at Thanksgiving time was a piece of information that was whispered from Yankee ear to Yankee ear faster than the Concorde could fly (which, FYI, was twice the speed of sound).
     Cranberries were another Thanksgiving problem.  Fresh ones are still rare today, and the French equivalent - airelles - are much smaller and more tart so they’re no good for making cranberry sauce to go with the turkey.  However, you can now buy cranberry juice in just about any supermarket, even the small ones... and yes, it’s Ocean Spray.
Corn, O.K.  But artichoke hearts?  Imported?
     Corn was another headache.  To the French of that era, liking corn was totally perplexing because they felt it was only good for feeding livestock, as any Frenchman would tell you if the topic arose.  Occasionally you could find it in a can, but only at high-end shops like Fauchon, where the cost of one can would set your child’s college fund back several months.  As for corn on the actual cob, there was none... and what there is even now isn’t worth the water to boil it in.

 Just as France is being invaded by American products, the reverse could be said about America, I guess.  Or at least about places like locavore Ann Arbor, which is big into slow food and organic and free-range.  It’s become fairly easy there to find crème fraîche, which is a good thing because so many good French recipes call for it.  And there are several places around town that sell French cheeses and wines, although many offer the same three over and over.  There’s even a Japanese lady who learned how to bake a mean baguette while living in Paris, and she’s gone into that business in Ann Arbor.

Lay's has run all French brands off, unfortunately
But the problem facing both France and America is the downward spiral of quality.
     There’s a whole category of good French products that have been bought up by foreign companies, often American.  For instance, the lovely Chamonix orange cookies my family used to love.  I saw them in the supermarket shortly after I got off the plane this last time, and it made me all nostalgic.  So I bought them.  And they were awful!  They’d been bought by Kraft Foods and reformulated to contain HFCS, which is cheaper than sugar.  (It’s called fructose-glucose, so now you’ll know what to look out for.)  On first bite, I discovered my lovely orange cookies had become sickeningly sweet with an artificial orange taste... and dry as a bone.  I suppose they’re cheaper to make that way because otherwise why would you change something that you acquired because it was attractive just the way it was?  Makes no sense.  (Actually, Kraft Foods bought out all of the Lu products in 2007 as part of its takeover of Danone, also an ex-French company.  Sigh)
French ice creams are different, less creamy
     The Cartesian conclusion to draw is that companies are dragging quality down to make more money, and that it’s happening on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit a bit later in Europe. Fresh produce and meats still have more taste here.  But any processed food is becoming an ever-growing disaster.  Just this week it was discovered that there was horse meat in the ground beef used in frozen burgers and prepared dishes such as lasagna or shepherd’s pie.  In spite of what was written on the label and in defiance of strict EU law.
     So my advice is:  keep reading the packaging.  Or better yet, cook your own dishes, from scratch.  Invite your friends over.  Maybe open a bottle of French wine.  And enjoy their company.  That is still very French. 

David’s blog can be found at  I don’t agree with everything he writes, but it’s almost always well-written and usually interesting.

In case you can't cook with French utensils,
my neighborhood  store sells these "authentic American roasters"
N.B. and Full Disclosure:  All these photos were taken in my G20 mini-supermarket in the rue Lepic.  It isn’t big enough to offer more American products, which makes it a perfect example of what you can find just about anywhere now.  Please excuse the blurriness of some photos; the staff was restocking the shelves and was looking at me askance, so I was a bit rushed.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece -- I enjoyed reading it. --Betsey Hartford