Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Eating In France: Dying Inside

"Restaurants are very expensive. There is a range, of course, but it starts high. Way higher than neighborhood places in Manhattan, for instance. And few places are truly child friendly. The French do not much like children.

Restaurant meals are available at very limited hours. You want lunch — it had better be between 12 and 2. Miss that and you can have a snack — but only if you are in a place big enough to have a range of restaurant types. Dinner starts at 7, no matter that you missed lunch and want a burger or a salad at 5, not ice cream or a beer. And meals take forever. I like the leisurely lunch as much as any journalist, of course. But not with my kids, every day — which leaves us with grilled-cheese sandwiches, hold the ham. Oh, you can’t hold the ham? Thanks.



Finally, there is a lot of bad food in France — especially around tourist sites, including the great museums. I will not say what I paid for two sandwiches and two salads — all premade so unwanted ingredients could not be removed in advance — and a few soft drinks at the Louvre, after braving the crowds to see the Mona Lisa (which attracts tour buses full of people eager to take group pictures of themselves in front of the picture). There is much excellent food, of course. But who wants really excellent food every day? Sometimes you just want to get everyone fed and get on with your activities.

Fast food exists because a mediocre, entirely predictable burger from McDonald’s is no worse than what you would get a certain percentage of the time at individual places that might not be as clean and certainly won’t be as quick. There is an obvious open niche for a service-oriented place that downplays the drama and provides reasonably healthy food in a clean setting.

And as for the health claim — I don’t personally buy it. But I am currently in a region where every farmers’ market, farm stand, and café sells foie gras, duck confit, and excellent high-fat cheeses, and what passes for a vegetable in restaurants is potatoes sautéed in duck fat. A few carrot sticks and an apple and Mickey D wins that one — so no surprise that it’s doing well."
-- Lisa Schiffren, on some of the many hidden truths about eating in France - others are an extremely limited menu, hearing the repeated phrase "We do not have" when ordering from that menu (France is a socialist country, so prepare to do without many advertised items) and - unlike anywhere in the FDA-protected United States - the daily danger of food poisoning, which you won't hear about anywhere but here, and in The National Review.

And when I say "food poisoning", I'm talking about a real whammy kiss of sickness, that would cause me to black out as I was eating and, when I awoke, swear off trying any of their "delicacies" ("It's the best!") ever again. When I was living there, I was always at McDonald's or Quick (the American jeans-clad Belgian Burger King that operates in France) or stealing away to a Muslim joint for a tasty kabob - a risk for any American.

But I found I'd do almost anything - anything - but take the chance of another debilitating night of the vomits or the shits - experiencing the depressing reality of, once again, suffering terrible stomach cramps - while inhaling the full-strength odor of my own insides because I was usually stuck, using an ancient toilet with no water in it. (France hasn't figured out standardized plumbing either. I swear, after the war started and American liberals started screaming, "France does not agree!", I was living there thinking, "So what? If these goofballs don't agree, it's probably the right thing to do." That started my very-serious re-evaluation of Bush, his policies, and just about everything else: Conservatism, here I come,...)

It was a fucking daily torture.

Another issue is this idea of "freshness" in France.

I can't tell you how often I sat in wonder as my French ex-wife (dumbshit that she is) would go to one restaurant after another ordering the fish - trying to make a point about French fish being better and fresher than American - but regularly discovering she almost broke a tooth because it invariably had sand still in it. (I almost always ordered a steak, which would drive her and the other frogs crazy, since they took it - and almost anything else I did, not to their specifications, to protect myself - as an insult, being the insecure bunch that the French are.)

And about that limited menu: You can go to a party in France and they'll always have a spread for the guests. Go to another party - it's the exact same spread!

And how would you like to find these guys - just like this - on your pizza?

Here's a couple of other culinary tips:

Stay away from Mexican food in France.

They don't understand the first thing about it, and will happily hand you a plate that can best be described as an ugly bean dip disaster.

And, black Americans, don't be surprised if someone slyly offers you "niggerheads" for dessert: They're racist as all get-out in France. They just won't admit it - even to themselves - just ask the Jews.

But, of course, they demand that Americans must have a black president, while France doesn't have a black anything. They don't even like printing the word "black" in newspapers. Hell, I once went to the equivalent of a Home Depot in France and they didn't even have black paint! (They also wouldn't sell me blue paint because I told them I wanted to use it on my kitchen. The reliable reply: "This is not done!")

Fuck France.

37 comments:

  1. I can whole heartedly agree with your take on "French" food. The best food we had on spring break in Paris was the hot dogs (best were next to Notre Dame) by far. Dinners out with the kids were an expensive nightmare, even though the kids were well behaved and quiet for a change the wait staff were mostly pricks and wouldn't deserve a tip in the states even though they grant themselves one on the bill. Coming home we shared rows with Metallica road crew who said that under about $100 us per person the best food was the hot dogs found at street vendors. mpw

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  2. I rarely disagree with you, but I spent two weeks in Paris last year, and I ate like a king for around the same prices I'd pay in the US. I still have fond memories of the food.

    (I do share your complaint about the hours though. It was a huge nuisance when I wanted to eat dinner at 6pm.)

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  3. Howdy,

    I cannot speak for Paris...yet, although my husband and I are going there in September...but I can speak for the areas around Bordeaux and Nice...such food...Heaven on earth. (My husband and I are partial to potatoes cooked in duck fat...so much so that we do that here in Dallas, TX...get the duck fat shipped in by the 5 pound drum.) Oh dear Lord, the confit, foie gras and other duck items in the countryside are just plain bliss. As are the cheeses, rabbit, chicken, veal...and gorgeous vegetables and fruits. As I said, can't stick up for food in Paris, but certainly can stick up for food in the south of France.

    By the way, my husband and I cook all kinds of food...we eat like Kings in this great and bounteous country of ours. But I won't stomp on French food...it can be yummy. Perhaps it's the change of venue...I understand Parisians can be a bit huffy.

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  4. I've spent weeks in France with teenagers and never had a problem with food. There was a Starbucks on Avenue L'Opera about two blocks from the hotel for breakfast. There are all sorts of little cafes on the left bank with reasonable prices. It's best to study up on French for a few weeks before you go but that's only polite anyway. In Nice, we found great little places and the prices were about what you would pay in a nice restaurant here. In Normandy, we stayed in a B&B with lovely food. We spent all day showing the kids the scenes of the Normandy invasion and ate lunch in cafes. No problem at all.

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  5. As Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) so rightly observed: "There is no hell. There is only France).

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  6. Have to agree based on my recent trip to Bordeaux. You can forget about getting a decent steak in France - the "chefs" don't understand the N. American concept of "rare, medium rare, medium, med. well, and well" for the French there's "Bleu" aka raw, then there's "a point" meaning cooked to "the point", and "cuir" or cooked. Everything we ordered came with foie gras (bad foie gras from Italy). I now understand why everyone we saw walked around eating a baguette (aka stale bread). They were filling their stomachs so they didn't feel the need to eat their crappy food.

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  7. What nonsense. I have no problem piling on against most things French. I lived in Paris for some time and couldn't stand most of it -- from how dirty the city was to all the bullshit that goes along with trying to be "polite."

    But the food was consistently great. And if you try, it's also not expensive. Also, before you go saying how awful duck fat is, try reading a book like Nina Plank's "Real Foods." Educate yourself before posting such garbage.

    I'm surprised Glenn Reynolds linked to this crap posting.

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  8. I, too, have spent weeks in France and never experienced anything like that written above. We eat at nice restaurants sometimes, but prefer inexpensive cafe menus. The food is always tasty and filling. There are also lots of excellent pizzarias. And the carry-out shops are fabulous.

    My personal favorite is the sidewalk crepe stands. Mmmm. Wish I had one right now!

    One last note, though. We do NOT generally eat around the high tourist spots. Maybe that's the difference.

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  9. I have eaten out a lot all over France. Of course, like every country, it is variable- in quality, speed, politeness etc. But most of my really special food memories are of French meals. The best meal I ever ate was at an Auberge in Bayeaux, Normandy. Most of the people eating at the trestles in that dining room were like me foreigners- and to a man/woman/girl/boy, declared it the best food we'd ever had.

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  10. I agree about Mexican food in France -- that was a truly weird meal.

    I also remember when we were on the way to a meeting and stopped someplace for a sandwich. The staff was offended that we sat down to eat. Apparently one does not eat a sandwich at the restaurant's precious tables. On the other hand, it was the best cheese sandwich I have ever had..

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  11. Anonymous has it right. The sidewalk crepes are great and not too dear. The trendy Asian eateries are all pricey with "what the hell is THAT" ingredients on your plate (especially the Tibetan ones). Stay away from any Euro-style restaurant chain; it's not French cooking, it's a norovirus factory waiting to happen to unsuspecting tourists. We found a great little Chinese takeout place in Rue Cler and used that a lot. Great selection, tasty, and nice people running the place. Don't ask the hotel staff where to eat; ask a local where they would take their family.

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  12. I should have mentioned how great the Moroccan food is in Paris. Very few things beat couscous Royale.

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  13. Having been to Paris twice as a tourist, I will say that the food is decidedly mediocre, although the waitstaff lived up to their reputation for rudeness. However, in 1989, there was a little place called "Suzie's Tex-Mex Cafe" over on the Left Bank run by some Texan expats. They served up the real thing with Mexican beer--Dos Equis, not that Corona swill. Really hit the spot.

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  14. Sooo true. We were in Paris in early June. Some ex-pats we engaged with regaled us with their food poison tales. The prices were OUTRAGEOUS ($45 for a martini at the Ritz, $7/bottle of Vittell still water, $25 for a ham sandwich), although I read today that the VAT taxes were decreased in Paris restaurants this week and prices are considerably lower. The waiters, while mostly professional, were sometimes having their kitchen fun, but like you, I don't care much, mostly because it is like a caricature of France, politely rude. One waiter brought me a one ounce sealed airplane bottle of ketchup with an exaggerated flourish after dropping my croque madame off. I KNOW that guy was thinking himself very funny. The food is all the same and not all that great. Steaks are bad.

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  15. Favorite meals in Paris: McDonalds, and doner kebab in the Latin quarter.

    Not terribly impressive: Parisian sushi.

    I didn't think Paris was as obnoxious as I had feared, and Normandy was a f--king delight..

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  16. Welcome Althouse and (Oh-My-God) Instapundit readers:

    I'm going to do other pieces on France, but I thought I ought to make it clear that I was writing about "living in France" - and I've lived and moved all over it, over the course of 20 years - while Ms. Schiffren was describing her tourist experience AKA Paris. There's a huge difference.

    Now that I'm back in the States (permanently) it's always bothered, and confounded, me that - with all of our modern technology and the many different means of communication, the information Americans get about France is still trapped in the war years. Think about it: See a piece, say, on television and what do you get? Kitschy accordion music (which people will only hear in tourist traps) and some BS about the great food, and how much healthier and/or more fashionable they are than us - and that's about it. It's a lie, of course, and (as with my point about the war) it's a lie that can lead Americans to a false impression, even about themselves.

    Anyway, thanks for showing up and I hope some of you will stay to look around and check out my posts about the ultimately destructive influence of NewAge "teachings" on the Western World - which make up the bulk of this blog:

    Socially, politically - and especially personally - I think this form of "spirituality" is the most corrupting force in the world today.

    CMC

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  17. It really depends on where in France you go. My grandmother who's lived in Paris these past twenty years or so says she doesn't bother with Parisian restaurants because the food is always terrible, and she's always complaining that the fruits in the supermarkets are gimmicked and chemicaled and no good. But there certainly are places where the food is excellent (the best way is to get someone's grandmother, who knows what she's doing, to take charge of it ...)

    Much like the social issues, actually. There are quite a few French who recognize common sense when they see it and aren't in favor of the liberal/socialist/whoring slut mindset. Problem is that mindset has had such a lock on power for so long it is not possible to openly oppose it.

    This, like many other things, will not continue forever.

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  18. I visited France in 2001 and 2004. The food was divine, all the places we went.

    And Paris was aparkling clean. They even washed the streets on Sunday.

    On the other hand, Rome was dirty and covered with graffiti.

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  19. No personal experience. A lady I used to work with had family in southern France/northern Spain, and went over every two or three years to visit.

    Her recommendation to me was "Don't go to Paris if you don't have to, and don't eat there if you can avoid it. The staff treat everyone like crap, and if they find out you're American... And the food is horribly expensive. But when you get out into the countryside, people- including the waiters- are far more friendly, and the food much better."

    Her repeated experience, passed on for what it's worth.

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  20. On the other hand, eating with kids in Italy was great: there might not be "kids menus" or coloring book placemats, but from neighborhood trattorias to Michelin-starred restaurants, our six year old was accommodated the food that he loved.
    And at one restaurant in Palermo, they ran out of gelato, so the waiter actually took my son's hand and walked with him down the street to the gelateria to buy him ice cream. Yes, we trusted a complete stranger with our son, but it's Italy--you can do that there. You can have France.

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  21. This is wrong in a lot of ways. The food in France is terrific, and although Parisians deserve their rude reputation, you'll find some friendlier service in the provinces. What I have to agree with is the fact that the French, and Europeans in general, are ridiculously inflexible and conformist. God forbid you commit a food faux pas, such as asking for cheese AFTER your dessert. "The customer is always right" is only true in the US.

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  22. Just back from 10 months in France, 8 of those months spent in Paris.

    Never got sick... I have a hard time believing it is any worse than anywhere else... you have a bad experience by chance and you think it's normal.

    Overall I don't think "French" food in France is all that great -- at least if you're living on a bourse and can't afford to go to 2 or 3 star restaurants. The non-ethnic restaurants we went to tended to have small portions of decent (but not spectacular) food for reasonable (considering tip and tax inclus) prices.

    Generally much preferred were ethnic places. We had some favorite Japanese joints near Rue St. Anne, a favorite Indian joint, dined at a nice Korean restaurant and enjoyed a variety of 'oriental' (i.e. North African/Middle Eastern) restaurants -- all in Paris. Our very best meal in France was a creperie (an actual restaurant, not a stand) in Caen, which served a dessert crepe with the perfect caramel. Our worst meal was an Indian place -- but it was essentially in the sticks (Pau in the Pyrenees).

    Ironically, our best "French" meal was consumed in Prague.

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  23. "But who wants really excellent food every day? Sometimes you just want to get everyone fed and get on with your activities."

    And that, my friends, encapsulates a large part of the difference between the U.S. and Europe. Me, I'd like to organize my activities around really excellent food. And somehow, on well over 50 trips to Europe, most of them on business, I've managed quite well. With even a modicum of planning, you and your family can manage well, too.

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  24. Just going to throw in the 'dont drink the water' thing. If you were sick that often, maybe you couldn't tolerate the local bacteria. I got sick a few times in Europe even when I helped cook the food / I know it was fine and clean. Well, that could of been some of it anyway.

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  25. I lived in Italy for around 3 years, and let me just say...

    French food is pretty bad if you're on the run. And I completely agree about the Mexican food..although the place I went to was in the Netherlands, it was in Wallonia, so it's close enough. I never did get sick there though, but I have a pretty tough stomach. The Italians do sidewalk/quick food much better than the French. So much better it's not even funny.

    The Germans do a dang fine job at the sausage carts as well.

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  26. I've been to Paris in the Summer and in the Winter. During my summer visit, the place sparked. In winter, Paris is a shithole. Your criticisms of the food and food culture are all correct (their idea of "steak" is a piece of beef you wouldn't find in the shittiest middle school cafeteria in America) but there is still a lot of good food to be had there. Unless you are vegetarian. The winter trip was with my girlfriend (now my wife) who happens to be a Hindu vegetarian. She's never eaten meat in her life. And if it wasn't for the falafel joints and crepe stands, we would have gotten rickets on a diet of bread, wine, and coffee.

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  27. I have no idea where you were, but I've been to Paris many times and never had anything close to your experience. I always found the service impeccable, the prices reasonable, and the salads/veggies beyond compare (the produce has been so good and so well blended that salad dressing on the salad was unnecessary).

    If you want a wonderful meal outside of proper meal times, there are any number of sandwich shops (panini and the like) or savory items in the boulangeries. There are always grocery stores with cheese and fruit.

    The brasseries will make a steak for you if you ask nicely, even outside of regular hours, but if you show up in sloppy jeans or shorts or don't try to speak French, forget it.

    On the contrary, I've never had a decent meal in New York (and I've lived there) and the prices, even for simple things, are outrageous.

    It has been my experience that people who are treated rudely do not even make the attempt to speak French or behave in a civilized manner. The latter is often demonstrated in not wearing proper street attire. Did you not speak French? I've traveled all over the world and France (and Paris) is among the best service and welcoming attitude available. Even my terrible French is appreciated and gets me through.

    There are simple rules of etiquette, such as always greeting someone before asking them for something or asking a question (similar to Old South manners). Without that simple courtesy, I've seen French people clam up towards rude Americans, and when I am polite and obey the simple rules, they're as charming as could be.

    France is not the U.S. or anywhere else, so expecting things to be like some place else is silly.

    - Connie du Toit

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  28. I lived in Paris for 3 yrs and my parents live near Cannes. You can find bad food and they've no idea how to do pasta al dente, it's simply beyond them, but I ate well and often and you had to feel your way around and yes, it can be very expensive. Tour d'argent was not all that....

    I lived in Rome and have relatives up north and still travel there, biggest difference btwn french and italian is the italian stick to 8 ingredients and then whatever is in season or regional for main dish. The food is almost always affordable and good.

    The French food is fabulous but they do tend to cover it with heavy sauces, etc, that became just too rich for me at 45, growing up in Seattle with a lighter but healthier diet.

    bon appetite

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  29. I lived for years in Europe and had some of the best (Italian) and worst (also Italian) food imaginable.

    I can sympathise with the food poisoning thing. But I got mine from an Italian restaurant in Naples.

    In France it was like, "You expect me to EAT that?"

    But the British Fish and Chips in Nice were excellent.

    I never had any problem with food in Germany. Sometimes it was hard to find a restaurant that wasn't Chinese, Italian or fast food though.

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  30. Well, I for one enjoyed eating in Paris, with no ill effects. Stayed near the Place de la Bastille for a week, send the daughter down to the patisserie every morning for croissants while i made coffee.

    lunch was that 'ham sandwich' which comes in two varieties - 'Croque monsieur' and 'croque madame', but i'm sorry you didn't find someone to make it fresh for you. I ate very well for a week at reasonable prices. also shopped at that market just off the eiffel tower in rue cler. we ate in Le Jules Verne on the eiffel tower. food wasn't special, but the view sure was, and the waiter shamelessly flirted up my daughter :-)

    I in fact enjoyed my salade at the Louvre - I suspect what's her name was having a bad day (viz the tourist comments). I had a fantastic multi-course meal just outside of versailles for very little, walked across the square to my cheap hotel room in the ex-versaille stables.

    man, i'm sorry she found all that bad stuff - how did i miss it?

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  31. Brother, sing it. My wife and I lived in Spain for two years and had this same discussion with the same faux-sophisticate Europhile yugdugs who are defending that pigslop. I HEARD about great food but most of it was unworthy of the toilet it was scooped out of. All fried, all mayo, all rancid, all between the hours of 12-2 and 9-11. I spent 3 years in the bungholes of the Middle East and never got as sick as I did in Europe. McDonalds, sadly, was the haven of reliability and hygiene. Thank god for the American business model.

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  32. We had mixed experiences with food in France, no real complaints about what we ate out in the provinces, some very good, none memorably bad. Paris wasn't exactly a letdown but it wasn't anything special; we hadn't done much study, though, as to where we should eat and where we should avoid.

    Germany has been a pleasant surprise, you can find schweinshaxe and weisswurst if you want but we've pigged out on sushi, Chinese, kebab, and all manner of Italian all over the place. Whole grilled mackerel on a stick with a couple liters of beer at the Hirschgarten in Munich. Stay at the Hotel Kriemhild, nice small place in a great area and close enough to find even when you can't walk straight.

    The Swiss seem more consistently capable of screwing up pizza than anyone else in Europe, odd given their location, or maybe we just had recurrent bad luck (or bad judgment.)

    In China I just eat whatever my friends and relatives order. Spent one nasty evening driving the porcelain bus after some badly-done hot-pot one time, and I don't think I've knowingly eaten dog, but it's been pretty memorable overall.

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  33. No wonder you're not married anymore...

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  34. I have visted this site and got lots of information than that of i visited before a month.

    work from home

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  35. Thinking this is a bit harsh.

    From a local perspective, thing of US cities known for food. Take NYC. Now, I grew up near NYC and have had many meals there. Some of them have been amazing. But I've also walked into some grab and go lunch places thinking NY pizza and italian is so good compared to elsewhere in the US I couldn't go wrong, and then wished I could have had my stomach pumped afterwards.

    Every city has good food and bad food no matter how much of a 'food city' it is. I had some things in Italy that made me delirious with how amazing they were, and some subpar meals.

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  36. Thank you for your article, really effective piece of writing.

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