Food and Culture
I’ve been told in the past not to mistake food for culture. Still, I’m at a profound risk of skipping priceless works of art hanging in Parisian museums just to sneak in another croissant, baguette, coffee, wine, absinthe, etc.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the fine arts. I do. They move me. I am as easily enchanted by a line drawing and abstract use of form as I am by classic oils of the masters. And a long time ago I finally understood what it meant to see art live and in person after attending a traveling Van Gogh exhibition.
It’s the colors.
Much like music, a lot gets lost in the reproduction. As good as printing or sound recording may be, a recording of a symphony will never fully sweep over and engulf you like the vibrations in the air at a concert hall.
But there is a case to be made for food as well.
In my youth I had no desire for travel. Mostly because I hadn’t yet discovered food. And my opinion of going from place to place was that it was dumb. You would go to famous places, stand in front of a building, and take your picture to remember or prove that you actually were there.
We have historical sites in this country. And the United States is hopelessly large. There is no way anyone could adequately explore the nooks and crannies of this nation in several lifetimes.
Food was the wake up call. All of a sudden there were things that I just could not get.
Some were unavailable in the U.S. for legal reasons based on government restrictions. Like young raw milk cheeses that are illegal to import, or the once banned iberico. Jeffrey Steingarten has a story about having a friend smuggle in some horse fat into the country so that he could make French fries.
Other foods are just made in such small quantities or are so fragile that they never were exported from their country of origin. This includes small production butters which are rumored to be the finest in the world, and certain varieties of seafood that are rarely seen beyond their native shores.
Over the years, some legal barriers have come down (like for absinthe) and other products have become more globally distributed (like red cow parm-reg).
Still, there is nothing like checking out the local markets and seeing how different people eat, to give you an appreciation of other cultures. And that’s what I hope to do on my visit to Paris next week. I could try to make a reservation in a starred Michelin restaurant. I’m sure it would be amazing. And I still might.
But more than anything else I want to see the food stalls, the markets, the cafes, the wine bars, and the bistros. Along the way I’ll take in some of the architecture. I may even pop into a museum (but so many great works of art do travel internationally – and we’re famously close to Manhattan, Boston and Montreal).
We’ll see how far I get off the beaten path on my own in the city with virtually no knowledge of French. I’ll start with bonjour and remember to say S’il vous plaît and Merci. I won’t talk loudly in an effort to be understood in English and try to avoid some of the other ugly American traits of hundreds of thousands of my countrymen who have come before me.
It will be a challenge, but it should be delicious.