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Food and Culture

December 11, 2012

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2012 11:35 am

    I’m with you, food is culture. (As opposed to food *and* culture.) On my last visit to Paris we stayed in the Marais for a week and I found myself walking several blocks each morning (without giving it a second thought) to the place that made my coffee and morning bread just how I liked it. The little quirks of each corner shop are one of the things that make Paris special.

    For those who can’t travel as far, the Museum of Natural History has recently opened an exhibit called “Our Global Kitchen”. Have you seen it? Includes tastings!

  2. December 11, 2012 11:49 am

    That’s almost poetic, Daniel – and, food is culture!

  3. December 11, 2012 12:04 pm

    Daniel,
    Some suggestions for eats…please excuse some of the typos…

    Patisserie du en Face for dinner

    Le Bistro de Papa for lunch

    Le Muniche for dinner

    Chez Matre Paul…went there a couple of times, very good! Food from Arbois region

    Les Bookinisters..dinner

    La Maree Verte..dinner

    In the Latin Quarter, Rue Mouffetard there’s a great pizza place but I don’t remember the name.

    La Bastide Odeon…dinner

    Bouillion Racine..dinner

    La Rotissirie du Beaujolais..dinner

    Yugaraj…Indian food in Paris

    Aux Charpentiers…dinner

    La Rotisserie d’Armaille..dinner

    Le Muniche…dinner

    Stop by a Monoprixe (SP?) incredible food stuffs.

    TOTALLY ESSENTIAL!!!! The Paris Mapguide by Penguin…you have to have this unless you can navigate Paris by memory, which my wife can. It’s small BUT perfect!!

  4. December 11, 2012 12:22 pm

    Have fun and EAT ALL THE FOOD!

  5. Josh K permalink
    December 11, 2012 12:27 pm

    Some of the touristy stuff is actually very worthwhile such as the view from the Sacre Coeur de Montmarte (take some time to actually stroll around the awesome nearby neighborhood – it’s free!) or a night cruise on the Seine (definitely not free) really is unbeatable.

    But yes, Paris really is all about the cafes, markets, and small bistros, and every Arrondissement offers something very different and unique. Biggest mistake people make when visiting famous places like Paris which abound in activities and sights is that they try to do everything with the feeling they might never come back. Don’t. Take it slow, relax, and enjoy. An every morning “real” espresso everyday at a nearby cafe won’t hurt either.

    Have fun.

  6. December 11, 2012 12:56 pm

    Combine food and art. The cafe behind the clock at the Musee de Orsey is fabulous, has a great view, and the museum has amazing Impressionist art that doesn’t travel very much.

  7. December 11, 2012 2:06 pm

    This statement is exactly why many Americans don’t get the utterly life changing experiences that can be had while traveling: “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.”

    Just like everything else in our fast paced, do-it-now-do-it-quickly culture, travel has fallen prey to the American need to fit as much on your plate as possible in one sitting. I can’t even explain to you how amazing it is to simply be in a place for a longer amount of time. I had the opportunity to immerse myself in Italian culture this past summer for two weeks, and I chose to rent an apartment rather than go the more traditional hotel or B&B route. It was amazing, and I recommend it to everyone, even if it is only for a short stay. Apartment living lends itself to so many more opportunities for learning about a particular way of life.

    Meanwhile, anyone who says that food is not culture has never watched a man on the street in Xi’an, China making dumplings by hand and serving them to an eagerly awaiting crowd of friends and neighbors. They haven’t talked to the Italian restaurant owner on the Amalfi Coast who is so excited to explain to you that the pasta you are eating was lovingly made by his mother that morning, or the gentleman who has been making limoncello in his family owned store for the last 100 years. Food is culture because it is how we define our celebrations, our happy moments, and our sad ones.

    But what do I know?

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