Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Last semester I was fortunate to receive a travel enrichment grant, which allowed me to travel to Paris for five days. I studied in France my freshman year and have an affection for French cuisine, which brought me back to Paris. France is a nation that prides itself on high quality food. However, when I was in France two years ago, I noticed the emergence of both fast food and chain restaurants. In Paris, the number of these chains seems to be growing, blurring the line between traditional French cuisine and the new fast-food-French fusion. I traveled to Paris to examine how "traditional" French cuisine in Paris is faring during this ever-changing time and what this change not only means to French cuisine but to French culture as a whole.
After my arrival, I headed to the most famous street in Paris, the Champs-Élysées. Traditionally known for its high-end stores, cafes, and cinemas, I was shocked to see the 2 McDonald's, 2 Quicks (a Belgium version of McDonald's), 2 Brioche Dorees (another Belgium chain), and countless other chains. Even the seemingly quintessential French cafes were somehow connected to one another in an unauthentic manner. This Paris landmark has succumbed to the cheap and easy demand of fast food globalization. These companies have catered to the French cuisine culture in some aspects, having a menu outside of the building and even adding some traditional French foods. McDonald's, for example, had what they called "Crouqe McDonald's," their take on the classic crouqe monsieur.
This isn't the case everywhere, and I found that once I traveled off the beaten path and through the small side streets of Paris, I was able to encounter the French food that I adore. One of the more memorable meals during my time in Paris was in a tiny family-owned restaurant tucked back in an alley. Everything about the restaurant was "classic" French; the hand-written menu, the small selection of meal options, the close tables, and most of all an authentic steak tartar.
The French affinity for food can also be seen at various markets all over the city. On the last day, I visited the L'Aligre market in the 12 arrondissement of Paris, which sells a variety of food, clothes, and other goods. I could tell I was in the vicinity of the market by large amount of people with carts to store their food from the market. The street was lined with carts filled with colorful and diverse foods. If the product wasn't grown or made in France then it was required to state where it originated. Having a large selection of products next to one another allows shoppers to compare the food that they're purchasing.
I was able to attend an afternoon cooking class with a native Parisian. This was the most insightful experience during my time in Paris because it allowed me to see how Parisians shop, prepare, plan, cook, and eat their meals. The ingredients for the meal were either bought in a local specialized shop or homegrown. While I was preparing and cooking the meal, I was able to talk to my instructor about her eating and cooking habits. She, like many French people, tries to buy all of her produce in season. Even though the 2009 Grand Prix de la Baguette, a Paris-wide competition to recognize the best baguette, winner is right across from her apartment, she still buys her baguette from another boulangerie because she believes it's better. This enforces the French attitude that food is all about what works for you. She told me that cooking is an art because you really have to know the flavors and know what works together so that one doesn't overpower another. Appreciating each taste and flavor of the meal makes it that much more enjoyable and is why the French have such an affinity for food.
Throughout the five days I spent in Paris, each time I had a meal or a snack, was both a learning experience and test of whether "traditional" French standards would prevail. I had amazing food and some that were not as good. I learned that if a restaurant had a menu in English, it generally meant poor food quality. However, I also learned that there still is a need and a want from the Parisian people to hold onto this food culture that they love so much; a love that they want to share with others.