Forty years ago, when I still lived in the United States, I had a vegetable garden. I lived in the sun. I dug in the dirt and grew squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers. Both the labor and the product gave me great pleasure. Every morning I went out to see how much damage the porcupine had done in the night; it was as if I was the village priest checking what one of my more rowdy parishioners had been up to while respectable folks were home in bed. It was a happy time. But life – projects, contingency – swept me away from that simple and rewarding activity. I have never been able to get back to it, but, as I have discovered, it left its mark on me, not just on my personality but on my politics and my “philosophy” as well.
Now I practice my gardening by proxy. Paris has outdoor organic (bio, they are called) street markets almost every day of the week. There are three I go to regularly, once or twice a week. Blvd Raspail on Sundays, Blvd Batignoles on Saturdays, or Square Anvers on Friday. (Anvers is not officially bio , but is close enough.) These wonderful markets are my gardens by proxy. I am buying fruits and vegetables from the farmer; it is organically raised produce; and the experience of gathering my weekly harvest occurs outdoors – rain, wind, or sweltering heat – not in an air-conditioned supermarket where everything is shrink wrapped (There are those sort of markets in France too, of course, useful to me for paper towels and the like.) I can buy carrots with the dirt still attached (they are called “dirty carrots), and the same for potatoes. What is available depends on the seasonal harvest. Now, mid August, there is a surfeit of almost everything, an amazing abundance. There are promotions for the crop that is just coming in. Now it is plums, of all sizes and shapes, apricots, figs, and amazing variety of “traditional” (called “ancien”) tomato varietals. And greens like roquette (American arugula, which has no taste) but sharp and peppery, and greens that one has never heard of or can seldom find in the US, like pourpier, and mache and watercress in the fall.
Shopping the French street markets is the antithesis of the American supermarket experience. These markets are crowded and jostling, and in the more working class markets, noisy. One, Place d’Aligre, which I do every other Sunday because the prices are so low, the atmosphere is alive with the vendors shouting each other down, advertising their “lower than his” prices. All these marches, from the one just described to the upscale neighborhood on Blvd Raspail, give the impression that the cornucopia had been overfilled and had burst open, and now the throngs, workers and grand ladies and gentlemen alike, have come to gather the harvest.
And they stand in line to be waited on – one develops favorite vendors, whose product or personality is seen as better, so one returns and takes one’s place with others of the same opinion. And one waits while the farmer chats with each customer. Never is the social encountered terminated because there are others waiting to be served. When the conversation is over, it is over, but not before. No one seems impatient. My frustration is only that I don’t understand all of it. It is in the willingness to wait in a queue for one’s fennel or leeks that I see the greatest difference between American and French food culture. The metaphor of religion explains for me the sort of valuation the French assign to food: one cannot go into a church and take one’s spiritual benefits prepackaged off a shelf; one must go through a process, participating in the songs, the prayers, and the kneeling at the rail.
From the French I have learned the value of this participation. Even waiting for one’s turn is participation. But there is more. I can talk with the producers, which is a good way to practice my French, and I have, in the process, developed a kind of neighborhood, farmers or their assistants or wives or children who know me a little – “it’s the American again” (or the Englishman, however they think of me.) Part of my community. I go home with my carrots salles, and wash the dirt off them. There is no sweet corn though nor much interest in beans, and being a New Mexican, I miss these bits of the cornucopia.
I have become a semi-vegetarian because of the experience here. Though I have ethical, environmental, and health reasons for cutting way back on my meat consumption, the main reason is that just eating the fruits that drip juice and flavor, and vegetables with real taste, is satisfying enough.
The culture of food is among the more important reasons that I like living in France. And, along with the health care system and the books (about which – on some other day) one of the truly important differences between the culture I come from and the one I have come to prefer. Further reflections the subject of food, on how it came to be, will follow.