“What tha…why is there a potato on that tombstone,” I turn, looking at MB questioningly. We are on a tour of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
“Quoi,” he asks, looking towards the grave, apparently he doesn’t know why either.
“Ah,” our tour guide walks over and joins us, bringing the rest of the group. “This is the grave of Parmentier, the man who introduced potatoes into French cuisine.”
As always, I am amazed at thinking about how much cuisine changed after the discovery of the Americas (I still have trouble handling the idea of Italian food without tomatoes).
“In Parmentier’s time,” he continues, “the late 18th century, it was thought in France that the potato was poisonous to humans and it was used solely for feeding livestock. However, after a stint in a Prussian prison, Parmentier came to realize that it was not poisonous and became determined to bring the potato to French tables.”
“Was that difficult,” I am incredulous. I mean, at this point in time, the Irish were eating them, the (P)Russians* (clearly) were eating them, the Americans were eating them…what was there to prove? They obviously were not poisonous to human beings.
The tour guide looks at me like I understand nothing. “Of course,” he says.
“But why,” I press on, “if so many people in other countries were already eating them?”
He chooses to ignore this question and instead turns to address the entire group. “Actually, it is a very good story. Apparently,” he says, walking over and placing his hand on the grave. “He met with such opposition that he had to manufacture a trap to get people to change their minds.”
I look over at MB, “a trap,” I mouth the words to him as dramatically as possible.
“He set guards up at his storage facilities but allowed them to accept bribes for the potatoes, hefty bribes. Then, at night, he would send the guards home so that people could steal them.”
I burst out laughing and the guide gives me a stern look, then turns and leads our tour towards another tomb.
This story, to me, is so quintessentially French, stubbornness mixed with the inherent desire to break rules. I can just imagine the conversations of people over the potato:
“But non, it is disgusting, it will kill you. It is for the pigs, not for us,” one man says, looking at this friend.
“OH really,” his friend responds. “I just had some the other night and they were delicious, a revelation, really.” He shrugs and takes a sip of his wine nonchalantly as though it were no big deal.
“QUOI,” the first man exclaims. “How is it that you tried them? They are not for sale,” the health hazards are suddenly no longer the priority.
His friend leans in across the table, conspiratorially. “I bribed a guard,” he sits back in his chair, satisfied, for no Frenchman can resist pulling one over on “the man.”
“Ben bah, we must do it again tonight – I must try these potatoes!”
The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.
There are books, articles, heaps of Mark Twain quotes (that dude did not like the French) which all discuss the subject. One stereotype that is often brought up is their irritability towards change (…stubbornness, I was trying to make it sound nice). And I suppose there is some truth to it, they do, indeed, like a lot of things to remain the same (Sundays) and are happy to protest change vehemently…especially when the weather is nice. I mean, heck, even the French Bulldog (quite possibly one of the cutest dogs of all time) is considered by breeders to be a particularly stubborn breed – that’s right, even their dog is stubborn. But is it really an inherently French thing or is it just an inherently human thing? Are they really any more stubborn or change-resistant than the rest of us?
I mean, what American over thirty doesn’t remember the “New Coke” debacle? I’m pretty sure even Parmentier’s trick wouldn’t have changed our minds about that wretched marketing failure. There are few of us that run screaming with excitement towards the unknown…towards big changes, the French are no exception but also, I’m not convinced they are the rule. Just like everywhere else change is accepted slowly here, over time, as people become acquainted with it.
So, in reality, the French really aren’t any more stubborn than the rest of us.
MB and I hurry and catch up with our group. As we approach the guide he is in a conversation with one of the French tourists.
“But Monsieur,” says the French man to our guide. “Actually, the toxicity of the potato has been proved by multiple research and… well, so, in fact, the French were correct to ban it, the potato is poisonous!”
MB and I turn back to each other and exchange a look of bemusement.
…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.
* For those of you unfamiliar with Prussia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussia