“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
14 thoughts on “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
I didn’t know that Parmentier had to actually trick people into trying the potato. The question of resisting change is interesting. I don’t know whether the French resist it more than any other nation, but their inherent belief that French is always best means that they are reluctant to adopt food (or ideas for that matter) that come from anywhere else. Once they do finally give into something new, they make out it’s French as in hachis Parmentier!
Haha – or as with the croissant, baguette, and champagne! EEK – I’m scared to even write that because I know people who get very upset when they are reminded that these things didn’t actually originate in France. But something doesn’t have to originate in your country for you to perfect it. 🙂 And yes, apparently that is the Parmentier story – I don’t know whether it is based in fact or historical gossip but that was what we were told…and the tour was much more entertaining for it. 🙂
Love this post – as usual…
You know in this day of equality and PC etc etc I know one shouldn’t say we are different but I truly do think we are and certain countries have certain characteristics as a whole and in the group and crowd complex. There used to be a reality show in england in the 90’s and it was about a group of tourists in a hotel resort from the same country – i.e a group of brits and germans french etc. and they all reacted differently to things. I wish I could get the name of it and will link if i find it. Personally from experience of having lived there myself and dated a Frenchman i will say out of the Europeans they are rather stubborn! but there is nothing wrong with that at all, a lot of great people were stubborn as well 🙂
N, I couldn’t agree with you more even if it drives me pernanas when someone says “Oh, you Americans are all…” I get all huffy but truly? Beh, oui. We all have our certain things. Remi and I would always be able to spot a French tour group in our travels however! They would be the ones sticking together and complaining about everything… 😉
Yet another wonderful post, Merci…and stay safe up there with all of that snow! Yowza!!!
Haha – yes, I find there is a grain of truth in most stereotypes, we just have to remember that they are generalizations. I love it when I friends who mention the “Americans being loud” and then try to say, “it is so untrue and unfair” to which I respond, “it is TOTALLY true!”
Sadly, in Grenoble we are just sort of sopping wet but not snowy…may change tonight though!! Hope y’all are doing well!!
I agree totally! And those differences are part of the charm of traveling. If we were all the same it wouldn’t be nearly so fun and entertaining and informative. What is the point of going somewhere new if everyone is exactly the same? Boring! 🙂
Um, that show sounds EPIC! Please let me know if you remember the name – I would LOVE to see it!
Cheers and thanks for reading!
MMMMM delicious poison.
As are so many things. Woe is me.
It is hard for me, too, to imagine what European cooking would have been like before all the amazing things we (the New World) gave them. Corn/maize! Potatoes! Tomatoes! And can you imagine Indian cuisine without our chili peppers?!
Great post, as per usual. And I see you are hyperlinking text — go, you!
DUDE. I totally didn’t even think of Indian cuisine pre-chili peppers…crazy town. HA – yes, I am slowly but surely taking all of your valuable advice, which is greatly appreciated! Can’t wait to see you soon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Interesting amusing post as always! You are in the unusual position of being outside the group, because you are not French, but also in there too, because you’re not an outsider (tourist), to be able to observe situations and behaviour and report to us in your funny way. Thanks, I enjoy your posts! The tour guide probably was less than amused by your questions! Ha!
Cheers, Deborah from Melbourne, Aust.
Thanks so much, Deborah! And yes, it is the cool thing about being an expat – you are still a foreigner but you can really understand more of a culture. 🙂 It was really funny on the tour when the guy replied that they WERE poisonous, we were totally cracking up. Thank you for reading and I’m so pleased you enjoy what I write.
We are heading to Melbourne for a visit in the new year – getting SO excited, such a great town, I miss it all the time!
Seriously hilarious!!!!!!!!! haha!! Of course there’s a potato on the graze. And of course! There’s an epic story about introducing potatoes to the French. LOVE it!!
Haha – thanks! Yeah, it was definitely a surprising little history lesson but too classic! 🙂 Thanks for reading!