International Junk

Pizza Flavored Shapes.  Whittaker’s Chocolate Coconut Block.  Holiday Ham & Turkey Pimento Cheese.  TRISCUITS!

One cold and wintery evening while living in Australia I drew a nice hot bath, plugged in my computer at the edge of the tub (yes, yes I know this is the start to like 5 different bad movies and that if the computer had fallen into the tub I would have been electrocuted only to change bodies with my Mom or start hearing men’s thoughts or something) and climbed in.  Then I reached down and opened a box of Shapes (http://www.simplyoz.com/products/on_sale_-_limited_quantities/arnotts_shapes) and proceeded to eat the entire thing while watching Project Runway.  Was this kind of disgusting?  Yes, yes it was.  It was also totally awesome.

There are similar stories of mine about Whittaker’s Coconut Chocolate while living in New Zealand and certainly regarding HH&T’s Pimento Cheese with Triscuits when I’m back in the U.S.A (similar as in over-indulging not as in eating in the bathtub…that was really a one-off, over-eating while naked is kind of disturbing and really eating naked at all seems gross to me, maybe I am repressed, I don’t know…okay, digressing).  Point being, while I am not much of a junk food eater, when I find my junk food that I love I can go a little overboard.  Lucky for me, however, the aforementioned junk-food kryptonite doesn’t exist in every country and I have to travel long and expensive distances to get it.  However, this does leave a hole in my diet, an inner aching as my cellulite calls out to me in agony, “please, we need you to eat more garbage, we’re shrinking!”  Wouldn’t want that to happen, now would we?  So, it is only natural that I have found a new junk food addiction here in France.

Now, we have already covered the issue that while France is exceptionally good with food it doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own junk food as well (Exhibit A: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/perfection-and-the-art-of-junk-food/).  And while I find things like apericubes and fully frozen hamburgers repugnant I do have my not-so-secret shame.  A shame deeper than apericubes and a little bit gross…crabssdlkjgkdlsjaktlja.

“What was that?  I couldn’t quite understand.”

“I wrote: crabstiflubidyblubber.”

“Huh?”

“CRABSTICKS, okay?  CRABSTICKS DIPPED IN BENEDICTA MAYONNAISE…and a LOT of it!”

“Ewwwww!  You mean those plastic tasting things filled with chemicals that aren’t actually crab but instead whatever poor fish was stuck at the bottom of the net that they stewed and then reshaped into crab legs?”

Yep.  That’s exactly what I mean.  MB was the first one who told me that I should try them with the mayonnaise so we bought them once and I did…from there the addiction

The EVIL Benedicta that promotes my crabstick addiction.

The EVIL Benedicta that promotes my crabstick addiction.

grew.  Now, I have to physically stop myself from being lured into the crabstick section at the grocery store (yes, that exists) as the chemically goodness calls to me, “But we are so tasty, we are SUCH a good vehicle for getting mayonnaise into your mouth!”  BWAH!  Quit taunting me with your siren song, Crabsticks, we all know that I will feel sick after I eat you!

*Sigh*

Even MB has his own international junk food shame.  If you refer back to Exhibit A, you will see that I introduced him to the world of Kraft Blue Box Mac and Cheese years ago.  Ever since then, he now gets excited when shipments come from the U.S. and always wants me to share them with him (which makes me wonder if I should have ever let him taste it in the first place – who wants to share their mac and cheese – Dad, I’m looking at you).  So, as a result of our relationship something unnatural has been created, something that could possibly be the first sign of the apocalypse:  a Frenchman who gets

THE CHEESIEST!

THE CHEESIEST!

excited to eat powdered chemicals cheese?!?!?!?!  (Somewhere the French Tinkerbell just

died and there is no amount of clapping that will bring her back.  Don’t worry Mme Tink, afterall…it is THE CHEESIEST! Har har har…she’s not laughing.)

But this is one of the unspoken perils of being an expat or in an international relationship, while on the one hand you gain a first-hand understanding of a new culture; on the other hand you gain a first-hand understanding of a new culture.  Meaning, when you are living somewhere overseas or with a someone from another country you can’t cherry-pick all the delightful things about the new culture…you get it all – the tournedos rossini and Quick’s, France’s major fast food chain, foie gras burger (check it out: http://www.fastandfood.fr/2012/11/28/le-burger-au-foie-gras-de-quick-revient-en-decembre/).  It’s the darker side of the expat life…and for now, I’ll just let you digest that.

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No Flowery Dirt

My Mother is in town visiting and we are in the kitchen on her first night.  I’ve prepared some French treats and bought some of my favorite cheeses for her to try.  The first one I give her to taste is Brillat-Savarin à la Truffe (Brillat-Savarin with Truffles).

“What’s it like,” she asks me before trying it.

“Hmmm…” I ponder the best way to describe it.  “Well, Brillat-Savarin is like a breath away from being butter so it’s kind of like the best butter you’ve ever eaten with truffles in it.”

“What are the truffles like?”

She’s had truffles on multiple occasions but wants to know what these truffles are like.

“I don’t know,” I say, I can’t think of the right way to describe them.  “…truffles!”

This is a conversation that I have often and continue to fail miserably at; whether it is friends from overseas wanting to know what something tastes like or someone visiting who wants a description about what to order, I am often at a loss.  I mean, how do you describe a food to someone who has never tasted it?

You can go the literal route but that usually doesn’t get you very far:

What does fromage de tete (aka head cheese) taste like?  Pieces of skull meat in gelatin.

Not helpful?  So surprising!

There is the rico-suave way to do it where you try to sound very sophisticated…and are usually annoying and give no helpful details:

Horse meat?  Well, it’s similar to beef but with more depth of character while also having a playfulness.

Huh?  Is this horse wine we are talking about?

There is the literal comparison route:

So, frog legs do taste like chicken but then not like chicken.

What does that even mean?  Have you gleaned any greater understanding of the flavor of frog legs from this?

Then you can go the hard-core route in which you really break it down:

For example, when my sister was visiting last year, she commented on one of the cheeses we were about to try.

“Is this one of those cheeses that they like to say is “reminiscent of the farm?”  She asks this while sniffing the soft white round.  (This is the type of description that would be “rico-suave”)

“Yeah, probably, it is a super farmy one.”  I turn up my nose and she gives me a questioning look.  “MB likes them but I can’t handle it if they are too farmy.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know; if it is too farmy I feel like I’m licking a sheep that has been rolling around in hay and poo.”

Hardcore route.

So I never know exactly what to tell people.  If it is something I love I want to use the most flowery and delicious-sounding language to try to entice them to try it; I want to make them desperately excited to experience this new and exquisite flavor.  I want to impress upon them the utter amazing-ness that they are about to discover.  But is it necessary to try so hard?

I once had a friend tell me that his foie-gras tasted like buttered popcorn.  I remember looking at him and thinking “ACK – PHILISTINE!”  How could he describe the rich and magnificent flavors of foie-gras in such a pedestrian way?  …And then I tasted it.  I had to smile to myself; he had absolutely nailed it.  This particular preparation of foie-gras was definitely “reminiscent of the movie theatre”; however, my inner food-snob had been working so hard to make it sound impressive that I had missed the obvious.

Sometimes it is best to just describe things as what they are instead of trying to make them sound more sophisticated.  At the end of the day, everything comes from the same place anyway.  Why try to over-complicate it?

I turn back to my Mother in the kitchen, still struggling to think of the words to describe the majesty and the beauty of the flavor of Brillat-Savarin à la Truffe.  Words like “earthy” and “terroir” are running through my head when she takes her bite.

She turns to me with a look of excitement on her face.

“Ooooh,” she exclaims.  “It’s like really good dirt!”

I nod to myself and smile.  She is exactly right…and that sounds pretty damn tasty to me.

Chocolate Frogs and Salty Dogs

“Wow,” I say to MB.  “You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever noticed this before.”

“Quoi?”

“A whole aisle, I mean, an entire aisle.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“I mean, look at it!  It’s marvelous, really.”

MB contemplates the grocery store aisle.

“C’est normal, non?”

“Dude.  No.”

You can figure out a lot about the flavor profiles of a country by visiting a grocery store.  Even though I have lived in France for over a year I am still noticing some of these little differences.  For instance, when I first moved here I was annoyed – neigh – horrified by how difficult it was to find a non-sweet cereal that wasn’t corn flakes (MB’s cereal of choice is basically a chopped up candy bar with a handful of granola thrown towards its general direction) but until about two weeks ago I hadn’t noticed the chocolate bars.   Over a year’s worth of going to the grocery store and staring dumb-founded at the endless varieties of chocolate filled, chocolate-covered, chocolate cluster cereals and never once had I noticed that there was an entire aisle devoted entirely to chocolate bars; not candy, not cookies, not any other variety of sweets; just an aisle of different brands and combinations of chocolate.  It is impressive…and it is awesome.

After I noticed this aisle of happiness I started thinking…I mean, come on, just how many combinations of chocolate bars can you need?  It’s over the top!  And then, I remember the cracker aisle in United States grocery stores.  While the French devote large portions of their grocery store to bulk chocolate and other sweet things (there is also an entire aisle just for yogurt) in the U.S. we tend to run more salty.  We have an entire aisle of crackers…how many variety of crackers does one need?  And don’t even get me started on the chip aisle.  There are other subtle differences as well: in U.S. there will be about 10 different varieties of peanut butter, in France you will be lucky to find one, but there will be a variety of Nutella-type spreads available.

Recently, we had some French friends over for dinner and I had made oreo cookie truffles (don’t judge me, they are amazing).  One of them took a bite and looked at me, pleasantly surprised; clearly he wasn’t expecting an American to be able to make a tasty truffle.

“This is very good, it is so interesting!  What is it?”  He said, holding the truffle aloft.

“Oh, just a little something I whipped up,” I said smiling.  WHAT?!  I didn’t need him to know that it was just Oreos and cream cheese; I was basking in the glow of French praise, it is rare thing, one must savor it!

“Well, it is very nice.  I remember this type of thing from all my visits to the U.S. – the combination of interesting flavors.  My first peanut butter and jam sandwich was amazing!”

“Jelly,” I say.

“Quoi?”

“Nothing.”

I never thought I would ever hear a French person discuss the complexity of American faire such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but when you think about it, it makes sense.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be a unique flavor profile in a country where they like their sweet to be sweet.  I mean, sure, don’t get me wrong, we all know Americans consume plenty of sugar (let’s check our diabetes rates, people) but we have a tendency to throw a little salt in there: chocolate covered pretzels, buckeyes (http://www.joyofbaking.com/candy/PeanutButterBalls.html), cheddar cheese on apple pie!  In France you get things that are sugar on sugar, like my favorite pastry, the Success (and what a success it is, har har har) which is some sort of magical combination of chocolate, coconut, and more chocolate.  No peanut butter or salt here!

So from my grocery store research I have concluded that we Americans are salty dogs and the French are chocolate frogs.  Now if only I could figure out a way to get a whole aisle of crackers AND a whole aisle of chocolate bars at the same grocery store!

A little summer homework:  What differences have you noticed at grocery stores in other countries?  Look forward to reading some fun answers!

Can Bacon be a Vegetable?

“Mwah!  Look at me, I am a big sausage!”  I am walking through the room dramatically, landing hard on each of my feet.  “Watch out, my fat sausage tread might bring the house down!”

“Quoi?”  MB is amused but not sure why.

“What do you mean “quoi”,” I ask.  “I’m a sausage person…obviously.

“I don’t know what this is, a “sausage person”.”

“It’s a fatty, it’s a big fat fatty which is what I have become.  Do you see this?”  I lift one of my legs.  “My jeans are so tight that my thighs look like encased sausages.”

“You are ridiculous.”

“Really, first trimester?”  I raise an eyebrow at the little belly that MB has developed.

His jaw drops in mock horror.

WHAT?! There is a salad on the plate...

Don’t judge – there is a salad on the plate…

“Dude, I’m just sayin’, we gotta go on a diet.”

For the first four months of the year, MB and I had eight visitors stay with us.  While this was a whole lot of fun it also means that we did a whole lot of eating.  For each new visitor we had particular cheeses, restaurants, or regional specialties for them to try, and in effect, for us to try.  Normally, MB and I go out to dinner once a week; but with the onslaught of visitors, we were having “special occasion” meals almost every single night.  There is no amount of exercise that can burn off daily three-course dinners so naturally, he and I both put on a few pounds.  At first it wasn’t so bad, the clothes were a little tight, MB started to get a wee belly but after month three things had gotten out of hand.  I was starting to have trouble figuring out where my chin ended and my neck began.  So, for the past month, MB and I have been dieting which has been an interesting experience.

No more of this!

Dieting in France is both easy and complicated.

On the one hand, it was easy to cut massive amounts of fat out of our diet by doing things like not having foie gras and duck confit every day (crazy, I know, but it works).  On the other hand, deciding that you are going to diet in France and try to avoid high fat cuisine basically means that you are eating at home.  At the French restaurants in our town there are almost no low-fat options.  You want a salad?  That is great, it will come with lardons, goat cheese, possibly an egg (or my favorite salad which comes with magret canard, gesiers, and foie gras).  You want to get the fish?  Excellent, monsieur.  That will be accompanied with a cream sauce.

I remember one of our visitors telling me that she just wanted to have a light meal at the restaurant that evening.  She decided to take the salmon…which came with a cream sauce.

“That’s okay,” she said.  “I will just have the vegetable side dish.”

She asked the waiter what the vegetable option was.  It was potatoes Sardalaise.  That would be, potatoes cooked in garlic and duck fat.  Enjoy your “light” dinner.

Note the category of “legumes” on the left-hand bottom.

So basically, in France, I think it has to be all or nothing.  If you want to diet, or go on a “régime” (even the French word for diet sounds malevolent) then you better make your own food at home because you are not going to find diet food at a restaurant.  Although, note that even at home you must be vigilant. In one of MB’s French cookbooks pasta carbonara is listed under “legumes” (vegetables).  I mean, come on!  So, at the end of the day, dieting in France takes a huge amount of self-control, a lot of dinners at home, and not believing the cookbooks when they tell you that a crème fraîche and bacon salad is a vegetable.