Wednesday, January 2, 2013

French Food Snobs on New Year's Eve

From a market near La Défense
Ah, the typical expat lament: I miss food.

I grew up, mostly, in Texas. There's a lot I could say about Texas, but the one thing I miss the most from Texas is the food. And the one thing you won't find in Europe is proper Mexican food. I've been to "Mexican" restaurants and had a waitress ask me what a taco was. Seriously, it's almost universally awful over here and I've eaten at "Mexican" and "Tex-Mex" restaurants in more countries than you'd believe.

So were I to decline an invitation to join you for a dinner at a Mexican restaurant here in Europe on the grounds that it's crap, please don't take it as food snobbery. "Salsa" that tastes like ketchup with pepper? No thanks. Enchiladas that taste like hamburger wrapped in a cold, dry corn tortilla? No thanks. And staring at my plate in horror trying to figure out what part of the meal is supposed to be a tamale? No thanks.

Is that snobbery to have a certain expectation of quality and not wanting to be served barf on a plate? No, I think not, but to people who have only eaten Mexican food in Europe, they don't have much to compare it to. As an expat, the story is far different.

Water added ham.
Used under fair use.
A case in point is my wife. Though French, she lived in the UK for years and learned to adjust her tastes accordingly. The fine quality wine, meat and cheese that she enjoyed in France simply wasn't there in the UK. She had to find different high quality items (the lamb, for example, is excellent in the UK). Or when we visited the US and my wife tried to cook for some friends, she was horrified to be cooking meat and watching water pour out of it.

Yes, that's right: water! For some reason, tons of meat in the US has plenty of water packed into it. I suspect this is done to increase the weight without increasing cost (and a saline solution is often used to "improve" the flavor). However, here's one of my favorite ingredient lists, from Sahlen's Boneless Cooked Water Added Ham:
Ingredients: Cured with Water, Salt, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Sodium Phosphates, Hydrolyzed Soy and Corn Protein, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite.
"Cured with water"? Um, no. Curing is a process used to preserve meat. It's salt or that "Sodium Nitrite" that's used to cure the meat, not water. My wife, growing up in France, isn't used to having water pouring out of her meat. Does that make her a snob?

For our New Years celebration, we had friends, Jurien and Madelijn, visiting us from Amsterdam and we enjoyed Champagne, escargot, foie gras and and many other delicious items ... but they were from the supermarket. While we don't eat these every day (let's talk about our waistlines in another post, shall we?), these aren't super-exotic foods, either. Fine food in France isn't something that the French go out of their way to buy, it's something that is the norm, just like good Mexican/Tex-Mex food was the norm for me, growing up near San Antonio. So when people accuse the French of being food snobs, I think it rightly rankles the French: since when is fresh, natural produce and meat the preserve of snobs?

On the other hand, when Jurien and I discovered that foie gras was delicious on Doritos, Madelijn and my wife were scandalized. So maybe there's a touch of snobbery.


  1. If you are at all adventurous in the kitchen you might try for those Mexican food cravings. She has tons of recipes that are way way better than any "Mexican" food I have had overseas. Oh, and Doritos and foie gras actually sounds pretty good to me.

    1. Shannon: unflavored Doritos work great with it. The foie gras really shouldn't be mixed with anything too strongly flavored and the salt and crunchy texture work very well with it.

      And the recipes on look awesome!

  2. Spot on about the "I miss food" lament. The French recognize how deeply food is connected to culture; some of the rest of us figure it out via expatriate experience.

    I must admit I'm with the "Doritos! oh horror!" crowd. However, our American-French hybrid this year was foie gras on gingerbread waffle. (Real gingerbread, with ginger, not "pain d'epice.")

    'Twas most excellent.

  3. The perception of snobbery is a function of your perception of availability. It's a defence mechanism for the poor to shame others. It is analogous to anti-intellectualism that you've seen in America, during the Chinese revolution, etc. People are threatened when they don't understand something, so calling someone a snob is an excellent way to (try to) write someone off.

  4. You should visit me in Cologne. We’ll hit the Cafe Especial and you’ll tell me if their Mexican is worthy of the name.

    1. I would be delighted to. We don't get a chance to catch up often enough!