Archive | May, 2011

Vegetarians, look away now

11 May

Chicken Lady at Bastille Market Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSince moving to France, I have had to think about renegotiating my relationship with meat.  Pre–Paris we had an understanding. I didn’t eat much and what I did buy was very good quality. In exchange, the meat came clearly marked, in nice plastic packaging from the supermarket or pre-cut and wrapped in paper from the butcher. Now in Paris, all the rules are being broken.

Last Sunday, I got in the line at the chicken lady’s stand, or poulailler, at the farmer’s market around the corner from our apartment. The number of different types of chickens daunted me. The range extended well beyond the caged, free-range, organic, corn-fed options I am used to. There were different varieties and subsections of these varieties. I just wanted a chicken, chicken. I wanted a normal, well-treated chicken.

I was relieved when a simple “Un poulet, s’il vous plait” was all that was needed for the woman at the front of the line to secure a chicken that looked ok to me.  I could say that. This was going to happen. I was going to get my chicken.

However, when the chicken was removed from the refrigerated case, the neck and full head of the chicken, previously tucked neatly under the bird’s body out of sight, dropped down and swung back and forth. Yes, beak, comb and both beady little eyes – left and right, left and right.

This was a clear violation of our previously negotiated understanding. Heads, feathers, eyes, combs and beaks, for goodness sake, were definitely out-of-bounds. I didn’t know if I could go through with it.

Then the lady in front unknowingly threw me a lifeline. She said something in French that resulted in the chicken lady unceremoniously removing the head – CHOP – and then, taking out the insides.  I’d forgotten about the giblets, but these too can be removed by request. 

The game was on again and it was my turn.

Un poulet, s’il vous plait.” Then I pointed. As before, the chicken body was removed and the neck and head dangled.  However, I was only partially equipped for the next stage. I knew there were magic words that would make the next necessary step happen, but I didn’t know what those words were.

But I had to do it and thank goodness for the onomatopoeia and sign language.

Je voudrais le chop et le scoop.”

These words, accompanied by the corresponding hand movements, got me, some giggles from the chicken lady and the rest of the chicken line, as well as, a chicken I was prepared to cook.

Or so I thought. I got home and unwrapped the chicken. The chicken lady had removed the head but not the rest of the neck.  The chicken and its neck lay stretched out on the cutting board. It lay there and I prepared potatoes. It lay there and I chopped carrots. It lay there and I talked to my sister on the phone. I had to do something about this.  Come on Jennifer, you can do this.  Thankfully, living in a furnished apartment in France, a meat cleaver, the knife needed to perform this job, was in the drawer. Otherwise, I am not sure how it would have all gone down.  Even with the right knife it took several determined blows to do the necessary.  And then I was left with my chicken, which I put in the oven, and a neck that looked a bit too much like, well … let’s just say disgusting. Help!

I didn’t want to touch it. I felt really wasteful if I threw it away. This chicken had died for my next few meals, the least I could do was treat it all with respect. However, I’d have to touch it even if I did throw it away. Come on Jennifer, be a big girl one more time.  I quickly picked it up with tongs, put it into the pot and covered it with a lid to wait for the carcass to make stock. I felt like I wanted a cigarette.

The chicken wasn’t the only offender. I’ve broken the rules of the agreement too.  In the original rules, I’d agreed to high quality meat, which meant for me, well-treated animals, free-range situations and organic methods, if possible. I’m afraid foie gras falls outside this category.  Force feeding geese to artificially enlarge their livers makes gruesome viewing.

My first offence was outside of my control. We were at a dinner party hosted by one of my husband’s French colleagues.  It was a beautiful meal and perhaps one of the few we might experience in a French home.  Our hosts had gone to enormous trouble to prepare a wonderful French-style meal that complied with all of my food issues (no gluten, no dairy, no fish/seafood). I wasn’t going to say no to the first course.  And I didn’t want to. I knew I liked foie gras and this was delicious.

My second offence was much more flagrant and audacious.  I went to the restaurant knowing that I was going to order a steak burger with foie gras.  The restaurant had been chosen specifically for this dish. The scene of the crime was, the perhaps aptly named, Grizzli Cafe (7 rue Saint-Martin). The medium-rare fillet of beef, sautéed onions, and red wine sauce topped with a slice of foie gras and served with thick-cut fries prepared in beef dripping was lovely.  I enjoyed it so much, but have been feeling really upset about it since. Talking about this meal I find myself apologizing. I don’t think I’ll be ordering foie gras again. My pleasure does not justify bad treatment.

So, after indiscretions on both sides, I am not sure where my agreement with meat stands.  However, looking your food in the eye is a good, and sobering, exercise.

The Wedding and me

6 May

Hats at Le Grain de Sable photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe Royal wedding last Friday caused me a number of humiliations this week.  To understand why, you have to know three things. 

  1. The Royal wedding is but a warm-up event to The Wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancé in just over 2 weeks time in Scotland. 
  2.  My husband’s family’s motto is ‘to look good is better than to feel good’. We had spent countless (and I am not exaggerating) hours  discussing the minutiae of hair possibilities, make-up options, undergarment alternatives and even the impact of fake tan to the perceived colour of stockings. 
  3.  I had decided not to wear a hat.

Within seconds of Victoria Beckham, and that hat, appearing on my TV screen last Friday, there was a cross-channel call with my mother-in-law. “Did you see her?” was the almost breathless question. I was always going to do something with my hair for The Wedding, but now I was wearing a hat.

At first, the thought of a tour of the milliners of Paris sounded wonderful. But did the small shop where I could pick up a vintage Dior or the old-fashioned store filled with hats that looked amazing on me and were perfect for the dress, even exist?.  More crucially the dress and shoes are in Scotland. I’d have to rely on my not-so-reliable ‘vision’ to complete the outfit.

However, such is the power of my married family’s motto that it can make a girl from Ohio, whose personal motto would include something about a good meal and comfortable shoes, believe that this mission was not only possible, but worthwhile.

And so I set out.

My neighbourhood seemed the best place to start.  Le Marais is packed full of cute independent boutiques, i.e. natural habitat for a hat shop. Or so I thought.  After several hours of wandering the collective advice was that I was several weeks too early (wedding things come into the shops mid to late May) and that I needed to go to another part of Paris. A nice sales assistant suggested a place where it is always wedding season: Barbes.

As I set off on the metro, the sales assistant’s warnings about my safety started to concern me.  He’d warned me that Barbes was not like Le Marais and that I would need to be careful. When I left the Barbes metro station, I could immediately see that I was in a very different part of Paris. There were women in colourful West African robes, crowds of North African men trying to sell me cigarettes, people and noise, everywhere. I wasn’t totally sure which direction would take me to the ‘many, many’ wedding shops I was promised. So I headed where the crowd was taking me.

Tati Lingerie Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerUnwittingly, I had been into a Paris institution that had nothing to do with weddings, the Tati shops.  Think of a city block full of individual Dollar or Pound stores, each with a different category of goods.  Imagine that each of these shops is packed to bursting with women digging through bargain bins and filled with the smell of clothing dye and cheap shoes. Imagine that each of these stores has three floors, equally as busy and smelly as the first, and joined together by mirrored, yes mirrored, staircases.  Imagine that all of these stores and this activity are bound together by one exterior facade wrapped in a baby pink and white hounds-tooth pattern with large signs declaring “le plus bas prix!”, the lowest price.  That’s the Tati shops. Tati has been selling discounted goods in this location for more than 60 years and, if the crowds can be trusted, it’s very popular.

Espace Mariage Damas-Barbes Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerHowever, I needed to stay focused on my mission and set out to find ‘Wedding Shop Central’.  It didn’t take me long. Like the rest of my Barbes experience, this was also a world where more was more. No subtle wedding dresses here. I imagine the store owners and their customers would have been disappointed that Kate hadn’t made more of an effort. If you wanted princess gowns, these places had more tulle, more sequins, more razzmatazz than any place I’d ever been. But no hats.  As much fun as this was, what had the guy in Le Marais been thinking?

In the afternoon, I went to Plan C. I went to the much quieter area between the Blvd St Germain and the Seine on the Left Bank and found A la Recerche de Jane (41 rue Dauphine).  This was more like it. The milliner was a woman in her 50s and a very smart double-breasted dress with brass buttons. The shop was full of her beautiful creations. I showed her a picture of the dress. She said, of course she could help.

“Ah, with such a special dress you need a very special hat.”

She ceremoniously pulled a large hat from the display area and placed it on my head.  It was possibly the most ridiculous hat I’d ever seen.  It looked like a giant gold balloon that had deflated on my head.  Was she kidding?  Apparently not.  

“Very special, no?”

No.  “I think something a bit smaller would be better.”

“Oh, I see you need something a bit safer,” she made a face. “Try this one, it is my speciality.” Had she insulted me and glorified the so-called ‘safe’ hat at the same time?

This hat was lovely, but also not right.

And then she said again, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” and produced another possibility with a sweeping flourish.

No, not right.

And again with a sweeping flourish, and again as if this was the first time, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” she produced two hats. She’d given up putting them on my head. One was quite pretty, but sadly,not right for the dress. The second had a cuddly teddy bear and feathers  attached to the crown. Now she really must be kidding.  Again, she was not.

“That’s all I have,” she said. She pushed passed me, and took a seat behind the desk at the back of her shop.

At this point I was losing faith in my mission.  The ‘comfortable shoe’ part of my own personal motto was starting to win out over the quest to look good.  My feet hurt and this was not as fun as I’d hoped.  I’ll try one last place on my way home.

Le Grain de Sable Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerLe Grain de Sable (79 rue St Louis en l’Ile) is  on the island of St Louis in the Seine, across a small bridge from Notre Dame.  Again I produced a picture of the dress and again the dance of the many inappropriate hats commenced. 

“Did you see the Royal Wedding?” I asked. “Did you see Victoria Beckham’s hat?”

I think you understand that I was getting desperate. I think you understand that with all of the other humiliation I’d suffered, I might as well go that last step, for the sake of the mission.

“Could you make something that looked like that?”

“Yes,” she said. “But you’re not Victoria Beckham.”

It was going to take something special to get me through those next moments and magically there it was. After she had inserted the knife, she put The Hat on my head. 

I pick up my custom-made, cream-coloured chapeau a week on Tuesday.  Remember, it’s better to look good than to feel good.