In 1948, three years before I was born, 36-year-old Julia Child clambered aboard a steamship with her brand-new husband, their enormous car, and a buoyant American innocence about all thing foreign. From her first meal in France, she was overwhelmed by a cuisine that had little in common with the Californian table of her childhood. With generous doses of curiosity and energy she hunkered down in Paris to translate not just recipes, but French culinary culture.
In post WW2 America, French cuisine was regarded as mysterious and kind of funky. The French were reputed to eat frogs, snails, and mystery-innards liberally dosed with heady garlic and weedy things called herbs, while the generation that spawned the baby boomers was forking up basic meat and potatoes. But the burgeoning American corporations and food conglomerates had magic stuffed up their starched white shirtsleeves. By the time I could walk, boxes of powders and mixes and tinned exotic fare brought the world into American kitchens. The harried housewife found her ingredients dehydrated, measured, and boxed with step-by-step instructions of how to reproduce the impossibly beautiful dish illustrated on the package. I grew up with this notion of "cooking", but by the mid-1970's, when I rented my first Manhattan apartment complete with a miniscule kitchen, Dean & Deluca had just baptized their tiny cheese shop around the corner on Spring Street, organic food stores began poking up their virtuous heads on West Broadway, and Korean greengrocers hawked fresh produce on every NYC block.
By then Julia Child had, through her cookbooks and television shows, de-mystified French cooking and was a familiar presence in most American homes. Concurrently, ethnic cuisines other than the already comfortably established Italian, Chinese and Ashkanazi deli tip-toed out of their neighborhoods and fortified their cultural stands throughout America.
When I moved to Paris in 1986, at about the same age as Julia when she first arrived here, the American concept of French cuisine had run its gamut from murky to gloriously intricate to austere and reverential, and what America was eating was garnering attention worldwide. Like Julia, I accompanied my husband because of his job opportunity: we thought it would be a temporary adventure. We sublet our NYC apartment and packed up our clothes, cookbooks and cats, and stored most of our belongings in my parents' attic. Unlike Julia, my husband was French and I arrived with two previous trips under my belt, knew a bit about French cuisine (thanks to her books, among others) and spoke enough French to get around. At first, Frederic traveled often so I concentrated on learning the language. I borrowed cookbooks from the local 4ème arrondisement library, and French-English dictionary in hand, prepared elaborate dinners every night. But my husband's friends and family were less interested in Coq au Vin and Sauté de Veau Marengo than Chili con Carne, brownies, and Buffalo wings. So I dug out my old Joy of Cooking and James Beard's "American Cookery" and began to rediscover American cuisine.
But where to find chili powder, canned chicken broth, chocolate chips, and pecans? What was baking soda called in French and what cuts of beef to use for chili? Why were my cookies flat and hard despite meticulous measure conversions? Was there no corn meal or maple syrup or black beans or cranberry juice in France? Not only could I not find barbecue sauce in stores—supermarket or specialty—but could only find half of the ingredients from which to make it from scratch.
The Americans I'd met at my French classes were experiencing identical problems. This was in 1986-7: there were few American products imported into France, so I began to experiment with substitutions. With my awkward command of the language I interrogated local butchers on cuts of meat while they stabbed my grimy diagrams of American cows and pigs with bloody fingers. I explained recipes and procedures, and they recommended paleron or gite-gite or basse cote. Montbielard sausages. Travers de porc, gigot d'agneau and patiently they expounded upon the subtleties of the myriad species of fowl. I asked my local boulanger to explain the different grades of flour, and with farine 55 my cookies rose the perfect quarter inch, with a crisp exterior enveloping a meltingly soft crumb. My brownies were dense and bittersweet thanks to pâte de cacao. I learned there were substitutions for many ingredients, but still depended on Mom and visiting friends to send or bring the rest.
As I slowly integrated into Parisian life, I realized that it wasn't just the French who knew little or nothing about American cuisine. A New Yorker, I knew the authentic restaurants in Chinatown and Little Italy, side-street Japanese restaurants that served raw shrimp, and had tried all of the ethnic-cuisine outposts from Armenian to Ethiopian. But aside from Tex-Mex and the 5-week Paul Prudomme Cajun stint in 1985 on the upper west side, American food was generic. In fact, the only codified American cuisine that existed then was dictated by international corporations: Kraft, (Nabisco), General Mills (Betty Crocker) Nestle (Libby's, Carnation and just about any other national brand name). Regional dishes were family recipes handed down from immigrant foremothers, but most included ingredients that were industrial products from the families or sub-families of the agro-industrials. Fusion was a term reserved for science.
To this day, I can't seem to lose my thick-as-peanut butter American accent. Back in 1987, the first question folks asked after inquiring from which part of the USA I hailed, was "Aside from hamburgers, what do Americans really eat?" That question, so often repeated, got me to wondering: what do Americans really eat?
The job that had brought us to Paris was not the dream it had appeared, and Frédéric soon found another with a fledgling food importer catering to the Tex-Mex restaurants that were sprouting like daffodils after a spring rain. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about American regional cuisines, and there were many—Amish, Cajun, Creole, Soul, Southwestern, Gullah, Charleston, Cuban, Northwest, Southeast—to name a few. I telephoned friends in various locations in the US to find out what they'd eaten for lunch and were planning for dinner, and what did they buy from the supermarket last trip? Then I fell in love with a tiny shop for rent on a side street in the Marais and began the long process of starting a company. An out-of-work British dollmaker custom-fitted shelving to the asymmetrical walls of the boutique, and I helped the company for which Frederic worked to devise a line of American products destined for sale to supermarkets in exchange for importing the products we'd chosen for our store. Now all we needed was a name.
The store would open—coincidentally—on July 4, 1990 and I needed to file the papers in May. But what to call it? The obvious kept cropping up—The Cupboard, American Market, American Pantry, USA Foods, etc—but we wanted something that evoked the spirit of the American table. A distillation of the recipes and ingredients that unified immigrant fares into something new, whether lovingly concocted from scratch or quickly assembled from boxes and cans. (This, too, is American culture: the industrialization of cuisine.) The day before filing, my mind reeling with unsatisfactory names, I took a long walk in an attempt to clear it. Tucked away on a winding street in the 11th arrondisement, a sign proclaimed "Tumbleweed". Patchwork quilts and various Americana artifacts adorned the walls of the tiniest, most well organized selling space I'd ever seen. The owner was from Pennsylvania, and when I explained to her my project and dilemma, she pressed a book about American religious sects into my hand. "I don't think this will help you find a name," she said, "but there is interesting stuff in here about some little-known regional cuisines."
I'd had vague notions about decorating the store with an Amish theme, as I had a small collection of hex signs and handcrafted objects from the area. When I opened the book Lynn had lent me, I turned first to the chapter about Amish cooking. The first sentence read, "For us, every meal is a Thanksgiving."
And so we found our name.
Thanksgiving opened as planned on July 4, 1990. We installed a professional pastry oven in the back and began baking cheesecakes, cookies, brownies and muffins, and soon in a thumbnail-sized kitchen began producing American specialties—BBQ Ribs, Cole Slaw, 3-Bean Salad, Jambalaya, Chili, Buffalo Wings all made from scratch. (French customers had been asking, "Does all American food come from boxes?") Our first Thanksgiving dinner in Paris in 1987 had been disappointing: the closest we could come to turkey and stuffing was confit d'oie and pommes sardalaise in a nearby southwestern cuisine restaurant. A traveling cousin popped in to complete the family aspect, but it was the only moment in the year and a half I'd been living in Paris that I felt homesick. So for that first November with a public identity as Thanksgiving, we loaded up on holiday staples: canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, stuffing crumbs, cornmeal, yams, pecans; and began baking pumpkin and pecan pies as well. Fresh turkey was a dilemma, but through friends we found a family turkey farm in the southwest Correze region; the farmer promised to supply us with the necessary fowl in November. This took planning and organization, since traditionally in France turkeys are raised and fattened for Christmas, but the family took a chance on us and hatched their eggs early. They were skeptical that there really would be a market for les grosses dindes weighing up to 10kg. In time we proved them wrong—each year we take orders for more and more large birds. During the 25 years we've been importing American food and ingredients, we've have seen this homegrown holiday develop from being celebrated nearly exclusively by the American community to being embraced by more French and international families every year.
The grocery section, on which we'd placed the most emphasis, grew with the addition of more boxed, jarred, and canned mixes and sauces. The following year I smuggled in America pumpkin seeds and gave them to a small farmer who promised us the exclusivity on the next two years' harvest. We flew in candy corn and tacky decorations for Halloween, and sold out. But by then we had outgrown our 30 square meters on Rue Beautreillis, and each major delivery drastically reduced floor space in the store.
In 1993, frozen in traffic on rue St Paul while delivering just-baked cookies and muffins to Galeries Lafayette, we noticed a crumbling façade with À LOUER scrawled in pencil on a scrap of cardboard tacked to the condemned door. I copied down the phone number and Frederic called: two weeks later the lease was signed and our team of plumbers, masons, carpenters and electricians were hard at work transforming the two-story space into a ground floor store and kitchen, and the small room upstairs into a restaurant, where we would serve regional American specialties for lunch and, a new concept in Paris, le brunch.
The restaurant teetered above the now-larger grocery store and served lunch specialties from different areas of the US—Amish scrapple, Carolina pulled pork, Minnesota wild rice, Texas-style chili, Maryland crabcakes, NYC deli standards like pastrami, cole slaw, and potato salad; Nebraska free-range beef, Oregon hot-smoked salmon, burgoo from the hill country, jambalaya and gumbos. But as the menu evolved it became more and more difficult to procure the ingredients necessary to maintain an authentic bouquet of cuisines, and so we decided to concentrate on southern US cuisine, and in particular Acadian, or Cajun.
We fell in love with the cuisine, culture, and people of Louisiana in 1996 while investigating first-hand the regional American cuisines we had only read about and cooked from recipes spiced with a smattering of common sense. The restaurant was always full, and our customers clamored for dinner service, too. Once again we needed more room, so we transferred the grocery store next door into a recently vacated space on Rue Charles V, and plopped the restaurant into what had been the grocery store on Rue St. Paul. I hired kitchen help, trained them in US cuisines, and we opened for lunch, dinner, and brunch. As we were already well-known in Paris we kept the name Thanksgiving, but informally called the restaurant "Bayou la Seine". Bayou means river in the Cajun dialect, derived from the Choctaw Indian "bayuk"; and as we were located two blocks from the Seine river, in the former Parisian swamp, the Marais, it just felt right.
Courtbouillon, étouffées, boudin, crawfish pies and boils appeared on our ever-changing menus; soon we found ourselves "cajunizing" traditional French dishes such as Cassoulet (we used red beans instead of white, with Cajun spices), Hachis Parmentier (sweet potatoes instead of white) and Gratin Dauphinoise, kicked up a notch by introducing cayenne pepper, paprika, and cumin. The Creole influence in Louisiana cuisine we represented by including Caribbean ingredients such as crab, Creole spicing, and African vegetables like okra. Cooking regional cuisine many thousands of miles from its origins presented a constant challenge to find the balance between authentic and "best" - do you include a canned or frozen imported product for authenticity's sake, or choose a superior fresh local product that might be a notch off in desired flavor or texture? What developed from this collaboration between our French and American sensibilities and the realities of producing a delicious, affordable menu was an authentic Louisiana-based cuisine seasoned with a little French finesse and a soupçon of international flavor.
This was a remarkable project that engrossed us for thirteen years, but by 2006 we felt that we'd accomplished what we'd set out to do. Our lease on Rue Charles V had expired, so rather than renew it we consolidated our two locales into the original Rue St. Paul address, the grocery store once again on the ground floor and the restaurant upstairs, opening only for weekend brunch and special events—such as a three day long Thanksgiving dinner—where we continued to serve a combination of classic American and Louisiana dishes. After that exuberant 4-year adieu to the restaurant world, we closed the restaurant for good at the end of 2010. We learned much in those seven years, not only about cuisine but also about the special interaction of receiving and serving hospitality, and about interpretation and culture and the special language of comfort foods.
Fifteen years flew by as we studied, interpreted, and produced regional American fare. Now, peeking at 2012, we are rediscovering the products that line America's supermarket shelves as well as the international attitude towards what the American agro-industry is feeding the world.
Perhaps nudged by the publication of Michael Pollen's first two books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food", consciousness of what we eat, the effect of its production on the environment, and how information or misinformation about how it is marketed has never been so high. Nor has communication ever been so rapid; trends so quickly discovered, vaunted and abandoned; modern life so stressful and uncertain. Ingesting nourishment is a basic animal need, and sharing the pleasures of the table a human tradition from the beginnings of recorded time. It is wonderful to witness the revival of the 1960's back to the earth movement, intensified by better education, new technologies, and again, faster-easier-more prolific communication (however annoying that can sometimes be). Tasting the results, either by taste buds or with eyes and imagination, of today's truly creative young chefs and cooks is a pleasure indeed.
But food/cuisine is also memory, comfort, history, and story-telling. Many of us wish to share or pass on the special flavor of a family recipe that includes a quarter cup of Heinz Chili Sauce or Karo Syrup or Progresso Italian-flavored Bread Crumbs or a box of Jello Instant Pudding. Non-Americans see Pop Tarts or blue cupcake icing on American television series, and want to know how it tastes in the character's mouth. And for some of us, a package of Mac & Cheese or a jar of Jif Peanut Butter is just the thing to cure that bout of homesickness. A child wants to bake a cake for Mom's birthday but her father doesn't have time to help her do it from scratch? There are many wonderful things about the range of American food products, natural or processed, not the least of which is the smile they bring.
Whatever the formula used in its complex manufacture and distribution, American food is marketed as happy food. Most American and French customers, whether they're shopping or just looking, smile or laugh aloud when they see the bright red, orange or blue boxes and cans lining our shelves. I don't believe that the agro-industry is inherently evil or determined to pollute the earth and poison its citizens, or that complex plots exist to do so. Yet dependence upon industrial food undermines the gratification of cultivating, planning, cooking, presenting and sharing. Which should be a pleasure, not a burden. And as can be seen by the rise of obesity-related diseases worldwide, it is not healthy, either. It is up to each of us to insure that we usually consume a well-balanced diet, but if from time to time we rely on an instant meal or succumb to an industrially produced fix, so what? It's only one meal among thousands. Satisfaction is rarely defined by logic, but it is an ingredient to a happy and healthy life.
Imported food is expensive to supply. It journeys thousands of miles and passes through many hands and incurs diverse and multiple taxes and fees, and has done so since the era of Marco Polo. In France, our American products are a treat, a journey, an experience or a link. For whatever reason you seek them out, bon appetit.
Specializing in showcasing American cuisine worldwide, Judith Bluysen has adapted American recipes to indigenous or easy-to-find ingredients in Europe and Africa. As consultant/chef for SUSTA, the Department of Agriculture for the state of Georgia, and the Intertribal Agricultural Council, she has also promoted American food products and cuisine in Stockholm, Brussels, Bucharest, Capetown, Johannesburg, and Paris, where she resides. She has demonstrated American cooking on French television and appeared several times on radio programs in France and in Switzerland.
In 2002 her cookbook "La Cuisine Cajun" was published by Flammarion in France and by Rizzoli in the U.S., as "Cajun: A Culinary Tour of Louisiana". More is on its way ...
20, rue Saint Paul 75004 PARIS Tel: 01 42 77 68 29
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