Eating in Paris

I have been living in Paris since 2004.

I knew the city from the early 1970s as I traveled frequently. I learned French when I was six and I consider it my second mother tongue. In that sense, I think I have a pretty good handle on French way of thinking and culture. But living here full time made me aware of a thousands of tiny details and many idiosyncrasies.

Chief among them were French culinary practices, food choices and taste preferences. When I arrived here, I was a vegetarian. Some fourteen years prior to that moment, I had made a decision to stop eating "anything that can run away from me" to use the hip hop mogul Russell Simmons' definition of vegetarianism.

Within my first year in Paris, I had to make a decision about being a vegetarian. You see, in London or New York, you could go to any restaurant, even a steak house, and you would find at least one vegetarian entry on the menu. If not, they will happily put something together for you.  In Paris, no such option is available. The vast majority of restaurant menus are divided into Meat and Sea Food. And if you ask for the kitchen to come up with something, your waiter will recoil with horror or act with disdain and dismissal. It is as if they consider you culinary choice a direct insult to the chef.

After many important anniversaries spent in dismal Lebanese restaurants sucking on hummus and countless culinary outings limited to omelets in Parisian brasseries, I relented and gradually began to eat like an omnivore.

After all, even the Parisian "omelette baveuse" which I adore, can get tiresome.

(The picture on the right can give you a pretty good idea what "baveuse" means.)

In a way, I am not too sorry that I gave up my choice. The primary reason for my decision was the commodified nature of meat production in North America. If you saw Food Inc, you know what I am talking about. When I made my decision you could not find free range chicken or cattle raised in farms even if you were willing to pay for it. And I won't even mention hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals.

In France, these practices are the norm rather than the exception. Most super market eggs come from free range chicken. While France is the fifth poultry producer in the world, unlike every other developed country, its production system is not highly integrated. Instead, it is dominated by small poultry farms and backyard breeders (there are over 25,000 poultry farms with more than 500 birds). The same is true for cattle and beef production (the marketing, on the other hand, is dominated by big players like the Bigard group).

In other words, the meat you buy is organic (it only lasts 3-4 days in the fridge), it came from an animal that led a decent and free life and was slaughtered humanely. As you could expect, it costs more and it tastes great.

French people, to their everlasting credit, insist on that and don't mind paying extra for it.

In that sense, eating in Paris is a joyous and relatively guilt-free adventure.

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