Saturday, May 31, 2008

Brigitte Bardot Is a Hippocrite

A few months ago the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, one of France’s few animal rights groups, mounted an ad campaign in Métro stops with the tag line, “Le cheval:  Ça ne se mange pas!”  The ads showed two pictures side by side, the first of a towheaded child hugging a Mr. Ed look-alike, the second of a bloody, questionable-looking raw steak wrapped in cellophane.  “How do you like horses?” the ad asked, providing potential answers with checkboxes under each photo:  “as a friend” and “as a roast.”  The advertisers had taken the liberty of putting a fat red check mark under the first option—but almost every single one of the ads that I ever saw had been amended by vandals, who had checked the box under the steak.

All right, so the ad was a ridiculously easy target.  Even so, I think this case in point demonstrates a few things about the French at large.

First, no one here particularly wants to take advice from the Muslim-hating Bardot, and rightly so. 

Second, Parisians will never resist the opportunity to graffiti an advertisement—but, then again, they’ll graffiti any reasonably flat surface they can get their hands on.  (I particularly enjoyed the desecrators’ latest operation, in which they scribbled the walls of Métro stations with promises to reenact May 1968 for President Sarkozy, but I was a little disappointed by their failure to follow through.)

Third, the French don’t like to be told what to eat, and they don’t care if the animal that they’re eating is beautiful or dignified or lovable. 

I find this attitude refreshing.  Americans are usually offended (or at least seriously skeeved) by the thought of eating horse meat.  But why, exactly, is eating horses so much worse than eating any other kind of animal? 

Yes, horses are intelligent and majestic.  Yes, horses have been a very important source of transportation for a good part of Western history.  Yes, horses are pretty, and many girls (and a few boys) grow up playing with pink plastic pony dolls and glittery horse stickers. But how does any of this make horses less deserving of being slaughtered for consumption than cows, or pigs, or octopi?  It’s perfectly respectable to like horses and not to want to eat them—but it’s also perfectly hypocritical to believe that there’s something more wrong about killing horses than about killing other animals, just because we like horses better.  

And it's a little baffling that an animal rights association, which presumably aims to improve the lot of all living creatures, would participate in the kind of posturing that turns the morality of eating meat into a bestial popularity contest.

But, based on their reaction to the Bardot campaign, the French aren't buying it.  Either they don’t like horses (which wouldn’t be surprising, as they don’t like most things), or they approach their meat with an unsentimental moral consistency fairly unheard of in Anglophone lands.

I still haven’t eaten a horse steak, but yesterday I had my first bite of horse collagen, in the form of a sour bubblegum-flavored gelatin candy.  It tasted the way I imagine borax might taste.  If it’s a choice between a horse “as a friend” and “as a processed gobbet of corn syrup and food additives,” I think I’ll take the former.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"She was, like, 'What did you do to my mouth?'"

Today the Times dining section chronicles the cult phenomenon of “flavor tripping parties” at which certain yuppies, jaded from having taken too many real drugs (or maybe just too uptight to try real drugs), consume miracle fruit, which “rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so.”  Give $15 to a lawyer-cum-dealer who calls himself the Supreme Commander, swish a small West African berry around your mouth for a minute, and virtually every food will taste sweet, from Brussels sprouts to oysters to goat cheese to Guinness mixed with lemon sorbet.  The lawyer/dealer, who’s seriously rocking a blue track suit in the video accompanying the article, claims that people under the influence become “literally like wild animals” around food. This might be a bit of an overstatement. As far as I can tell, all the guests in the video look uncomfortable to be surrounded by forty strangers who are swigging Tabasco and vinegar.

All right, clearly I’m incredibly jealous.  Eating under the influence miracle fruit has officially replaced dining in total darkness as my number one trippy food fantasy.  Who wouldn't want to bite into a Brussels sprout to find that it tastes like fruit?  Seriously.  Even though I think it might be a bit of a buzz kill to have to consume the berry with someone who insists on being called the Supreme Commander, I would go to a flavor tripping party in a heartbeat.  

Also:  Is it just me, or does a Guinness and lemon sorbet float sound like it would taste great no matter what?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Most Important Meal of the Day

There’s no better breakfast, in my book, than muesli and yogurt.

Certainly, I’ve dallied with other breakfasts over the years.  I still think about the semester when my earliest class started at 1:10 PM, and I spent half an hour in the kitchen every morning stirring old-fashioned oatmeal in a saucepan.  I sliced a banana and drizzled maple syrup over the top, then I retired to my bed with a spoon to read The New York Times from cover to cover as I ate.  I am coming to terms with the probability that life will never be that good again.

During the months earlier this year when I was pretending quietly to myself that I was a French person, my breakfasts consisted of fresh baguette with butter and crème de marron, that miraculously thick and grainy vanilla-scented chestnut jam.  But crème de marron was a vicious siren, and though I told myself I’d reach for its glass jar only at breakfast time, I soon found myself sneaking spoonfuls of the purée at odd hours of the day and even constructing whole meals around it. Today, the sight of crème de marron still makes my heart leap, but I know that cutting myself off was the right thing to do.

So I have now returned to my faithful muesli and yogurt.  It’s not as cozy as oatmeal, but it’s not as time-consuming, either.  It’s less seductive than crème de marron, but it’s far less treacherous, too. 

But muesli and yogurt is by no means just a boring, obliging standby that’s always there when I need it.  It’s got moxie, power, a je ne sais quoi that I believe has best been summed up by one Ms. Nigella Lawson, who writes:

There is something about muesli, real muesli, that makes me feel I am some intellectual, beautiful free spirit, throwing pots and writing poetry or political diatribes in 1960s Hampstead.  And it's a feeling I quite like. (Feast, Hyperion 2004)

And it’s a feeling that I thought couldn’t be improved upon, until I discovered that, in Europe, you can make your muesli and yogurt with muesli-flavored yogurt.

I’ll be honest:  Danone Activia Muesli yogurt isn’t the best yogurt on the market.  It’s a little too saccharine-tasting, a little too liquid.  But all that stops mattering once I mix it with my favorite no-sugar-added muesli.  Forget oatmeal and crème de marron.  This is metabreakfast.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Change of Tack, or: I Need Your Advice

I went to a party last night and met a man—the French hostess’s British boyfriend—who had been a vegetarian for the first nineteen years of his life.  “But I just couldn’t justify it anymore,” he told me.  “I wear leather shoes.”

“Do you like the taste of meat now?” I asked him.

“Not really.”  He shrugged.  “My palate’s just changed so much, you know?”

At the moment, I could see his point.  I was gnawing on some Spanish charcuteries the hostess had insisted I try—dry sausage, thinly sliced jamón serrano, bright red chorizo mottled with white fat.  The meats were certainly nice (and went surprisingly well with a vodka tonic), but they tasted mostly...salty.  “Do you like it?” my hostess asked.  I nodded politely, but I felt a little as though I were being left out of an inside joke.

That’s the feeling I’ve gotten each time I’ve tried meat so far:  as though I’m missing out on some vital understanding that comes easily to other people.  Everything—the first escargot, the smoked salmon, the moist slivers of chicken atop the Caesar salad I finally ordered for lunch on Thursday—has been perfectly pleasant.  But, each time, I haven’t been able to stave off the slightly morbid thought, ‘How exactly does the vaguely pleasurable taste of this meat justify the death of an animal?’

It’s not a question I ask facetiously or rhetorically.  I truly want to understand why some people—most people—cannot conceive of giving up meat.

So instead of stumbling around, occasionally ordering random meat-containing dishes based on my own ill-informed ideas of what might taste good, I’m trying a change of tack.  I’m asking you, dear reader, whoever you may be, to give me some advice.  What’s the best non-vegetarian dish you’ve ever tasted?  What kind of meat, in the words of the Anti-Vegetarian Society of Meat Eaters, will someone have to pry from your cold dead hands?  Let me know, via comments or email, anonymously or identified, what you think I should be eating, and I’ll give it a try.

Maybe I’ll find, as the Brit suggested last night, that my palate has changed too much for me ever to appreciate meat.  But maybe—just maybe—I’ll taste something that’ll finally let me in on the joke.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Temporary Herbivore in Chicago reports that Oprah Winfrey is planning to spend the next three weeks as a vegan. The Queen of America, who’s referring to the diet change as a “cleanse” and an “inner makeover,” is blogging about her newest weight-watching scheme.  Here’s what Winfrey wrote on Sunday:

[T]his first day wasn't hard at all. For breakfast, I had steel-cut oatmeal with fresh blueberries, strawberries, chopped walnuts and a splash of soy milk and some agave nectar. For lunch, chunky mushroom soup with wild rice and pecans. As a snack, a handful of roasted almonds. And for dinner, a baked potato drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper with a salad of shredded lettuce, cranberries, pine nuts and tiny orange slices with a vinegar and oil dressing.

Yes, well, I might have found it easier to stay vegan, too, if I had had a personal chef and an infinite staff of attendants.  My vegan days were a little different. I recall eating a lot of cold cereal with soymilk and spending all of my free time experimenting madly in the kitchen with margarine and egg replacer, trying to create palatable cookies and cakes. 

Even though I’m well aware that this three-week cleanse will soon be tucked away in the back pages of The Many Diets of Oprah Winfrey, I applaud Winfrey’s efforts to raise awareness for what she refers to as “the animals whose lives are sacrificed in the name of gluttony”.  Perhaps she’ll inspire a few millions to try giving up animal products.  For them, and for any vegans out there without personal chefs to present them with a dazzling array of healthy dishes, I’m posting the pièce de résistance from my vegan days (with American measurements).

Vegan Cinnamon Rolls

-1 package active dry yeast

-1/4 cup warm water

-1 cup potato-cooking water

-½ cup mashed potato

-½ cup plus 2/3 cup organic sugar

-½ tablespoon salt

-¾ stick (6 tablespoons) vegan margarine, plus one stick (½ cup) margarine, softened

-1 ½ teaspoons Ener-G egg replacer mixed with 2 tablespoons warm water

-4 to 4 ½ cups all-purpose flour

-1 tablespoon cinnamon

-2 cups organic powdered sugar

-one to two tablespoons soymilk

-1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or almond extract, if you so desire)

Combine yeast and warm water; let stand for a few minutes.  Add potato-cooking water, mashed potato, ½ cup sugar, salt, ¾ stick margarine, and egg replacer; combine well.  Add flour, a little at a time, until dough forms; knead dough until elastic, then let rise for an hour or until doubled.

Punch down dough and roll into 14x8-inch rectangle; spread remaining margarine (1 stick) onto the dough.  Combine 2/3 cups sugar with cinnamon; sprinkle over the buttered rectangle.  Roll up dough lengthwise, and cut into twelve rolls; place rolls in a greased 9x13-inch pans and let rise until doubled.  Refrigerate overnight.  In the morning, remove rolls from refrigerator, preheat oven to 350° F, and bake rolls for 30 to 40 minutes.  Combine powdered sugar and soymilk until smooth, and stir in the vanilla or almond extract.  Drizzle slightly cooled rolls with icing. 

Makes 12 rolls.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pains, Salades & Fantaisies

This is one of the sandwich shops I pass on rue Gay-Lussac on my way to my class at the Institut de Géographie.  I haven’t been inside yet.  I'm a little scared that I won't be able to go back to normal bread and salads once I try the fantasy-laced variety.

The Pescetarian Phase

Old habits die hard. 

After grandly declaring my conversion from vegetarianism, I have spent the past five days as a pescetarian.  As I had suspected, eating fish is not that difficult, as long as it doesn’t have bones in it.  It can actually be quite enjoyable.  I enjoyed the quinoa and salmon salad from Cojean (which I’ve previously rhapsodized over) I had for lunch the other day.  The curried quinoa was moist and dense, the salmon fatty and pink – a lovely shade of pink I haven’t seen on my plate in years.  It was strange to have to use a knife to cut the flesh, which sometimes came apart easily and sometimes resisted.  I guess I haven’t had to hone my knife-wielding prowess much over the years.  But, despite my poor motor skills, I finished my salad.  And I enjoyed the feeling of protein-laden fullness it gave me – a fullness peculiarly different from that attained from eating plants alone. 

I don’t have the same moral qualms about eating fish as I do about eating other animals.  As a pescetarian friend said when I saw her recently in Madrid, “I know I can kill a fish without feeling too depressed.  But I think that if I killed a cow I’d feel really, really depressed.” 

And yet eating cows is what normal people do.  “This is what normal people do,” I keep telling myself, trying to work up the gumption to take the grilled chicken salad from the shelves of Cojean.  Yesterday I took my usual pasta salad with grilled vegetables and mozzarella instead. Even the salmon doesn’t feel normal to me yet.

It takes constant vigilance to be a vegetarian.  Vegetarians’ minds must always be whirring when they are around food, their eyes always darting from plate to plate.  The surveillance was never a burden to me – I’d gotten so used to it that, until now, I wasn’t really aware that I was doing it.  It’s difficult to shut all that off, to relax, to just eat.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Not Everyone Is "Meatless Like Me"

When I first read Taylor Clark’s explanation of vegetarianism on’s infrequently updated “Travel and Food” section, my reaction was:  Is this necessary?  Do Americans really still need someone to tell them that vegetarians are people that don’t eat anything that once had eyes?

Clark apparently thinks so:

Those of us who want to avoid the social nightmare have to hide our vegetarianism like an Oxycontin addiction, because admit it, omnivores:  You know nothing about us.  Do we eat fish?  Will we panic if confronted with a hamburger?  Are we dying of malnutrition?  You have no clue.

I like to give omnivores a little more credit, and not just because I’m temping as one.  I can’t remember the last time an American mocked, harassed, or looked askance at me for being a vegetarian.  Maybe I’m detached from the reality of Middle America—New York, where I lived before I came to Paris, boasts 85 vegetarian restaurants—but vegetarianism isn’t exactly a new trend anywhere in the country. 

Yes, I recognize that Clark is trying to be funny (though forgive me if I don’t think “And hot dogs … I mean, hot dogs?  You do know what that is, right?” is much of a punch line).  And yes, I happen to agree personally with much of what he says:  PETA is obnoxious, bacon smells delicious, tofu and Gardenburgers can be kind of unappetizing.

But I take issue with the first-person plural, us-versus-them, “Let me tell you what we’re really like” shtick.  Vegetarians aren’t really like anything -  they're a diverse group.  Some of them regularly liberate lab animals, are disgusted by the scent of meat, and keep their freezers stocked with Gardenburgers.  And some of them don’t think that authors who make sweeping generalizations based on their own experiences are all that relevant.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Though I went to the Fête du Pain (Bread Festival) by Notre Dame on Sunday in order to revert briefly to my old animal-free eating habits, I found myself face to face with the above.  It brings new meaning to the term "lobster roll."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Foie Gah!

The Chicago City Council has decided to repeal its municipal ban on foie gras, the French delicacy of fattened duck or goose liver,’s Diner’s Journal reported last week. The ban had originally been instated in 2006 in response to animal rights groups who claimed that the treatment of poultry raised for foie gras—which includes force-feeding the birds fats and starches to make their livers swell—was excessively cruel. 

I wrote an article about the foie gras controversy last year and found the topic to be slightly more nuanced than I had expected.  Sticking pieces of metal down animals’ throats is undeniably appalling, but the abuse that goes down on chicken farms is both more inhumane and more widespread.  Foie gras producers have claimed—perhaps not entirely unfairly—that they have been made scapegoats in a system that favors agribusiness over small-scale farmers.

As soon the ban’s reversal was announced, Diner’s Journal readers made their voices heard in the comments section as pompously, caustically, and redundantly as can be expected from Times-reading food snobs and activists with too much time on their hands.  The PETA crowd piped up with heartfelt defenses of “innocent animals.”  (I suppose ducks with a criminal record are fair game.)  In response, one Robert Rothman wrote:

Come to think of it, [force feeding] sounds like a wonderful thing to do with those who insist on dictating what other people can and cannot eat. The liver would undoubtedly be inedible — prohibitionists are full of bile — but at least it would get them to mind their own business and stay out of other people’s kitchens … Then again, if we allow people freedom to eat what they want, next they might demand freedom to think what they want, and then where would we be?

I don’t quite follow how Rothman can be both in favor of cannibalizing people who disagree with him and in favor of the freedom of thought, but I’ll try to let it go.  In any case, he misses the point entirely.  A foie gras ban is not a paternalistic policy presupposing that citizens need assistance to do what’s best for themselves.  No one has credibly suggested that we should ban foie gras because it is in the citizens’ self-interest not to be able to consume the delicacy.  I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but I’ll take others’ word for it that foie gras is delicious, and that consuming it increases one’s happiness. 

The trouble is, the suffering that goes into making foie gras seems to outweigh whatever joy it may bring to the eater.  It may be a mostly symbolic gesture to prohibit a product that most consumers never taste.  Still, I’d be prouder of a government that takes small steps to minimize agony than one that panders to whiny self-styled gourmands who naïvely think of eating as a form of free speech affecting no one but themselves.

It’s a tough call, but I think my favorite Diner’s Journal comment comes from Jon, who defends foie gras by asking, with singular rhetorical brilliance:

Have you ever seen a duck write beautiful music or build a space shuttle?

Take note:  If you’re not a composer or an engineer, you, too, deserve to be force-fed with a with a metal tube.  Then, finally, we musical prodigy NASA technicians can feast on your fattened livers in peace.

Le Bistrologue

My first foray into eating animals takes place at Le Bistrologue.  I am running late, and it’s pouring, as it’s been on and off for days now here, as I get out of the Métro at Gare de Lyon.  People look at me as I hurry down Boulevard Diderot in my coral-colored dress, umbrella-less, soaked.  They probably think I’m going to meet someone for a date.  I’m not, but my nerves are at comparable levels.

My friend Ann and her father Robert, who’s visiting from Houston, are sitting in wicker chairs and drinking lager on the covered terrace when I arrive.  Le Bistrologue is one of those Paris cafés straight out of a textbook:  1950s movie posters on the walls, Art Deco chandelier, chalkboard menu that I have to stand up and move to a different seat in order to read.  The youngish, middle-class people eating around us are mostly French, but our waiter, Cédric, is eager to practice his English with us.

Ann orders a bottle of red Martillac—the weather makes it seem more fitting than something white—and I start taking frequent sips as we discuss our menu choices.  Ann, who loves Le Bistrologue’s confit de canard, is in the mood for a steak tonight, and Cédric advises Robert, who’s wavering between lamb and duck, to go for the former.  I’m not quite ready for farm animals, so I order a steak d’espadon—“Swordfish,” says Cédric, gliding over the “w”, as he makes a gesture with his hand to indicate a long nose.   I suddenly wish I had something stronger than wine in my glass.

Ann also orders an appetizer of escargots for us to share.  I like this idea.  Invertebrates seem like a good place to start.  I’ll work my way up the evolutionary tree.  Robert, who grew up in China, tells me that the Chinese word for snail translates literally to “spiral cow,” because snails are slow like cows.

Cédric is slow like cows, too, and I'm hungry by the time the six fat escargots arrive, drenched in garlic-parsley butter, despite Cédric’s line—his modus operandi for charming tourists, I guess—that “some of them are still alive.”  I grasp a snail with one of those utensils that look as though they’re intended for eye-gouging, dig around a bit with my miniature fork, and pull out something that looks the way I imagine a globule of raw petroleum to look, only doused in green sauce. 

Ann snaps a picture of me as I consume my first escargot, and I have a look on my face as though I’m smiling politely at a crazy person.   It’s not as chewy as I expected.  The butter is nice.  The escargot tastes like something mildly foreign—not so wonderful as to make me want to stand up and exclaim, “What have I been missing all these years?”, but definitely not bad, and not particularly strong, really.  I forget the flavor as soon as it’s left my tongue.  I wonder if the part of my brain that ought to be devoted to parsing the flavor of meat has atrophied from years of disuse. 

I wait a few minutes, dabbing at the pool of butter on which the shells sit with strips of bread, then I eat my second snail.  This isn’t hard.

At only one point during the meal do I silently panic. I’m eating my swordfish, which arrives upon a small mound of smashed potatoes, smothered in diced peppers that have been sautéed with lemon and dill.  The fish has a pleasant texture—flaky is never a bad quality in food, I decide—and I like the  way it squeaks between my molars.  But suddenly there is a bit of soft bone on my tongue, like the indigestible husk of a popcorn kernel, and for a moment it hits me:  This is part of a skeleton.  Not long ago, this bone was helping this fish maneuver through water.  My stomach hurts.

The crisis passes, though.  It’s like that moment on an otherwise fine first date when the person sitting across from you says something you just can’t wrap your mind around.  If you think you might like the person enough, you let it go.  And maybe you pour yourself another glass of wine.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Temporary Omnivore's Manifesto

I chose to conduct an independent research project on vegetarianism in France this semester, and my findings, which I am in the process of trying to draw out to 25 pages, are as follows:  The French aren’t really into vegetarianism.

People ask if it’s difficult to be a vegetarian in France.  It’s not as easy as it is in the States, but it’s certainly not impossible.  My diet may have, at times, consisted of around 30% bread, 30% cheese, and 30% pastry, but I’ve survived. I could, without much hardship, continue avoiding the vast pâté section when I go to Monoprix and continue asking waiters if the chef can do an assiette de légumes, for my remaining two and a half months in Paris. 

If anything’s difficult, it’s the explaining.  The French, much like the boys I knew in elementary school, love asking why I am a vegetarian in order to find out the best ways to torment me about it.  I don’t give them much good ammunition.  “I don’t like the way animals are treated in factory farms,” I say.  “And I’m used to being a vegetarian.”

The truth is, I haven’t felt that it’s an absolute wrong to kill an animal for food since pubescence.  I don’t believe that animals are people, too.  I don’t think that the food chain is obsolete.  I can’t come up with much of an argument against consuming humanely raised meat—it’s just that humanely raised meat is hard to come by, and, given the plethora of unregulated feel-good labels, hard to recognize in the United States. 

In France, though, meat seems to be…well, a different animal.  The French take meat seriously. Their stubborn attachment to tradition, which can be maddening in certain situations, is quite a good thing when it comes to meat.  Tradition means animals raised on farms, not feedlots.  It means meat sold in butcher shops and local markets, not Wal-Marts.  And it means a more intimate appreciation of where meat comes from. The sight of skinless rabbits with bulging, glassy eyes at stands at the farmers’ market is a comfort to me. This is a country that sees the blood and viscera, respects the individuality of the animal, and chooses to eat meat anyway.  This is a country whose way of doing things practically invalidates my explanation for my own vegetarianism.

So, in pursuit of a greater understanding of this country, and a greater understanding of myself,  I’ve decided to start eating meat.  Some.  Just until I go back to the United States.

Frankly, I’m scared to death to be stepping out of my well-worn comfort zone. But, consequences-wise, it’s hard to see how two and a half months of eating meat will make much of a dent on the environment, my health, or the overall welfare of animals.  I haven’t eaten meat for thirteen years.  I was even vegan for a little over a year in high school.  I’ve think I’ve got my karmic stores in order.

I plan to document my experiences in this blog, but I do not wish for this to be an entirely gimmicky project.  I am not Morgan Spurlock, and I don’t particularly want to be supersized.  I am not going to try to eat as many species of animals as possible in the next two and a half months, nor am I going to try to see how high I can push my blood cholesterol levels.  I do not wish to turn my body into a laboratory for some kind of experiment, chemical or psychological or otherwise. I’d like both to retain a little of my own dignity.

Nor do I wish for this to be a food diary of the fatuously enthusiastic “I ate this! Then I ate that!” variety.  Food blogs are not necessarily relevant to anyone aside from the writer, and I am not so narcissistic as to think that what goes in my mouth is in and of itself a fascinating topic.

But food is never just about what goes in your mouth or how it tastes.  There are many questions at hand when you’re a vegetarian about to eat meat for the first time in over a decade:  questions of identity, of health, of politics, of ethics.  And it seems to me that, in order to be able to take a convincing stand on any of these issues that surround food, I ought to be able to see how the omnivorous majority lives. 

So tonight, for the first time, I’m going out to dinner as a non-vegetarian in Paris.  I don’t know what I’ll eat yet.  I don’t know how it’ll make me feel.  But I’ll keep you posted.