Monday, June 30, 2008

The En Route En-Cas

As I try frantically to take advantage of Europe's geographical compactness during my last few weeks here, I've been doing a lot of traveling.  My time spent in transit has included encounters with plane and train food—which has made me realize how much better travel snacks are in Europe than in the U.S.

On my flight to Berlin I was reminded of my all-time favorite complimentary airline snack, the Lufthansa cheese sandwich.  Served in a wax paper sleeve, the sandwich consists of a pillowy roll spread with butter (or maybe margarine, but who cares?) and cradling thick slices of hard white cheese—maybe comté; I’ve never asked.  I've heard horror stories about Lufthansa sandwiches served frozen solid, but the sandwiches I've had have always been pleasantly cool and dry, the bread having lost a bit of moistness in the refrigerator.  The Lufthansa sandwich (which also comes in turkey), served with a miniature chocolate bar and a cup of coffee or tea, is perfectly-portioned and palatable any time of day—I’ve never regretted eating one.  I’m generally wary of brand loyalty, but if I were to base my choice of airline solely on the free food it serves, I would go with Lufthansa every time.

I had another travel food experience this past weekend when I took the Thalys from Gare du Nord to Brussels for a day trip.  I'm not in the habit of traveling first class, but an upgrade cost only €1.50 each way when I was booking my ticket, so I decided to take the plunge.  The en-cas served on the morning train—completely unnecessary, as the ride lasts only an hour and fifteen minutes—well exceeded my business-class standards for travel food.  My little tray held a bowl of peach slices (undoubtedly canned) with fresh blueberries and a sprinkle of something leafy that might have been thyme; a sandwich of egg, tomato, and caramelized onions on a sunflower seed roll that fit in the palm of my hand; and a slice of a tart made with indeterminate stone fruit on cold, moist puff pastry.  

Outside of context, these snacks would be unimpressive at best,  unacceptable at worst.  They're mass produced, previously refrigerated or frozen, and not terribly flavorful.  They're a way for airlines and rail companies to justify slightly higher ticket prices, and a way for passengers to pass the time.  I know this, but I'm still thrilled. 

All my life, the paragon of travel food, as far as I could tell, was the Southwest Airlines snack box containing preservatives, additives, and empty calories in various guises:  cheese crackers, jelled fruit snacks, chocolate sandwich cookies.  I’ve never been the type to turn down food that is offered to me, so in spite of my better judgment, I always ate the travel snacks, and it always made me feel rotten.  If the snack box falls victim to airlines’ attempts to cut costs, I say good riddance.

I have never seen anything resembling a snack box in Europe on a plane, on a train, or elsewhere.  The American concept of "snack" hasn't really caught on in Europe.  A European travel snack is miniature meal, made out of things that, as Michael Pollan would say, your grandmother would recognize as food:  bread, cheese, fruit.  And—as an indication of how pathetically America’s food system has lowered my expectations—a  snack made out of real food feels like a revelation.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

London: Not a Wasteland

Even though the rest of us have long recognized that England is not a culinary wasteland, the French seem to hold on rather desperately to outmoded stereotypes.  “In London, in England, what do they have?  They have nothing.  I mean, a gastronomic heritage.  No, but anyway, apart from pudding, biscuits, there’s not much, you know?” said Gilles Ajuelos, chef of Paris’s acclaimed La Bastide Odéon, told me late last year without a trace of irony.

With all due respect to Chef Ajuelos, there is actually quite a bit apart from pudding and biscuits in London.  I hopped on the Eurostar this past weekend, and, in addition to excellent Spanish, Swedish, and German food (London’s international restaurant scene is far better than Paris’s), I enjoyed a couple of excellent traditional English meals. 

The first was at Chimes, an English restaurant, pub and (unexpectedly) wine bar in Pimlico.  The weather was behaving decidedly non-Englishly on Sunday afternoon, so my companion and I avoided the slightly glum interior and enjoyed the sunlight at a table on the sidewalk.  We skipped the wine and instead started with a pitcher one of Chimes’s five tap ciders, which proved dangerously drinkable.  For lunch, we ordered a stew of cod and haddock that appeared, on first glance, gray and gluey. A few cheerless croutons strewn on top did not raise my hopes.  However, the stew, whose broth had been enlivened by the addition of cider and cheddar, was rich and flavorful, and the steamed potatoes, zucchini and red cabbage served alongside provided a nice light counterpoint.

My second English meal, in a much more downscale setting, was at the Covent Garden location of a U.K. chain called The West Cornwall Pasty Company (and please do click on that link; their overwrought pirate-themed website is worth seeing).  My Londoner friend Ralf, a pasty enthusiast and veritable fount of trivia, told me that pasties were first created for tin miners, who, to avoid inadvertently consuming arsenic on their lunch break, ate the meat-and-potato interior of the pasty and threw away the crust.  Not the most propitious recipe origin, perhaps, but The West Cornwall Pasty Company has done its best to outstrip its working-class heritage.  Though the upstairs seating area has a fittingly dark and gloomy ambiance, the pasty menu includes such untraditional fillings as curried chicken and cheese-tomato-basil.  I went for a steak and stilton “oggy,” as they’re sometimes called, and was discouraged by its Hot Pocket-esque appearance.  But the pastry was flaky, the beef tender, the cheese savory but not too strong.  Its solidity was perfect after an afternoon of overindulging in cider, but I still wasn’t able to finish the whole thing. (Ralf happily took over the job for me.)

English cuisine is modest and homely, not sexy or showy like its French counterpart.  But behind its humble exterior lie character and comfortableness.  In short, English food isn’t pretty, but it’s got a pleasant personality, especially after a couple of beers.

And no, I’m not going to draw the obvious parallel between English food and English people.  There's no need to hold on to outmoded stereotypes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Side Effects

Meat and cheese:  Is there any combination more straightforwardly indulgent—or more treacherous?

I tried the cholesterol-laden pair twice last week and lived to regret it both times.  The first time was at Le Bistrot du Boursier, which, according to Gridskipper, has some of the best tartiflette in town.  I’d wanted to try the dish of potatoes, bacon and onions smothered with melted Reblochon cheese ever since I’d first heard of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. The potato medallions were pleasantly waxy, the diced onions soft and nearly caramelized, the cheese intensely scented but mildly flavored.  The real point of interest, though, was the cubed smoked bacon—tangy, chewy, sweet.  I couldn’t help seeking it out with my fork.

The tartiflette was delicious, and I finished it, but almost immediately began to feel as though the fat in my bloodstream was congealing and sinking to the bottom of my arteries.  I crossed two arrondissements on foot to try to walk it off, but the heaviness and drowsiness lingered.  I was too full and sleepy to be of much use once I got home, but the tartiflette wouldn’t let me sleep—I woke in the middle of the night, my stomach still slightly queasily full.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but a couple of night later, at Joe Allen in the Marais, I glanced at the American menu and decided it was time for my first hamburger—or, more precisely, a bacon cheeseburger.  I wasn’t all that impressed by the bland ground beef, whose texture I found boring, but the marriage of bacon and cheese kept me eating until the burger was gone.  And, as with the tartiflette, I soon felt as though I had been hit with a sledgehammer.

I have the kind of constitution that has always allowed me to eat more in a single sitting than is advisable, but too much meat affects me differently.  I can’t say I’ve noticed many general physical changes since I started eating meat—I haven’t gained or lost weight, as far as I can tell, and I feel neither more vigorous nor as though I am being slowly poisoned.  But in the short term, meat does things to my body to which I am unaccustomed.  After my first steak dinner, I felt a sort of tingly sensation that I can only attribute to having more iron in my system than I’m used to.  Meat can make me so full that I cannot fathom eating dessert—an entirely unfamiliar sensation.  But nothing punishes me so brutally as the combination of meat and cheese.  The unbearable heaviness that lasts for hours, the sluggishness, the insomnia…I had expected the omnivorous life to keep me up at night for moral reasons, not corporeal ones.

I’m not ready to go kosher, but the unholy combination of meat and cheese has made me reflect a bit about the way I’m used to eating.  I’m used to cleaning my plate without adverse affect, but, health concerns aside, one shouldn’t be able clean one’s plate without adverse affect.  It’s easy to forget while living in the overnourished Western world, but food is precious, and it’s powerful.  If what it takes for me to learn that lesson is an encounter with animal protein’s unpleasant side effects, so be it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Reason I Won't Keep Eating Meat When I Go Home

The USDA won’t let beef producers voluntarily screen their cattle for mad cow disease. How I wish I had worn my t-shirt today…

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Berlin, the Land of White Meat

Before I left for Germany, a handful of people told me, “Berlin is a good place to go if you’re eating meat now.”  They were right. 

To be fair, Berlin is a good place to go for a lot of things. 

It’s a good place to go for laid-back bars and biergartens serving cheap, excellent beer.  My favorite was 25.  Its German name, fünf und zwanzig, is nearly impossible for native Anglophones to wrap their tongues around.  But after a couple of €3 Staropramens and a bit of time spent playing on one of the wooden swings hanging from the tall trees on the edge of the Spree River, the pronunciation problem won’t really matter anymore.

It’s a good place to go for thrift shops and markets with infinitely kitschy and weird merchandise.  Oderberger Strasse is packed with boutiques selling Soviet-era clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes with more entertainment value than practical value.  For items you might actually want to buy, head to the flea market on Boxhagener Platz, whose piles of new and used household items, accoutrements, and works of art contain the occasional treasure.

It’s also a good place to go for culinary treats that have nothing to do with meat.  Whole-wheat waffles topped with caramelized walnuts and cherries at a cozy coffee shop called Kauf Dich Glücklich stand out in my mind, as does fondant-coated marzipan cake (one of dozens of varieties of pastries) at the cafe at the Opera House on the Unter den Linden.

But it’s true that the main culinary attraction for a temporary omnivore spending a weekend in Berlin is the meat, and I wanted to try a couple of German classics before I left. 

First on the agenda was schnitzel, which I ordered at a restaurant called Schwarzwald.  Alongside potatoes sautéed with chewy diced bacon and a salad of translucent cucumber ribbons, I received two sizable cutlets of thin, breaded pork.  The meat was juicy and white, with a uniform texture and an anodyne flavor.  The other omnivore at the table, an American who’d spent the past semester in Berlin, swapped me some of her flatbread for a taste of my entrée and proclaimed it good schnitzel.

My second taste of meat in Berlin was weisswürst, the Bavarian fresh white sausage that is traditionally poached in hot water and then peeled before eating.   I was lucky enough to try the sausage in the context of a homemade Bavarian feast prepared by a real, live, very friendly German person named Sören.   The spread included a salty cheese spread called obatzda, whole-grain bread with pumpkin seeds, and pretzels.  The sausages were moist and without much strong flavor of their own, but they tasted heavenly with a dollop of sweet mustard.  Their skins, once removed, resembled castoff pantyhose, which was understandably disquieting.  But the sausage meat itself was mild, tender, and inoffensive.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experiences, inoffensive seems like a good word to describe German meat in general.  Whether pounded and breaded or ground and stuffed into casings, German meat has been thoroughly disguised.  Its color—white—is a clear indication that the people making it are interested not in preserving the visceral, bloody quality of meat, but in showing their culinary prowess by forming a finished product that resembles a piece of flesh as little as possible.

I tend to think of camouflaged meat as a product of fast food and of the industrialized food system—think chicken nuggets and ground meat patties of all kinds.  I also tend to think of camouflaged meat as an unqualified bad thing, a sign that diners are ignoring the true source of their food.  But Berlin was a good reminder that the practice of hiding meat’s provenance behind acquiescent textures and bland flavors is not a purely modern-day phenomenon—and not a purely detrimental phenomenon, either.  Germans have been disguising meat for generations.  And you know what?  It tastes pretty good.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Argentineans don't shy away from gruesomeness at mealtime.

Exhibit A: The name for the grill commonly used in South American barbecue, parilla, is also the name of a torture device to which victims were strapped and electrocuted during the Argentinean dirty war.

Exhibit B: Unico’s interior decoration scheme.

Unico is the Argentinean steakhouse on rue Paul Bert where, last night, I had my first taste of beef in thirteen years. The brainchild of two Argentinean transplants, a photographer and an architect, the restaurant is located in a former butcher shop, and the owners left much of the original trimming intact. A poster listing the day’s market prices for different cuts of meat is the least of it – think meat hooks hanging from the ceiling and a massive mechanical slicer in plain view. Depending on your propensity for nausea, “grisly” might not necessarily seem like hyperbole.

But Unico's penchant for gruesomeness is matched by sweetness and conviviality. Its trilingual servers are friendly and attentive in a way that's fairly unheard of in France, and they ply you kindly (or not so kindly, depending on what time you have to get up the next morning) with complimentary shots of liqueur at the end of the meal. Unico’s ambiance, despite the spiked metal objects, is warm and genial. Dim lighting, clients of mixed ages, a feel-good 1980s soundtrack, and slightly above-average noise levels create an addictive atmosphere; my companions and I stayed for over three hours without realizing that the time had passed.

But the gruesome-pleasant dichotomy isn't the only contrariety that Unico bridges with aplomb. My evening at Unico was a night of counterintuitive combinations, of contradictions resolved.

Can a blood sausage be both savory and sweet? An appetizer whimsically named mariage de saucisses argentines et boudin noir proved that the flavor of blood is complex, at once deep and mellow and luscious. (It's a better choice of starter than the ceviche, whose melting texture was offset by a bitter taste that made the whole operation feel like sashimi doused in limeade.)

Can a taste be both novel and familiar? My bife de lomo, tall and resting upon two spears of asparagus, was different from any of the other meat I’ve tried (and not just because Unico’s version of à point is so pink that I’d hate to see their saignant). The steak’s flavor was soothingly ferric, its texture resilient. The robust mouthfuls of protein were foreign, but every bite strongly reminded me of my early childhood, of evenings spent swimming in the chlorinated pool at my aunt and uncle’s house and then eating grilled steak with my cousins. Last night I unconsciously began grasping my fork babyishly in my fist, plunging my meat enthusiastically in the accompanying chimichurri sauce and aioli, so pleased was I by the unexpected familiarity of the meat.

Can a meal embody both animalism and humanity?

I had always thought of steakhouses as places for men who wanted to get in touch with their inner caveman, to devour flesh with the unabashed relish of a predatory mammal. Immoderate consumption of meat, in any context, feels like a gesture of defiance of modern civilization, its neatness, its rules, its exigencies of balance and control.

But last night I saw that the act of sharing meat, too, is a celebration of humankind and of the connection that people have with one another. Maybe I had half a glass too much of the Luigi Bosca I shared with my companions, but I understood for the first time the dignified symbolism of meat: Taking the life of an animal is an affirmation that we are alive. It is an affirmation that we humans are special, complicated, not like other animals.

Not every aspect of my meal at Unico was contradictory – the warm, oozing dulce de leche cake with a liquid center that we shared for dessert was an unadulterated pleasure. But the pleasure of the rest of the evening was complex, and I left feeling, somehow, both light and heavy.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Salmon Woe

I so enjoyed my sushi on Friday that I ordered even more last night, this time from Matsuri.  The phase of squeamishness about fish had passed; qualms about eating animals didn't even enter my mind.  I just enjoyed the surprisingly tender texture and mild taste of raw salmon and the smug knowledge that it was providing me with a good deal of protein and omega-3s.  I felt great.

And then all my good energy was quashed this morning when I got to work and looked at  Taras Grescoe, the author of the cheerfully titled Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, had written an op-ed listing all the reasons for which it is evil to eat salmon.  There are a quite a few:  the approaching extinction of wild Pacific salmon after decades of overfishing; salmon's high price; overcrowding, disease, and parasites on salmon feedlots; unregulated nerve-deteriorating pesticides in supermarket know, complete and utter unsustainability.

Eating animals seems more and more to be a losing game.  Either the moral weight of killing an animal seems too heavy to justify the benefits of animal protein, or, in the cases in which it seems difficult to muster much moral concern for the welfare of an animal—the case of salmon, for instance—the environmental consequences are inexcusable.

Vegetarian food is by no means wholly without bad consequences, but it seems (except in a strictly literal sense) less thorny than meat.  Sure, there are pesticides and migrant workers and GMOs and greenhouse gas emissions to worry about when it comes to plants.  But somehow these problems seem dwarfed by the aggregate evils of eating animals, and somehow they seem more easily avoided by conscientious shopping, too.

Grescoe, perhaps to avoid being seen solely as a bearer of bad news, suggests putting slightly more sustainable sardines on one's bagels instead of salmon.  It's a kind offer, but I think the next time I'm at Absolute Bagels on Broadway, I'll stick with cream cheese.  Maybe even Tofutti.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

About the T-Shirt I'm Wearing in My Profile Picture

It says “FUSDA.”  It’s meant to be a statement of admonishment for the United States Department of Agriculture.

I don’t claim to be a farm policy expert, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the U.S. government has committed quite a few agriculture-related transgressions in its day, from failing ever to tell its obese citizenry to eat less to diluting labeling standards to unloading unhealthy and even dangerous foods on public school cafeterias.  Suffice it to say that an organization can’t really promote agricultural interests and protect the health of Americans at the same time, and suffice it to say that the USDA errs almost without exception on the side of bowing to agribusiness lobbyists.

Is my t-shirt a glib, crude way of condensing these issues?  Admittedly.  Is it funny?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I thought it would appeal to the ever-growing crowd of people who read Michael Pollan  and seek out sustainable food.  In fact, I thought that the “FUSDA” idea was an uncommon stroke of brilliance on my part, and I looked forward to getting appreciative nods and occasional scowls when I wore it in public.  I thought it was a bold, instantly recognizable statement that would provoke discussion wherever I went.  I was a little nervous the first time I put it on, actually, unsure of how strongly people would react to my declaration of defiance.

Unfortunately, no one has ever understood the t-shirt.  Responses have ranged from a polite “What does it mean?” to a puzzled “What is foozdah?”  Even my hippie-est friends haven’t gotten the message.  When people on the street see it, they look briefly bored and confused before glancing at the next person.  So much for my bold statement on agriculture policy. 

If you, too, would like to wear “FUSDA” across your chest, I recommend doing what I did and using your own design on  (You get extra points for irony if you have it printed on a certified organic t-shirt.)   You probably shouldn’t try to sell them, though; I have a feeling that the government might have a legitimate claim in copyright court if anyone tried making a profit off of them.  If the government could figure out what “FUSDA” is supposed to mean, that is.

Friday, June 6, 2008


Even fast-paced offices encounter the occasional slow period, and employees unexpectedly faced with little to do are prone to daydreaming about lunch.

Today, during a stretch of hours during which we did nothing but make coffee and friend each other on Facebook, my colleagues and I decided to change up our midday meal by ordering in from Sushishop.  Samar, who sits at the desk catty-cornered to mine, claims that theirs is the best sushi in the city.  “I ordered from there once, and I was still thinking about it three days later,” she said.

Sushishop, of which there are twelve branches in and around Paris (and which is in the process of expanding to Bordeaux, Marseille, Montpelier, Reims and Luxembourg), has a gorgeous website whose near-pornographic close-ups of lustrous slices of salmon daubed with cream cheese were enough to occupy bored underlings for a good half an hour.

Unfortunately, the site’s sleekness doesn’t extend to its online ordering feature, which flat-out refuses to work.  Picking up the phone is the better option (calls cost 15 centimes per minute, but if you’re calling from your office line, it’s on the company tab).  Service is decent:  Less than forty minutes after the phone was returned to its cradle this afternoon, a helmeted delivery man buzzed up to our office on rue Scribe and good-naturedly accepted the many euro coins of our combined contributions.

Though Sushishop’s menu includes such novelties as Tuscan spring rolls (crab, pine nuts, mesclun, and truffle mayonnaise) and sushi topped with porgy tartare, diced mango, and vanilla-scented oil, we opted for the lunch formule—eighteen pieces of maki, in various combinations, served with a salad and soup, for 12.50€.  It sounded like a deal, but the salad that arrived was a disheartening mix of white cabbage and flavorless vinegar, and no trace of miso’s complex flavor had survived in the insipid soup.

The sushi, however, had what it took to brighten our afternoon.  The salmon at the core of a roll of sticky maki dissolved slowly and gratifyingly on the tongue.  A crab-avocado California roll, coated with cheerfully orange masago roe, boasted a sturdy texture and saline tang. And, though they weren’t technically sushi, avocado-cream cheese spring rolls wrapped in translucent green rice paper had the same dense, rich mouth feel as their seaweed-wrapped cousins.

My coworkers and I were rescued from our ennui after lunch by a sudden influx of emails to be answered and tasks to be completed.  But, even if we don’t hit another slow patch on Monday, we might still be thinking about Sushishop three days from now.

Are Locavores Sadists?

Chicken farmer and San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist L.E. Leone has written a truly excellent piece for Slate about the reality of killing chickens titled “There Will Be Chicken Blood.”  (Why can’t I have a crew of witty copy editors writing my post titles?  I’d be much better off.  Let me know if you’re interested in the job.)

Leone examines a pseudo-trend that has tagged along with locavores’ worship of Michael Pollan:  “hip, young, smart, liberal-arts-college graduates” raising and butchering their own chickens.  She also describes, with elegance and humor, her own experience caring for and then beheading her chickens:

When I do what I do with a hatchet and a chicken, I feel like crap, and I feel like God. I feel alive and in love and closer than ever to death. So I guess that is, for me, mixed feelings, yes. And the mix itself is welcome and intensely gratifying. In fact, it's almost too much. Too swirly, too soupy. I can tell you that the part of this swirl which seems "good," as opposed to "evil," has absolutely nothing to do with foiling the chicken industry or saving the environment or taking personal responsibility for my role in the food chain. It has to do with getting a little bit bloody and gross, like the complicated, hungry animal that I am.

And this is where, despite the beautiful writing, Leone loses me.  I simply cannot imagine feeling gratification from killing an animal.

After I wrote about foie gras, I emailed back and forth a bit with a journalist I know who’d spent time on a foie gras farm in the south of France.  He told me that the farmers there treated their geese with great care and almost loved them—but that they force-fed, slaughtered and ate the birds without reservations.  I had the same reaction then as I do now to Leone:  Isn’t that just a little sadistic?

Hypothetically, I have great admiration for farmers who kill their own animals for meat.  It goes without saying that chickens like Leone’s, who are serenaded by their owner every evening, are far better off than the birds in battery cages from which Americans obtain most of our chicken meat and eggs.   And it goes without saying that it takes great fortitude to face the unpleasant underbelly of meat—the fact that it necessitates the death of an animal—in a day and age when a person can eat hundreds of hamburgers without ever having seen a cow in real life.   In theory, I think more omnivores should be killing chickens and cows and pigs.

But feeling pleasure, power, from slaughtering an animal?  I imagine that the feeling that Leone describes so deftly, which seems to be on a par with Pollan’s feelings after killing a boar in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a psychological necessity:  the ego’s way of processing the magnitude of causing the death of another being. 

But it’s not a feeling I want to feel, which is why I think I’ll be perfectly happy returning to vegetarianism once this trial period of omnivorousness is over. If I have an inner sadist, I’d rather not know about her. 

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Shake-Up at Cojean

The much-beloved Cojean introduced a new summer smoothie menu today with a fresh spate of American-style promotional tactics.  Outside the Madeleine branch, a Cirque du Soleil reject performed acrobatic stunts with what appeared to be a blue surfboard.  Inside, the staff all wore crisp t-shirts that blazoned “Let’s get physical,” a phrase whose relation to smoothies I don’t completely understand. 

I ordered a “Body Talk” (açai, banana, orange juice) after deciding that it would be it would be slightly less embarrassing to do so than to say to the cashier, “Je vais prendre un ‘O Cherry Cherry.’”  As I sipped, my lunch companions and I realized that the restaurant’s usual inoffensive soundtrack had been replaced by recordings of chirping birds. 

For the sake of its customers’ ability to keep their cool, here’s hoping that Cojean keeps the smoothies but disposes of the PR antics—and soon.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Prosciutto Sandwich

The Rue de Joinville in the 19th arrondissement is officially open to traffic on Sunday mornings, but few motorists bother to turn onto the street:  these are the hours when pedestrians take over.  Singletons and families stroll down the middle of the lane, trailing trolley carts behind them, on their way to and from the open-air market at the Place de Joinville.

The marché is no place for anyone who’s in a hurry, or who likes their shopping uncluttered and compartmentalized.  Lines move at a snail’s pace here; shoppers squeeze between stalls and the trees that inconveniently interrupt the pavement. You try not to disturb the grapefruit stacked in pyramids on the edges of tables; you ignore the nearest vegetable vendor who’s trying to catch your eye to sell off his last bunches of mâche.  There is heckling at the market, in Arabic as often as in French; there are urchins who nimbly rush to you, hands outstretched, in the moment after you’ve paid for your fruit but before you’ve put your wallet away.  When it’s warm, like it is today, the heat only intensifies the claustrophobia and  the smell of fish.

I go to the marché around noon today on a mission from a friend who has told me that I need to make myself a prosciutto sandwich with a slathering of butter if I want to experience meat in all its glory.  I put The Decemberists on shuffle on my iPod—their desperate, messy exoticism seems appropriate for the market—and start working my way through a crowd of rotund older women in headscarves, Chinese men in polo shirts, Hasidic Jews in fedoras with their daughters in full-length skirts.   I sidle past arrangements of bumpy heirloom tomatoes, gaping fish as big as your thigh, baskets of ground yellow spices, pickles, logs of cheese.  I slink around incongruous stalls selling trinkets, batteries, watches; I pass the clothing booths with plastic-wrapped pairs of jeans and heaps of colorful, shoddily-made brassieres.  

Finally I find the charcuterie stall and see, behind some suspiciously gray boudins blancs nestled in a plastic container, a dried ham that’s already been cut into. 

“What you have there, is that prosciutto?” I ask the pretty girl behind the counter, trying to pronounce the Italian word with a French accent.

“We have Savoie and Parme,” she says, and I ask for the Parme, thinking that it’s close enough—I don’t find out until I get home to Wikipedia that jambon de Parme is the French term for prosciutto.  I ask for five thin slices, and the girl carefully operates the electric meat slicer, letting delicate pink shavings fall from the slab of meat onto a square of red and white paper, which she then folds into a small rectangle.

I stop at the bread stand on the way back home and get the baker’s last remaining half of a pain pavé—that long, flat loaf with a thick crust and chewy interior—then I return to my apartment.  I feel satisfied to have made my way successfully through the market.

I want my prosciutto sandwich to be perfect, and I have everything planned out.  Once home, I slice the bread in half lengthwise and smear it generously with Président butter.  I lovingly arrange the ham on top of the butter, squeeze the sandwich shut, and wrap it in the brown paper in which the bread came.  With my sandwich, a bottle of Puits St. Georges mineral water, a bed sheet and a novel, I walk to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, spread the sheet on a grassy knoll, and sit back.

My surroundings are ideal—calm, quiet, unhurried—but the sandwich is not what I expected.  The prosciutto has a flavor that’s salty, sweet, musky; each bite hits me with a new kind of intensity.  The ham’s texture belies its delicate appearance.  It does not respond to my teeth in the way I would like it to.  I have to pull and gnaw and sometimes get my fingers involved to obtain reasonably sized mouthfuls.  The meat’s fat is hard and disturbingly inflexible, not soft and innocuous like fat from the plant kingdom. 

The sandwich is contentious, overwhelming, messily exotic. 

But I am satisfied once I have made my way through it.