Semi-Vacation  |   We're publishing archive favorites and fresh weekday headlines through Labor Day

Ads via The Deck

Personal Essays

Amuse Bouche

To butter or not to butter: That is the question, and gluttons with high cholesterol should know the correct answer. But when friends organize a gastronomic tour of Paris, who am I to say no?

That man would “deserve well of his country” who should write a “Paris Guide” for the palate. I would do it myself if I could elude the immortality it would occasion me.
—Nathaniel Parker Willis

A love for Paris became one of the strongest emotions I possessed.
—Adam Gopnik.

It was not a big decision. It wouldn’t fix Darfur or tip back all the neo-cons’ dominoes that have spilled lately into Iran’s hands. I wasn’t afraid, but I was worried. Would we leave the restaurant too drunk to walk, or too engorged to make it out on fewer than three wheels? Neither Paris nor the restaurant would turn off the lights if we chose poorly. It wasn’t something to call Paul Wolfowitz about. But it was a dilemma, this fork I faced at the end of one of the 10 best meals in my life, and the points affixed to the handle weren’t dull: should we order a round of Calvados, the apple brandy from northern France I’ve come to love as much as I like tequila, or would we, stuffed and flush, dare dessert?

Our wills were upright and sound. We were less than vertical by the end of our entrées, but we could stand a few more drinks. The Calvados, if that was our decision, would follow a long day running errands around Paris: espressos throughout the morning in various cafés; a couple of beers drank that afternoon upstairs at Café Flore and a few glasses afterwards of white Languedocs; then two fingers apiece of vodka and tequila at dusk (to settle the stomach) before we went out for caparinhas at a bar not too far from Gare du Nord. And after that, onto the evening’s restaurant, Chateaubriand, the source of my stupendous dining where, when we walked in, the bartender, passively handsome with a beard and heavy cheeks, said we “looked nice” and poured us glasses of some nameless white Burgundy—nameless because the wine was not on the menu and I forgot to glance at the label. (We tried to order it later and were told, non, impossible, ca n’existe pas, as though the wine had been trussed and flown to Uzbekistan after confessing secrets it shouldn’t have known. Maybe I should have called Wolfowitz?) There were also those two bottles of Sancerre (or a white Côtes du Rhone; I don’t know; notes too messy to read) during a meal of several courses with their own juices and sauces to coat the stomach, plates that were so mesmerizing a Calvados was surely deserved. If only for honor’s sake. Or digestion’s. Fuck whatever pudding cup the kitchen could produce—to not have at least one brandy would be like rolling over to skim Page Six after sex.

But, as I said, there was the metaphorical fork to consider, of which the brandy was one of two tines (more of a tuning fork, then, I guess). It wasn’t a question of taste so much as kind: How would we prefer to be, drunk or stuffed? Fumes for dreams or mud for the gout? I’d seen the dessert go by, a waiter had served it to a nearby table, sort of an elaborate tar-black schmear on a plate with a red crown and fuming test tube. It gave me chills. The menu listed it as chocolat, poivrons, using the sort of low-balling understatement that’s so natural in French.

Parisians have seen (and eaten) everything. Even the gravest situations I stumbled through around the city—me about to miss my flight; me wondering how the lingerie ads on the street don’t cause traffic accidents—earned a shrug at best. But by that point, even I was a little immune to a big show. It didn’t matter how this “chocolate, pepper” fulfilled its mysterious dance of the two nouns, it still would have to compete for room in my stomach with the dinner I had just inhaled. Never mind the several cheeses (triple-creams, Swiss, a runny sheep’s milk, two others; notes sloppy from jetlag), terrines (vegetable, ham), spreads (salted cod, tuna), and eggs en glacée with ham still not digested from breakfast. Also, my lunch at Café Flore of Welsh rarebit (toast, béchamel, plenty of cheese), and then the afternoon treats I hadn’t been able to resist in shop windows, like a giant slice of mille feuilles (a flaky cream pastry) from the Bon Marché food court, or a puit d’amour (“well of love,” a tiny, artery-filling bucket of cream and caramel) from the Paris institution Stroher, rumored to be the capital’s oldest and best patisserie, where outside at four that afternoon, when my well of love was empty, I’d felt like crying. Faced with the sublime, I either weep or pump my fist like a trucker pulling on his horn. Except in this case my Blackberry rang before I could embarrass myself. I sobered up and answered. Duty called. It was my wife calling from Milan where she was on a business trip and had just suffered through yet another tasteless bowl of risotto, one in an inexplicably awful sequence of meals, and I had to put on a brave face and dip into my own well of love, if not solidarity.

But this is all smoke and mirrors. The simple answer: we ordered both, bien sûr. The Calvados was very good (pas mal, a French girl might understate—”not bad”) and the dessert, a revelation, was the chocolat, poivrons the menu promised—a little chocolate and some pieces of red pepper on a plate. But it was also a fudge-y ooze of black paste dusted with sea salt, alongside two pieces of magically-savory roasted red pepper and a shot glass of red-pepper foam that seemed insipidly conceptual until my second taste, when I realized how the foam built a bridge between, yes, chocolate and pepper, but also between the idea of what chocolate/pepper should taste like and what I was being presented with on the plate. “The singular French gift is to allow each ingredient to taste like its essence while marrying it to another,” wrote the great stomach and mind Jim Harrison—and he was right. Chocolate and pepper had been forced into an odd coupling, yet it was the sort of forced marriage that makes for love.

(Forget Wolfowitz; Foam is the George Mitchell of today’s food conflicts.)

In stuttering French, mussed and inebriated—maybe I teared up, I don’t remember—I requested a menu as a keepsake. A few minutes later the waiter presented me with a copy signed by every cook in the kitchen. Above the chef’s name was scribbled, “From Paris with love.” We hustled out before I broke down, found a bar nearby (the Bottle Shop, maybe; my notes were hieroglyphics by this point) and drank our way through three or four caparinhas before going home to a few glasses of tequila, for digestion’s sake, but probably not honor’s.

 

* * *


Last spring, in a bunker underneath 14th Street in Manhattan, a lab report told me my arteries were clogged. I had just turned 29. I learned I possessed the cholesterol levels of three obese men in their seventies.

I’ve never been one to monitor my intake, except for six months when I was 19 and caught a minor case of anorexia trying to improve as a competitive rock climber. (It didn’t work; too many Clif bars make you pass out into empty nacho baskets.) Otherwise I’ve eaten everything, with extra cheese, for a long time—eating as joy, as recreation, as an exercise in personal growth. I’d told myself, when I was 21, that I’d know I’d made it in New York when I could afford to eat out at every mealtime, and up until last March, I was close. I regularly ate two dinners. I was the enlightened gourmand, in my view, who ordered another entrée at dessert time because aesthetically, having seen how good someone else’s dinner looked, it was the right thing to do. Among virtues, I prized humor, kindness, compassion, and the ability to finish a quadruple Shack Burger at 10:45 in the morning before the line got too long.

Why can’t you buy travel guides in airport bookstores? Why don’t French girls smile on the street?But in the real world, my arteries were hardening. My doctor said I had to cut down all-together, eliminate fried foods from my diet, eat leaner meat or no meat at all, stop cooking with butter, and stop eating so much cheese. Importantly, I had to learn how to stop eating when I was full. I phoned my father, a man who used to call our town’s ice-cream store from the Metro-North commuter train so they’d have his nightly pint ready. He reminded me he’d taken Lipitor for seven years. I reminded him of the “Pork Three Ways” at Blue Hill, and also the chicken-fried steak at Cowgirl. He reminded me that our family had a history of heart disease—but also, he wanted to know, had I forgotten about the sauce anglaise they serve at Red Sky in Southwest Harbor, Me., alongside the chocolate-toffee pudding? He had a point. I started to eat Grape Nuts for breakfast. I no longer cook with heavy cream. There are hidden redwood valleys, I’ve found, of challenge and delicious rewards in preparing fish for six. I bought a “low-cholesterol” block of cheese at Balducci’s—and I liked it. I don’t dream about cheeseburgers anymore, which means I have a lot more time for recurring nightmares about the publishing industry.

Excess, though, is not so easily abandoned. In one of Alan Furst’s books—where the characters, dodging daggers under their WWII-era cloaks, often end up in Paris—there’s a moment where a man is bringing a cheese to a party, a Vacherin (my favorite cheese; weeping is the least of what I’ll do to obtain one), and to make sure he’s carrying a good one, he tests the softness of its dimple, and I remember thinking when I read that, about two years ago, yes, exactly, I can see that, boy do I wish I was there. It was a perfect reading moment, where the dream of the novel and the atmosphere of my real life mingled; I was in a single place somewhere between them and I was happy, until I remembered I was sitting in a sunny Brooklyn living room, not creeping down a murky Paris street.

I don’t know if there’s a synonym for gluttony when the object of desire is Paris instead of food, but I hope my doctor doesn’t know, either.

 

* * *


The French word for cholesterol is “non, merci.” I’ve been taught since fifth grade, during after-school French lessons, to believe good people go to heaven and great people fly there on the Concorde. But Paris was a concept, a reward. It existed in classroom posters of the Eiffel Tower and instructional videotapes. And god, those videos. There were two main characters, Mireille and Robert, and though we all understood Robert was a ninny, Mireille skipping around Paris was France herself: sophisticated, charming, and packing great tits. In one installment there was an infamous T&A scene, so renowned that boys from other classes would sneak in to watch, featuring Mireille in the Tuilleries garden, wearing a white blouse, having an accident with a kir royale.

I’ve since ordered a kir royale at the same café (it’s in the eastern edge of the park, in the trees) and have been to Paris half a dozen times, though the last time was almost a year ago (too long). Then, two weeks ago, my wife’s company needed her in Milan for a week. I had frequent-flyer miles that needed spending and two of our friends, Zöe and Fred, native Parisians, said I could stay with them for a long weekend. They’d even organize a gastronomic tour of the finer places to dine. I flew from JFK to Houston to Charles de Gaulle for a total of 18 hours, because Continental doesn’t fly direct to Paris from New York City.

Questions that occurred while I was flying, when I arrived in Paris, and when I reached Fred and Zöe’s apartment: Why can’t you buy travel guides in airport bookstores? Why don’t French girls smile on the street? And would only a Parisian three-year-old, when I showed up and presented him with a small car made out of different colored crayons, whisper, “It is so beautiful, this car”?

After our dinner at Chateaubriand, at the bar that may or may not have been called the Bottle Shop, I met my hostess’s sister, a production designer for movies. Would she ever leave Paris? No, she said, dumbfounded. Never! It was too much in her heart, she insisted, tapping on her chest; she would die if she did. When the bar closed at two, we talked about going to a club but decided to call it a night. The sister was disappointed. She mocked our absent verve, tossed her hair and poofed out her lips, swung her motorcycle helmet over one shoulder and stalked defiantly away into the night. Drunkenly, I imagined a round of Vacherin in her purse.

“God,” Zöe said. “My sister and her Parisian bullshit.”

Soul-sick and missing my wife, I fell asleep around four a.m. after watching two episodes of The Real Housewives of Orange County, a reality show where the primary thesis is that everything and everyone is for sale, and the only authentic part of life is despair.

 

* * *


Fred and Zöe’s morning newspaper, Libération, held two pieces of interest: a nude photo shoot of Kate Moss, who had weirdly pale nipples, and a story about Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary, saying he requests Muslim women who wear veils to remove them when they visit his office. “It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference,” wrote Straw, and without much caffeine I thought, in Paris British women freely undress, but back in London, British men must find sound civic motivations for asking them to do so.

At some point did I consciously decide to become a glutton, or was it a natural result of my Saveur subscription?“Like so many other Americans and English who have made up a Paris of their own, this was my Paris but it hardly was a Frenchman’s,” wrote the poet May Sarton, and so too for the world. The city of light is the world’s number-one most-visited tourist destination. Year-round the streets are full of people carrying maps, touring a dream of Notre Dame and the Louvre, Amelie and The DaVinci Code, that’s globally ever-present and constantly reinforced. As a concept to purchase and consume, it’s both authentic and marvelously confectionary, artificial. Everyone blends in, but no one belongs. French people would ask me for directions in the street; an American said to me, “You’re an American, right? Have you seen an ATM?” In some neighborhoods, immigrants set Peugeots on fire just to be noticed—and those are the streets nobody’s heard of.

Léonard, Fred and Zöe’s older son, the one who liked my present, refused to speak English with me. He’s three years old, and because he lived in London for a year he understands and can speak English, even with a Cockney accent, but he refuses to; he spent the summer in Provence with his French cousins and immediately switched to French full-time to blend in. There were moments, though, when he’d slip. When he was alone, playing with his toy cars in the living room, I’d hear him singing to himself in English, repeating phrases he’d heard from Fred’s and my conversations (“What kind of cheese is this?”). I wondered, reading a crappy novel in the dining room, was the mingling of his languages deliberate or accidental? At what age do children in multi-lingual homes pick one word to name an object when they know two? Often in New York, unconsciously, I’ll translate an English phrase into French in my head—though in Paris I now was forced to perform the opposite, though slowly, struggling at the counter of a tabac while I cringed, converting from French to English what the counter woman had said (usually: “You still owe me four euros”) as a line backed up out the door.

Another thought: At some point did I consciously decide to become a glutton, or was it a natural result of my Saveur subscription? How much of our character is drawn by our own hand?

For three days I walked mindlessly around the city. I ate seven times before dinner. I tried to be inconspicuous by using Google Maps on my Blackberry instead of a folding street map. “He who is passable escapes attention. To be passable is like a decent suit. It gets you anywhere”—A.J. Liebling. I read a British gossip magazine in the Places Des Voges, napped on a random bench, bought desserts everywhere. I ate a dinner with two courses of different cheeks: pig and cow, plus the organs of newborn animals. There was quiche with wine and ham with beer. Gastronomical recollections of Paris often include a transcendental moment with a piece of foie gras, or a perfect, plain fish. I remember on my first visit, when I was 14 and traveling with my family, how boring I found the food (it wasn’t nachos) yet how happy the intensely black morning coffee made my mother at the hotel, and then, for my father’s birthday, at a chateau in the Loire Valley, how bizarre and intimidating the dessert was, this tower of frozen sugar that caged a small, seemingly frightened ball of ice cream.

 

* * *


If the picture is unfamiliar, we compare it to what we know; a cigars-and-porn shop installed in the shell of a once-favorite restaurant needs to go. There was a lot of Paris to see that I hadn’t seen before, and I couldn’t stop comparing it to New York. The neighborhood around Canal St. Martin was a less bourgeois NoLiTa; the African stretch of Boulevard de Strasbourg had the same bustle of Fulton Street in Brooklyn; one restaurant where we had a superb, traditional, and not-cheap dinner, Villaret, was not unlike a teensy version of Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern. The New York film director Wes Anderson, one of the few men in the room wearing a tie, sat down behind us with a small party and spent the meal whispering in English to a pretty girl with black hair.

The city wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a concept, and it wasn’t any more alight than New York or Chicago.But how many inhabitants of another city, even New York, would hit the streets for a long evening of conceptual art? Bertrand Delanoe, Paris’s mayor, began several years ago a now-annual event called Nuit Blanche. For a night, municipal and city buildings around Paris are turned over to installation artists. And Parisians love it, if only to have something new to disparage. Judging by the amount of people on the street, art remains vital to Parisians, and the cliché that what accounts for art in Paris is good enough for the planet hasn’t yet worn through. Not for nothing does every good American restroom feature an Impressionist poster of café tables.

The turnout at midnight in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter now turned very fashionable, was grand, meaning transportation was impossible. People fumed, wondering where the spectacle was. The night was frigid. Teenagers in T-shirts wrapped their faces in scarves. Was the art very good? Pas mal. In a church, an artist had carved a diorama of old Havana from candles, hundreds of them, and then lit each wick. On a top corner of a six-story building, two men slowly rotated in place, one man standing on the other’s head. We learned later that the bottom man was a statue carved in likeness of the artist, the man on top. But the streets were clogged with thousands: 70-year-old couples carrying maps cut out from newspapers, teenagers clutching wine bottles, confounded cyclists boxed into the crowds. Everyone, even Joe Tourist, was disappointed and harried and jovial—i.e., Parisian, at least conceptually. Around half past midnight we found a vacant table at a café, contemplated the sole, but ordered Calvados and coffee instead. We tried phoning friends to meet somewhere, but everyone was stuck in traffic or back at their apartments, watching television. Such is the impact of installation art—you spend an enormous amount of effort trying to fathom it, then you go to bed.

Around three in the morning I played tennis with an attractive blond French woman. We stopped when she decided I wasn’t good enough to play with her anymore. Instead, she said, I was to erect tiny barriers around the piles of dog shit that had suddenly appeared everywhere, so she wouldn’t step in them.

This was my second night in a row of nightmares. In the previous one, I’d been forced to ski for hours down the implanted breasts of different Orange County wives. I woke up hungry, because we’d only had a two-course Thai dinner. I took a glass of wine out to the terrace overlooking the train station. The city wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a concept, and it wasn’t any more alight than New York or Chicago—it was merely orange, the effect of many streetlamps and fluorescent signs banking off the ozone.

 

* * *


My last full day began with a small breakfast of lasagna and red wine at an Italian restaurant. Afterwards came shopping.

I’d asked to cook for my hosts as a meager thank-you for their hospitality, and they said they’d show me a real Parisian Sunday market. We walked slowly down a small street, Rue des Martyrs, going from shop to shop while I made up my mind about what to cook. First, the dessert and also bread from the patisserie and boulangerie, Arnaud Delmontel, which had won the “Best Croissant in Paris” award three years running (the croissant I sampled was butter and air, it was Platonic, it was the croissant they should serve to U.S. Senators labeled, “Freedom to Go Fuck Yourself Croissant”). Then to the butcher. By that point I’d decided to make a braised lamb ragú with tagliatelle, and I picked out a lamb shoulder (or, I pointed to it, the butcher said something very quickly, and I turned to Fred), and then we moved on to the produce stall for some shallots, rosemary, carrots, tomatoes, and garlic for the sauce, and a handful of figs I planned to serve on small pieces of toast with some warmed Roquefort from the cheese store across the street, salt, and a few drops of thick Balsamic vinegar. We lugged the groceries home, then took Léonard to the zoo. Unfortunately, there was a very long line and the tickets were expensive. “The animals are sleeping,” we told Léonard and ran him through a nearby park’s labyrinth instead. In the afternoon I browned the lamb, sweated the shallots, carrots, and garlic in olive oil and then beer, then threw in the tomatoes with a little cream, cooked them down, then added the lamb and popped on the top.

All of this took place in Zöe’s new cocotte, a dutch oven, to which I developed a malapropism I couldn’t shake. For some reason my brain would only call it, by accident and incorrectly, a culottes—i.e., a pair of panties. Sex and slow-cooked meat are natural companions, but the idea that I was preparing a lamb sauce in my friend’s wife’s underwear is revolting aesthetically and grammatically. It’s also false.

My final night in Paris and I was in a good funk. There’d be plenty of trips to Paris in the future, I thought, and now that I had friends to visit and cook for, the city was tangible; it no longer pointed to Les Invalides posters in Madame Lauren’s sixth-grade classroom. A friend of Fred and Zöe’s came over, as well as Fred’s cousin. We listened to Radio Nova and ate the fig and cheese toasts with white wine. The conversation settled on taxidermy. Fred’s friend was interested in acquiring a stuffed giraffe for the lobby of his advertising agency, housed in a warehouse. “Do you know,” I asked in French, “that I have been to the store who is called Deyrolles the day that came before yesterday? The American bookmaker David Sedaris writes about it. You know Deyrolles, the store which has big stuffed tigers on Rue de Bac? Yes,” I continued loudly, “I was possessing lots of fear when I saw the first tiger, also.

I call it fluency by drunkenness, but no one noticed, and when I passed on a second helping of tagliatelle from the panties, no one noticed that, either. If a glutton takes to eating Grape Nuts in the forest, does anyone hear the erosion of his gums? At the airport in the morning, though Continental couldn’t fly to JFK, I was able to hop on a direct flight to Newark, bypassing Houston and eliminating 10 hours of flight time. I missed the sounds of my Brooklyn neighborhood, particularly the fire trucks (either you like American sirens, which sound like they’re from a video game, or you like European sirens, which recall WWII films) but also the noise of construction sites, and the mosque near my apartment calling people to prayer, and the street church on the corner with a drummer, bass player, and five-person choir on Sunday mornings. That night, when I was home, three guys walking down the street under my window pulled off perfect harmonies on an R&B song. For lunch the next day I had a really good beet salad.