A Vegetarian in Paris

Sandra Canosa

I was certain we would be kicked out. As the waiter swarmed like a fly around the red-checkered tables, taking orders here, clearing plates there, uncorking a bottle of wine seemingly every three seconds, I kept re-reading what I could make out of the menu – Poulet. Jambon. Poisson. More poulet. More jambon. Escargots – naturally.

I don’t know what I’d expected – all roads and recommendations had led us to Chez Gladines, a Basque-style restaurant in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. We’d gotten there early and still had to wait an hour outside for a table. After days of sightseeing fueled by crepe stands and baguette sandwiches on the go, a sit-down meal out of the tourist’s path was a welcome change.

I carried a post-it note in my wallet, written on it the most important French phrase I hadn’t thought to learn before we came here: Je suis végétarienne. Que conseillez-vous?

Now, as my partner debated between the poulet basquaise and the chipirons – baby squids in their own ink— I thumbed the yellow sticky nervously. Do I ask? Basque cuisine is not particularly known for being vegetarian-friendly. Rather, it’s the stick-to-your-ribs stuff of the countryside: meat, fish, hearty stews. And damn proud of it.

Tanned skin, dark features, and a nose to rival the Pyrenees itself – I had to assume our waiter was a Basque transplant. As he circled in ever-closer to us, I was faced with a choice: renounce my six years of vegetarianism, or risk offending an entire nation of people.

The thing was, I had come to France for the food – in the months leading up to our trip, while booking train rides and hostel rooms, visions of croissants and éclairs danced in my head. I had conveniently forgotten about the importance of real meals – warm, slow food that actually fills you up and gives you the energy you need when you’re trying to cover an entire city by foot in a matter of days. And a vegetarian who’s also lactose-intolerant can only handle so much fromage.

 

 

We traveled from Amsterdam to Liége to Paris to Marseille to Barcelona. And all along the way I had to refuse the traditional cuisine – the metworst, the boulet à la liégeoise, the foie gras, the bouillabaisse, the jamón ibérico.

Not that I can complain about my options – visiting in early summer, the open-air markets were bursting with fresh fruits, local artisan cheeses, street foods to die for – rhubarb-stuffed gaufres, appeltaarts, pizzas made from scratch inside a food truck – all the things high American foodie types would go crazy for, but par for the course here.

Here the food changed with the land – a far cry from the “regional” American cuisine of the all-mighty cheeseburger. This shone through not just in fruits and vegetables, but in the wines, the cheeses, and most prevalently, the meats.

In Barcelona, we hadn’t taken two steps toward La Boqueria, the famed market, before being prompted to buy a skewer of meaty samples. My partner readily obliged as I tried to refocus on finding the nearest pastries.

Months later, I had a chance to talk with a third-generation Iberian ham producer, who asked if I’d ever been to Spain. I blithely said I had, until I realized the inevitable follow-up: “So you have of course tried the jamón!” I sheepishly admitted that no, I hadn’t – yet he was so proud of his work, so sure that I’d love it, he sent me samples of their finest jamón ibérico de bellota – meat that takes years to cure and goes for $95 per pound in the States. I gave it to my roommates and told him I loved it.

 

I would never fear telling my American server to please leave the B off my LT when there’s nothing else suitable on the menu. Even the most caring, humane pig farmer in the United States would, I think, oblige to my vegetarianism without terrible offense. Americans have a long history of abusing our meat resources, beginning with Western settlers nearly depleting the bison population for their skins alone, leaving the rest to rot in the plains. It comes as part of the myth of American abundance – that we could never possibly run out or go wanting.

In the meat industry, that’s become a tall order to keep – Americans on average eat more than 270 pounds of meat per year, with the population ever-growing and the space to raise livestock ever shrinking. But factory farming and the horrors of the modern American slaughterhouse in ways stem from our own lack of food culture as well. There’s little tradition of meat like there is in Europe because we are a nation of immigrants, importing our culture just as we now import our food.

 Which is not to say that Europe is exempt from the mass-produced meat epidemic. There, too, the golden arches of fast food loomed over every neighborhood, though in different colors; in an effort to appear more healthy or eco-friendly, all the McDonald’s we saw were, at least literally, green. Which lends to the mindset that, on the whole, there’s a stronger sense of heritage and pride and regional identity behind the food and the products in Europe – jamón ibérico is emblematic of the Iberian peninsula it’s named for, just as bouillabaisse depicts the maritime history of Marseilles.

Back at Chez Gladines, I shamelessly fell to my nerves. “Je suis végétarienne…” I began, giving myself up as tourist both by proclamation and by bad accent. But I had no need to go on – “Ah! Végétarienne!” the waiter cried, much too loudly for my liking; what would the neighbors think? “You have omelette, no jambon. You have salade, no jambon. Oui?” I went happily with the omelet, and only later reconciled to myself the side of frites fried in duck fat.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Skansa Mettuplevelser; Austin Evan; Supermuch (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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