Food with a Slice of History

Parisian Food

A pan with a kitchen towel on a table

Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

In my memory, Parisian food is wrapped up in a stream of rapid speech: agile words of which I miraculously manage to keep abreast even though they often try to get away from me and even gull me.

I’m in the ill-appointed kitchen of a student dorm in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris.  Around me are young people who chatter in a rapid flow, which makes my ears ring.  They’re here not just to feed themselves, but to get some necessary social interaction: joke, tease, laugh, argue, negotiate or merely exchange information.  I’m able to catch an occasional word here and there.  The rest of the babble washes over my drowsy, jet-lagged brain.  While I’m chopping my onions, I duck my head in an attempt to avoid eye contact in order to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Right across from me, a young woman is putting together a salad.  She has neatly braided hair and is wearing an impeccable cotton blouse.  I watch her competent moves as she washes lettuce and tears it into pieces, then combines it with olives, hard-boiled eggs, fragrant tomatoes, and some fresh green beans.  She is making a version of Salade Niçoise, which I soon learn is not really Parisian food.  (In the early days of my stay in Paris, I lacked the right French words along with the cultural competence to identify this.)  A fine art deco gold ring with a carnelian stone on one of her supple fingers catches my eye.  I fill in the blanks that my insufficient French throws right in my face with information gleaned from my neighbor’s appearance: an upper-middle-class fresh-food-connoisseur for sure, an experienced cook who shares my interest in artisan early-twentieth-century objects. A smile flutters over my lips while a group of fellows bursts out laughing. It doesn’t really matter that we are cheery for different reasons: it still looks as if I have understood enough to join in their merriment.

I do my best to distinguish between the different voices around me and key into the intonation of each speaker.  Are they all French or is someone a foreigner like me?  Are they all Parisians or do some of them come from other French regions?  What are they talking about? Parisian food, the weather, a visit to the movies, a party the night before or one that is still being organized, professors, exams, university policies?  Some words that sound close to English hold my attention in the flow.  I cling to names and basic French words.  In a minute, my taxed brain puts together dozens of combinations in an effort to come up with plausible scenarios that could help me interpret the kitchen scene and feel included.

Next to the window, apparently disinterested in cooking, is a brunette in a tight burgundy corduroy skirt, black boots, and a scarf that spills fall colors around her neck and shoulders.  I cannot really tell whether her words or gestures work harder in convincing whoever would listen.  It looks like she might be talking to another woman and a fellow with a mischievous expression standing by the stove.  I try to guess the speaker’s mood.  Could her tone be just a touch tense and maybe even irritated?  Her listeners spare only half of their attention on her story.  The other half is focused on a soup of fresh sausage and canned beans, a simplified version of cassoulet — a southern migrant in the kitchen of Parisian food.  The woman-chef looks up to give a curt response to her garrulous friend, who all of a sudden interrupts her speech to walk over and resolutely add more olive oil and herbs into the pot.

A pause follows, in which the sounds of a microwave door opening and a paper box being torn loom loud and inauspicious.  A frozen tart gets shoved into the microwave and the timer starts ticking.  A new conversation evolves.  I’m taken in by the ease with which words come out, the speed, the fluency.  The simplicity of the fare I am making is embarrassing: a potato soup flavored with garlic, onions, and feta cheese.  It’s comfort food that I associate with my childhood.  It doesn’t fit in with any idea of Parisian food, but, under my circumstances, I need all the comfort that I can get.  It’s sure better than surgelés, the frozen food that I later discover is a bigger part of Parisian cuisine than one might think.

With the tips of two fingers I surreptitiously break off a morsel of feta to put in my mouth.  French ingredients taste different to the ones I’ve gotten used to in other countries (the US, Germany, Switzerland, and Bulgaria, of course), but I’ve learnt to make do with whatever is available.  Before I can stop myself, I stealthily wipe off my fingers on my pants underneath the table where no one could possibly see, and try to mimic the competent gestures of the salad-making woman in selecting herbs and mixing them into my meal.

Someone asks for the pepper (poivre).  Suddenly I am heartened.  For once I can be certain about what’s going on.  With a fork, I mash my feta extra slowly.  It’s an action that allows me to stay as long as possible in this kitchen full of French.  Although my silent dorm room offers a respite from the talk that most of the time gets the better of me, being alone is still unappealing.


I arrived in Paris earlier that week.  It had taken a lot on my part to get there.  In the previous year, I accepted any job offered to me, and carefully saved all of my change.  I taught a double course load, applied for every single scholarship that crossed my path, and exchanged German for French instruction with another graduate student in my program.  For the longest time, due to an unfortunate high school trip, Paris used to be a destination that didn’t particularly tempt me.  Only years later, as a graduate student in the States, I decided that my comparative dissertation needed an architectural component.  Experiencing first-hand impressive historical buildings in the multilayered cityscape of Paris suddenly became a must. At that point, my French was pretty much non-existent and spending a year at a French academic institution was, I admit it, a really far-fetched idea.  However, I’m the type of person who undertakes projects that appear almost impossible to do. Learning enough French in a year and scrambling to get funding from different sources felt like a fitting challenge for that particular stage of my life.

When everything miraculously fell into place — even getting a French student visa in my Bulgarian passport (something that would have been unthinkable if I had stayed in Bulgaria to write my dissertation) — my departure was set back by an unexpected affliction that needed to be resolved through surgery.  Ten days later, and a day after my physician gave me the green light, I boarded a flight to Paris, followed by a trip on RER from Charles De Gaulle to the academic institution that, pretty much in a leap of faith, agreed to host me for a year.

I arrived right in the middle of lunch time and followed a group of students into the cafeteria.  Even jet-lagged and on pain killers, it quickly became clear to me that here, Parisian food was a serious affair with no short cuts.  There was a first and main course, followed by a salad, cheese platter, and dessert.  A month later, I realized that those sort of meals were an indulgence when compared to the meager-looking baked chicken with fries that students ate almost daily at the canteen of the Cité Universitaire just down the street.  Everyone willing to fetch their food and pay the affordable price was welcome to eat there.  The cafeteria of the institution that hosted me was a whole world apart.  Here students sat in groups at large round tables and washed their food down with copious conversation.  Ladies who, by the look of it, were descended from families that had arrived in France through Marseilles, brought out the different dishes.

I join a table close to the entrance that appears least intimidating to me.  There is an Eastern European-looking man, who turns out to be a Russian mathematician. With him, is a colleague of his, who is practicing her rather impressive Russian; a Japanese student, who is writing a dissertation on the French writer Gustave Flaubert; his friend, also Japanese; and a middle-aged lady, who appears to be working in the administration. They all acknowledge my presence and greet me with a Bonjour.  I feel at the verge of a panic attack.

My table-mates want to know who I am and where I am from.  Now that I’m in the middle of the action, I quickly discover that the phrases and expressions I’ve learnt from my textbooks don’t get me far.  My palms are wet and freezing.  Somehow, I manage to communicate that I’ve just arrived on a really long flight, a piece of information that earns me a round of sympathetic nods.  They intuit that I must be hungry, and they all take turns piling Parisian food onto my plate.  Their curiosity is growing by the second, way faster than I can chew and swallow my bites, but my table-mates serve me with even more questions.  The food seems to weaken rather than strengthen my ability to communicate.  In my desperation, I resort to my high-school Russian and abandon my newly acquired, and presently inaccessible, French.  I have to accept that the words with which I had chatted and flirted with my fellow graduate student instructor in the US have, for the time being disappeared, evaporated; in short, vanished into cloudy-looking noodle soup.

The stern, closed face of the mathematician lights up.  He even discloses that he knows some English.  Now, he is the one who is asking me questions and communicating my answers to the rest of the table in French.  Relieved, I breathe in and out, then summon up energy to eat my first bites of Parisian food.  I taste the smooth creaminess of the goat cheese and I’m almost happy that I’ve finally made it to Paris.

The Flaubert lover doesn’t know any English or Russian, despite the fact that he is an admirer of Dostoevsky, but he still doesn’t give up on me.  He takes me on a tour of the dorm and shows me the kitchen where I can prepare my own food.  A week later, he initiates an exchange with me that produces some comical results.  Have I seen the note posted in the kitchen of our building about a missing saucepan?  Yes, I have.  My affirmation is followed by a question on his part that I interpret to be an assumption that I’ve taken someone’s cooking equipment.  I’m horrified.  Just after surviving my first week in Paris, my name has been brought in connection with a stolen pan!  My reputation is obviously tarnished beyond repair.  My face vividly expresses what my French fails to bring across.  My Japanese friend dashes off to recruit an English-speaking fellow to rescue the situation.  He explains to me that no one assumes that I’ve taken a French person’s pan just because I’m still getting comfortable with the language.  We all laugh in relief.


Shared meals structured my Paris days.  In-between, I rode the bus and subway around town to all the buildings I needed to see, clutching my architectural guide in my hand.  I sat in the library and took notes for my dissertation, practiced French with computer programs at the Centre Pompidou, and spoke the language to whoever would listen.  I also got to know the students who avoid the cafeteria because the three course meals were too much to take.  By the time I sat down for my first Parisian Christmas meal, I could chat in French about whatever I wanted to.  It felt like I’d grown to be a magician who could conjure up a canard à l’orange, my favorite Parisian food, out of her sleeve.  To celebrate this Christmas miracle,  I remember buying a bottle of hard cider and drank it all by myself in the quiet of my dorm room.










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  1. Arlen

    Wonderful story. Your writing is beautiful and easy to visualize and get the feeling of you’re setting. Lovely ♥️

  2. Elisabeth Souny

    Congtatulations Penwhisk for your lively painting : you have brought back to my mind the generous meals at the cafeteria in Paris (14e), the whole atmosphere of the place, between books, scornful students sometimes, and nice garden. That was indeed a rather strange place and I have to admit I felt myself, by that time, some sort of stranger too !
    Please come back to France : we plan to cook gorgeous and typical French food for you :). But most of all : keep on the good work, keep on writing ! It is such a pleasure to read you.

  3. Jill

    Thank you for opening up your vulnerability to your readers. I can empathize with you how hard it is to arrive to a new place and be overwhelmed, including with new food customs. You do a beautiful job describing the situation and how you overcame it.

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