Supermarkets are scary places.
I recently came across this passage about them in White Noise by Don Delillo, and it definitely rang true:
Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension. — Don Delillo, White Noise
In one paragraph, Delillo manages to convey the sensory overload experience that is going to the supermarket: the mix of human and mechanical noises, the display of bright, unnaturally shiny fruits, the flimsy plastic bags everyone opens, stuffs, and then tosses into the shopping cart.
Living in France has encouraged me to abandon supermarkets, but I haven’t entirely succeeded. I still find myself roaming the aisles on a regular basis, taking with me avocados from Peru, salmon from Norway. But I never feel good about going to the supermarket.
In contrast, the products I’ve bought in the many specialty shops around in Paris — bakeries, cheese shops, flower shops — have brought me such pleasure.
And so, to encourage you and me both to frequent places that operate on a more human scale, I present you the five foods to soothe your American soul.
Of course, I don’t just mean “bread.” I mean a real, fresh baguette, baked the same morning, warm when the boulanger hands it to you, simultaneously crunchy and soft when you bite into it on the way home (it’s on the way home because you can’t possibly wait until you get to your apartment to nibble off the top).
Others may have their own favorites, but I haven’t found cheese I’ve enjoyed more than the creamy, nutty, slightly sweet comté, hard on the outside but soft within. The next time you’re in a French cheese shop, ask for it, and while you’re at it take some brie and cantal, too.
The other day I went in to the wine shop and asked for a good rosé. He asked me if I wanted it dry or fruity, and when I said dry he handed me this bottle of 2015 Gris Blanc. I practically fainted when I tasted it.
I’ve written a lot about picking cherries in France. There’s something so freeing about being able to walk through the countryside and pick your own fruit, right off the tree, especially when it’s a field in the middle of nowhere and none of the best, low-hanging fruits have been taken already. The cherries in Alsace in the months of June and July are so sweet, so full of flavor.
I often find myself drinking a café creme in Paris, supremely happy with people-watching, with the red awning overhead, with the croissant I’ve bought to accompany my drink.
But here’s a little secret: the French don’t make great coffee.
It is not bad. Not bad at all. I don’t mean to complain.
But sometimes when I’m sitting in one of these French cafés, I reminisce about those local coffee shops I’ve visited in New York, Austin, St. Louis, and Nashville. At times I wish I could be sitting in one of those with whatever quirky paintings are on the wall, watching the funky clientele walk in (the businesswomen-in-a-hurry, the tattooed guy with a guitar on his back, the family of five speaking Spanish).
When it comes to most food, there’s no denying that French have it pretty good. But Americans have their own specialties. And chances to buy fresh, locally made products rather than the plastic varieties of supermarkets are growing and will continue to do so — as long as people direct their money to these small, human places.
Rebekah Lee Mays is an American freelance travel writer who’s lived and worked in Europe for the past three years. Her fiction has been published in Hobart and the Forge Literary Magazine, and she currently studies literature and creative writing a few blocks from the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.