The French Don't Eat Alone

December 23, 2016

The French don’t like to eat alone. It is simply too pleasurable an experience to keep to oneself. A solo French diner in a bistro here is more likely to start up a conversation with the waiter or the sommelier than to eat in stony silence. A meal should be “partagé”—shared—with others.

“Partage,” that elusive concept that means “sharing,” is one of my favorite words in the French language. And in this time of political turmoil—in France, in Europe, in the United States—partage is more important than ever.

I learned the concept early on in life. In our basement kitchen, my Sicilian grandfather taught me how to pickle eggplant, simmer tripe in tomatoes, and grill lambs’ heads with lemon and rosemary. He introduced me at the age of five to the wine he made in our backyard every summer and kept in two oak barrels in the cellar, next to his tools.

My father owned an Italian grocery store in Niagara Falls and sold provolone and prosciutto, homemade sausages and hand-cranked pasta-making machines, in the days when real Italians called it pasta, but everyone else still said macaroni.

He communicated with his customers in a rough Sicilian dialect and taught me the art of delivering small pleasures through food and conversation. No matter how cold the winter, how deep the snow, how bad the economy, how serious the problem, he believed anyone could find comfort in a good family meal, even one as simple as penne with bacon, onions, and a can of Progresso cannellini beans. “Everybody has to eat!” he would say.

Cheese on the rue des Martyrs Photo by Gabriela Plump Sciolino

I take this spirit with me to the rue des Martyrs, my food-shopping street in Paris. The rue des Martyrs has always been about commerce, especially about the sale of food. Bonding with food merchants here has become a way to tune out the hatred and division that infects so much of our political discourse today, and to concentrate on an essential question of everyday life: what do I make for dinner.

Some mornings, I sit at a small, formica-topped sidewalk table at Le Dream Café. The television is always on, tuned to an all-news channel. The regulars stand at the zinc bar for a morning beer or a glass of house wine, an old workers’ custom. The butchers from across the street arrive holding half baguettes with ham for their first break at 10. If Sébastien Dominique, my favorite butcher, is with them, he’ll chew and swallow, wipe his mouth clean, and kiss me on both cheeks.

Momo, the morning manager serves the best café crème on the street (his hot chocolate is even better) in heavy porcelain cups and saucers stamped “Cafés Richard.” The croissants and baguettes were made early this morning at the Levin family bakery next door.

Yves Chataigner, the cheesemonger across the street, comes for four espressos (two each for him and his wife Annick), which he carries on a tray to his shop. He once gave me a basic lesson in French cheeses. We started with Camembert. He took a round from the shelf and removed its white plastic wrapping. “First, there is how the Camembert looks,” he said. “When there is white in the middle like this one, it is too young.

“Then there is the feel; you have to make contact with the Camembert. I first ‘squeeze’ the sides of its outer crust. Then there is the way your thumb feels when you press on the center. There cannot be any resistance. Resistance means the Camembert has no heart. For the Camembert to have a heart, your thumb has to feel softness. There must be a ‘partage.’”

There was that word again, partage. It signaled that you are not alone, especially when you’re communing with Camembert as if it is a living thing.

I occasionally share my food discoveries with my neighbors. One spring I harvested white asparagus. A cold, wet winter in France meant the special white variety had come late to the rue des Martyrs. It was expensive at $11 a pound, and because it had been trucked a long way, it was dull and wrinkled. So I set out to harvest my own, in the deepest part of the Landes near the Spanish border. When I returned to Paris with two shopping bags of white asparagus, I gave some to my greengrocer friend Ezzidine.

“I’ll cook them for my wife!” he exclaimed. But Ezzidine is a fruit and vegetable guy, not a chef. He overcooked them and they turned limp and stringy.

One day, baskets of strange oval shapes with velvety skin the color of celadon turned up: fresh almonds. Ezzidine slammed an almond against a wooden pillar to crack the tough skin and fleshy covering. He removed them to reveal an almond kernel. When I put it to my mouth, he stopped me.

“You have to peel it now,” he said. He pinched the skin with a fingernail and pulled it back. He did it again and again until he had a smooth, white almond. “Now you can eat it.” It tasted like almond, only crunchy and fresh like a water chestnut.

“But it’s so much work,” I said.

“It’s not the eating that counts,” he said. “It’s the process of cracking and peeling. After dinner, with a glass of mint tea, in front of the television, with all the family together. There is nothing better.”

Over time, Ezzidine began to share his stories. He confessed that he was sad when he was alone at home on his day off. “I need my customers,” he said. He sounded like my father.

The down-to-earth food merchants in my neighborhood are not the only ones who celebrate “partage”; many of France’s grand chefs do so as well, Michelin three-star chef Guy Savoy most of all. He treats his namesake restaurant in the Monnaie de Paris—the French mint—on the banks of the Seine as if it's a neighborhood bistro, perpetually out in the dining room schmoozing and hugging. In early December, Savoy’s restaurant was first place on La Liste, an ambitious algorithm-based ranking of what France’s Foreign Ministry claims are the 10,000 best “tables of exception” in the world.

After a five-course dinner in the grand Salon de l'Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay that included Alain Ducasse’s “Vol-au-Vent de Grande Tradition” and a grapefruit sorbet with bitter citrus fruits of the Foreign Ministry’s own kitchen, Savoy asked Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for a favor: could he personally thank the Foreign Ministry’s entire kitchen staff?

Ayrault obliged, and a few minutes later the twenty or so chefs and their entire kitchen staff stepped on center stage. Savoy led the several hundred diners in a standing ovation.

“Cooking is a collective work,” he told me, as we stood and clapped. “It’s all about the art of creating, of transformation, of pleasing. It’s all about the partage.”

Partially excerpted from The Only Street in Paris: Life on the rue des Martyrs, Elaine's New York Times bestselling book. It was published in paperback and in a French edition last month.

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