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Dispatch From Paris: A Certain Dish for Uncertain Times

France-based columnist Caitlin Raux Gunther walks us through her life right now, and how the global coronavirus pandemic has affected her city.

Photo by Emma Jane Kepley

When people ask what it's like living in Paris, as a native New Yorker my answer is always the same: The average workday is just the slightest bit shorter. Like when the bartender tops off your wine glass with the last sip in the bottle—that little bit makes all the difference. The French prioritize time for socializing. In New York, plans with friends have to be made at least a week in advance (and let’s face it: we sigh with relief when they’re canceled), whereas in France, meeting for an apéro after work is as natural as picking up groceries on the way home.

It came as no surprise, then, when in the early days of the novel coronavirus, the French mildly resisted the call for social distancing. I first heard about it while visiting family in New York: photos of defiant Parisians perusing open-air markets and gathering in public parks. “It’s a point of French pride,” I’d tell people back home, in a way proud of my adopted home and its residents’ commitment to preserving their way of life. At this point, their resistance still seemed quaint.

As we now know, it was short-lived: Coronavirus cases spiked, prompting the government to double down on their efforts at containment. Addressing the nation, President Macron announced a mandatory countrywide shutdown—businesses were closed and all but essential movement was banned. “Let us rise individually and collectively to the height of the moment,” he said.

Facing the risk of being separated indefinitely from my home and my husband Guillaume, I made the difficult decision to fly back to Paris with my 11-month-old daughter, Mimi. On the plane, the woman next to me wore a surgical face mask, a shower cap, plastic gloves, and disposable hotel slippers. After take-off, she slid a terry-cloth mask over her eyes, sealing herself off entirely. I was tempted to snap a quick photo but then reconsidered.

Who was I, a lady with a baby on a plane, to judge?


I arrived in a city much different from the one I left: Once characterized by community and spirited consumption, Paris had become throttled by a collective anxiety, only evidenced by absences: the stillness outdoors; the unnatural space people granted each other on sidewalks; the woven Gatti chairs neatly stacked and hidden inside dark brasseries; the invisible enemy that many of us only heard about on the news but could now feel everywhere.

Early one morning, I took Mimi for a walk around our neighborhood, the requisite signed oath stating my purpose for leaving home tucked safely in my back pocket. The air was crisp and warm around the edges, the sun peeking through puffy clouds, teasing the arrival of spring. A day like this would normally end with clinking glasses and crowded terraces, but the streets were mostly vacant. And they would stay that way.

A few people strolled slowly with leashed dogs. The rare pedestrians crossing paths eyed each other cautiously over the edges of taut face masks. I turned onto an empty block and felt a strange thrill to have it all to myself, if just until the next corner. I passed the navy blue awning of a Monceau flower shop. Like many businesses, the shop had given away their flowers for free, unloading inventory that would otherwise be wasted.

On Rue la Fayette, a usually busy thoroughfare, I spied a young couple looking out over a wrought-iron balcony, reveling in the eerie silence of their once-bustling city. From another balcony, an infant called out, then marveled at the sound of her own echo. Beside an empty playground, a father jump-roped fervently with his two small children. I thought of the annual village celebrations in Spain, when locals lead angry bulls through narrow streets, desperate attempts to expend as much of the creatures’ energy as possible.

To go for a walk felt self-indulgent. But each day, additional borders were closing. Restrictions could get tighter. Fearing an imminent shortage, I wanted to stock up on fresh air, much like some people were stockpiling toilet paper and wine.

I reached my building’s door just as an elderly neighbor was leaving, sporting a tailored skirt and a navy, light wool coat, her silver hair neatly pinned at the nape of her neck. She rolled an empty market cart behind her.


At around 8 p.m. that evening, we heard a rumble outside. I pulled our windows open and poked my head out to listen. Shadowy silhouettes stood in windows across and down the street. In every direction, people were clapping. Later, I would learn that they were applauding to thank the country’s medical workers. Clueless as to their motivation, I nonetheless started clapping, the goosebumps tingling up my arms. Guillaume started clapping, and Mimi clubbed her chubby little palms together, too.

Photo by Caitlin Raux Gunther/Instagram

These European balcony moments may be fodder for memes, but they also provide a much-needed communal catharsis and an increasingly precious, unrestrained connection with our neighbors in a time that can only be described as surreal.

I arrived in a city much different from the one I left: Once characterized by community and spirited consumption, Paris had become throttled by a collective anxiety, only evidenced by absences.

Here, the quarantine will continue for at least another week, at which point the government will take the nation's temperature and decide how to proceed. In the meantime, the French are rising to the height of their novel civic duty, staying home but finding new ways to reignite their spirit, like the #aperofenetre—a nightly apéro, or pre-dinner beverage, taken together at the window.

Despite an excess of time at home and a shelf full of cookbooks, I find myself lacking motivation to experiment in the kitchen, and instead clinging to recipes I’ve cooked hundreds of times before. I‘m taking comfort in preparing dishes as familiar as they are simple—like a plain French omelet.

Every time I make an omelet, I think about Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter (the part when legendary French chef André Soltner demonstrates how he makes an omelet). After cracking the eggs, he uses his thumbs to scrape the remnants clinging to the shell, a habit leftover from post-war France. He tells Hamilton, “When I was growing up, this is how my mother got thirteen eggs out of the dozen.”

My sister Mary Alice recently enlightened me about breaking eggs against a hard surface, rather than the edge of a bowl. “Changed my life,” she told me.

As I stand in my kitchen to make myself lunch, I gently tap an egg against our concrete counter. It breaks easily into the mixing bowl. I use my thumbs to scrape inside each shell before tossing it into the trash. Then I throw in a few pinches of Guérande sea salt and whisk the eggs vigorously. I add a pat of good Normandy butter to a nonstick pan over medium-low heat. I pour in the eggs, give them a quick stir, then patiently wait for bubbles to slowly rise in the middle of the pan, the edges becoming fluffy and crumbling over on themselves.

No cheese, no meat. Just an omelet "nature” as they say in France, with a side of Dijon mustard so spicy it makes my eyes water.

Maybe I crave these things because they provide a touch more certainty during these uncertain times. My mind is too consumed with questions and news updates to devote energy to whipping up anything new. Come what may, I’ll keep making my most basic, stalwart dishes, and drifting to the window each night until the applauding dies down.


Photo by Emma Jane Kepley

Omelette Nature

2 to 3 large eggs
Kosher salt
A few pats of unsalted butter

Crack the eggs against a hard surface and slide into a mixing bowl; salt generously and whisk.

Add butter to a nonstick pan over medium-low heat; once warm, pour in the egg mixture and give a quick stir. Allow the eggs to settle and lower the heat a touch.

Once your omelet is set to your liking, use a spatula to carefully roll onto a plate, seam-side down.

What's life like in your city right now? Share in the comments below.

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Caitlin is a Paris-based writer and editor. She wrote about food and wine while living in Madrid after college, and had a brief career as a lawyer before moving back to Spain to work in restaurants and attend culinary courses at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. She has worked or staged at Septime in Paris, Mina and Nerua in Bilbao, and Bien Cuit in Brooklyn. In 2018, she and her husband launched a pop-up sandwich shop in Mallorca, Spain. Caitlin now lives in an ovenless apartment in the 9th arrondissement with her husband, Guillaume, and daughter, Mimi. Update: we have an oven now.

66 Comments

Regina April 18, 2020
I love this recipe! I made it for lunch today and I will make it again! Sending you love and prayers from Hoboken, NJ!!
 
Arthur April 16, 2020
Of course a classic a French omelette is not only a thing of beauty, but a lifetime pursuit of your own form of perfection. Just Google the YouTube of Jacques Pepin’s omelettes in the classic and rustic (or diner) styles and it will change your life! His mastery of this simple dish is inspiring.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 17, 2020
Too true. I'll always be looking for new tips and tricks to make a better omelet.
 
Château L. April 16, 2020
It's funny, I moved to France 8 months ago and within the past few weeks have never made and eaten so many omelettes in my entire life! Lovely article...
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 17, 2020
a very enthusiastic SAME. so many eggs. et merci!
 
Ann H. April 15, 2020
I’m interested to know how a chef lives without an oven? I enjoyed you’re beautifully written article.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 16, 2020
Thank you! And very UNhappily, without the oven ... I hadn't roasted a vegetable at home in years! But good news: we recently got a tiny one, and I couldn't be more grateful during confinement.
 
Ann H. April 16, 2020
Oh! That’s WONDERFUL!! I prefer to use my stove top using a Dutch oven (especially for Bolognese and other sauces), but most of the time I really NEED that oven!! Thank you for your reply...I’m so happy for you!
 
laltoro April 14, 2020
Your article was written so well and so heartwarming that the omelette recipe was an added bonus. Thank you for the inspiration to make Paris my next destination or perhaps my next city to live in.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 15, 2020
Thank you! So many great reasons to visit (or live in!) Paris. Hope you can experience it soon. Bon courage.
 
Jennifer April 13, 2020
This article was so beautifully and descriptively written. Write a book about Paris and I'll buy all copies. I don't think I've ever read an online article so captivating.

Paris is on my bucket list...and I think you've pushed it to the top. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Thank you, Jennifer, that is so kind! Hope you and your family are well (and visit Paris soon!).
 
Corduval April 13, 2020
I have made one, perfect, French omelette. It mocks me. I gave it up and started adding potatoes to eggs and have been happy ever since.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Whatever works! I make many an ugly, delicious omelet myself ;)
 
Lorna F. April 12, 2020
Have you discovered E. Dehillerin, the 190-yr-old kitchen supply store on the rue Coquilliere? My first time there, 40 years ago, Julia Child was shopping.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
I've heard of it! But still haven't been, left bank, right? What a memory, to see the queen herself.
 
Pwelch1010 April 13, 2020
Went there based on Ina Garten’s recommendation - bought a Zig Zag wine opener - the best!
 
Claire L. April 13, 2020
I bought my favourite loaf pans (longer and narrower) at Dehillerin. What a divine place for anyone who likes to cook.
 
Diane April 12, 2020
Thank you Caitlin for your lovely article. You awakened beautiful memories of my visit to Paris a few years ago. We ate at an authentic French restaurant and no one spoke English not even the wait staff! We were all seated family style and I couldn't read the menu so I looked at the elderly man sitting across from me and I pointed and said "Oui"! It was some kind of stew and it was delicious. I live in Charleston, SC now (native New Yorker), and we have the most incredible restaurants here. I miss meeting friends for drinks and dinner. I yearn for a very dry, very dirty vodka martini, triple olive with an oysters appetizer and my favorite shrimp and grits dish from S.N.O.B. We do have our video chat Happy Hours now and talk about when we will be able to see each other again, on a rooftop, sipping cocktails with the warm breeze blowing and the spectacular Ravenel Bridge lit up in the distance. My hope is that we each learn something important from this virus. And it will be whatever we need to learn. I learned that life is precious, that my friends and family are precious, and that I need to keep eggs in my fridge and vodka in my freezer at all times!
 
Maureen P. April 12, 2020
Ahh yes! The flavor and ambience of Paris! I will return!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
You're making me crave an ice-cold, slightly dirty martini (and here, it's only noon). This has certainly been a reminder of what's important - friends, family and the little rituals we have for coming together.
 
Michael L. April 12, 2020
I have one question about this recipe: how big a skillet -- or more to the point, about how deep a layer should the eggs make when poured into the pan?
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Depends on how many you're cooking for, but to begin, I'd start with just 3 or 4 large eggs — you want to form more of a puddle than a pool, if that makes sense. I use a medium-sized non-stick pan, and I think the non-stick part is more crucial than the size.
 
Peggy F. April 12, 2020
The photo of your daughter by the window is very charming, and that view, the very essence of Paris!
I live in a lovely seaside town in Massachusetts. Our boulevard by the ocean is a popular spot to walk and commune with others. The virus is peaking here now, yet folks are being lax about covering their faces while being out in public-despite mandates to do so. It’s so selfish, so sad, and so dangerous for everyone.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Thank you! Hope you're staying safe.
 
Ladyofwales April 12, 2020
Beautifully written!💖
 
Carole B. April 12, 2020
While in the throes of writing about France and French cooking from my kitchen in California, I ended up inviting friends and readers to join me in my virtual test kitchen, to help me test the French recipes for an upcoming book. From across the 'pond', one to the other, we are all responding to our pandemic together by 'celebrating' with traditional foods, as we re-evaluate family and their importance in our lives. Pandemics and wars can do that to you. www.carolebumpus.com
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Same. That's one silver lining — how we end up connecting maybe even more than we might otherwise. Good luck with the book!
 
JTirello April 12, 2020
The first thing my mother taught me to cook was eggs. She told me if I could master the finesse of eggs the. I could cook anything. The first time I went to Paris I left part of me there so I’d have a reason to go back. One of my favorite food memories was that of a simple omelette with a salad for lunch after going to the Louvre. It was just as described in the article. On this Easter Day, I miss my mother more than usual, and I think of her every time I make eggs. Passing on what I learned, eggs were the first thing I taught my daughter how to cook, telling her the same thing mother told me. And it’s true. So very true. These last few weeks we’ve had the chance to cook a lot while sheltering at home. I make sure we have plenty of eggs. Happy Easter!
 
kim G. April 12, 2020
I am so sorry-my cat flagged the post below, and while trying to un-flag that one, I flagged yours by mistake.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
this made me teary. my dad was a fantastic omelet-maker, too, and I miss him tons, especially in surreal times like now. Hope you're enjoying some quality cooking time with your daughter.
 
JTirello April 13, 2020
No worries, Kim. Have a great day!
 
JTirello April 13, 2020
Thank you, Caitlin!
 
Sherri L. April 12, 2020
May I vent here lol? everyone here in Salem Oregon is trying to do their part and then you have those who act like there is no part to do, like my downstairs neighbor who has so much traffic going in it out of his apartment on a daily basis they must be selling drugs, plus you just have to look at the people and know that they're on drugs; to get to that assumption. It just irks me though I try not to let it, but when we are all staying in our houses, practicing social distance, so that this does not spread and then you have people like this, that has no minimum, of 10 people A-day going in-and-out sometimes for only a minute or 2 other times lingering in the parking lot arguing or handing each other money for who knows what. Anybody else having this problem and what are you doing to keep yourself from going up and slapping them in the face to get them to understand that this is a problem and no I do not condone doing that lol.


Peace
 
Peggy F. April 12, 2020
Can you call the police anonymously?
 
kim G. April 12, 2020
My cat walked across the keyboard and hit the flag inappropriate link. I tried to un-flag it and accidentally flagged the post above. My apologies to you both.
 
Corduval April 13, 2020
I lived in Corvallis OR for 30 years, and now live in Tucson AZ. The 2 cities seem to have an exchange program, with people loving and circling back and back to each. Great little towns!
I'm sorry you are having to live with a 'drug house' in your apartment building. That is what it sounds like and I think you are right. My experience has been that things often go downhill from there. Yelling ..gunshots. In Tucson we have community policing offices in areas with a high crime rate, and the cops get familiar with neighborhoods over the years ..we have a horrible shortage of police but they manage to respond, with discretion, especially if it's about a drug house. You might even find out that the cops already know about it. If I was in your situation, I would feel out the police about drug activity in my neighborhood and, importantly, whether or not I would have to make a complaint to get them to look into it. I wouldn't want my name on anything. I would keep an eye on them, but not let them notice my interest. I would keep myself detached for my safety. You know, sometimes it's just best to not get involved. Whatever you do about involving the police, stay safe.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
haha. kitty troll ;)
 
Sherri L. April 14, 2020
LoL no worries, thanks!
P.s my kitties are waving at your kitty!


Peace
 
Sherri L. April 14, 2020
It is a constant situation, I have been here a year, Apparently the he gets the apartment for free, landlord has tried to get him out but all his u.a's come back clean....

Peace
 
Sherri L. April 14, 2020
I wouldn't call police, sad thing is, the guy is nice, but too nice, he feels bad about all the ppl he met in rehab. Thing is they take advantage, and I do believe sell drugs out of his house. To be honest I am a tad afraid I may get a worse neighbor lol...

Peace
 
Maureen P. April 12, 2020
My 4 sisters and I spent a week last year in Paris. The people, the food, the history...
Ahh how I long to return and once again bask in its sweetness. Thanks for the article. For a moment I was returned to Paris! Merci
 
Pamela M. April 12, 2020
After the comment ( which is correct) about cracking eggs in a flat surface and not the side of a bowl, you show someone making a cake, cracking an egg on the side of a bowl.
 
Brenda April 12, 2020
Thank you for a lovely read. I have never scraped the eggshells but will start today.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
thank you, Brenda!
 
Lou A. April 12, 2020
Perfect time for that article. Paris is my favorite city even though I’m Italian. I am a chef instructor at Sur La Table in Naples Florida and it has been almost a month since we closed for the virus. I had no idea how much I would miss teaching and cooking until now. So to compensate I make my golden retriever a French omelet every morning, someday I hope it will turn out perfect.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 13, 2020
Thanks, Lou. Hope you're hanging in there and doing what you can to keep inspiring students. I'm sure your dog is enjoying the extra attention, too :)
 
Laurie V. April 12, 2020
Thanks for sharing the story within the story. Live in NYC. My bakery is in Larchmont. Two epi centers. But cooking feeds my soul and comforts the belly of others. I just made an omelet last night. And you are right. Just sometime about the simplicity of it. Stay safe. Bon appetit from bread & cocoa.
 
Laurie V. April 12, 2020
Something. Typo.