Monday, October 31, 2005

Rise and Ebb

Halloween is here and it's time for pumpkin pie !

In Paris during the 1960s and 1970s, American products such as peanut butter, Kleenex, Q-Tips, Tide and frozen chickens were available only at the military PXs and at the ANIC (American National Interests Commissary), over on the rue Marcadet in the 18th arrondissement.. Membership-financed (expensive !), the ANIC closed some years back, as globalization began taking hold and the rising tide of American pop culture started inundating the world.

Finding a decent "American" hamburger, tequila, Napa Valley wine, or Tabasco sauce was a daylong job requiring patience and ingenuity. The only venue for "real" American meat (and chili con carne) was the restaurant at the Hilton Hotel on the avenue de Suffren in the 15th, which at that time apparently imported all its meat from the USA. The stiff prices certainly reflected the distance the meat had traveled. The best American-style hot dogs were to be found … at the top of the Eiffel Tower, until the concessionaire changed in the early 1970s. In 1972, the New York restaurant Joe Allen in Les Halles opened and took some of the pressure off the Hilton. There was no doubt of it, though: Joe Allen had to be considered as simply "New York" rather than representatively "American". Mexican food was hard to come by in those days, too. Amerloque's US family would ship over five-pound bags of "Masa Harina" at regular intervals so that proper enchiladas and tacos could be made from scratch.

In the 1970s, too, the first McDo opened in France. At the time the McDonald's Corporation hadn't yet embarked on its program of worldwide conquest: it had simply sold the franchise for France to a fellow named Raymond Dayan. He proceeded to open a number of outlets in and around Paris, the initial one being in Creteil, a quiet suburb to the east of Paris. Amerloque was there at the grand opening to test the burgers and, even more importantly, the milkshake, a beverage which was impossible to find in France. That first spanking new McDo building was in the middle of an otherwise empty expanse, by the way. Across the street, a sign proclaimed in French that the new prefecture would be built on the spot "in a few years". The only modern buildings in Creteil then were the architecturally revolutionary "petalled" apartment buildings (aka "les choux"), the work of the French architect Gérard Grandval. There were no public transport stops, shopping centers, high rise building projects, freeways, or, of course, parking problems.

Dayan and McDo soon parted company. The Stanford University website sums up the reason quite nicely:

One franchisee who chose to ignore franchisor policies about product quality and cleanliness was Raymond Dayan, the owner of the French franchise license for McDonald’s. By 1982, Dayan had 12 restaurants in Paris but blatantly ignored the company’s strict specifications on food products, including the quantity and quality of ingredients. In addition, he held food so long and served it so cold that McDonald’s managers sent to inspect the stores found it difficult to eat. Although these shortcuts allowed him to save on costs, the reputation of the chain suffered. Ultimately, McDonald’s, with the court’s support, terminated his license.

Dayan, not a man to take things lying down, promptly renamed his outlets "O'Kitsch" and continued to serve hamburgers and all the fixings, including onion rings. One of his main outlets was the building at the intersection of rue Monsieur le Prince and the Boul' Mich', quite near the Place Edmond-Rostand. The hamburgers he served were American in name only and O'Kitsch didn't last long.

For Amerloque, the lack of "real" American food took on particular significance when an American holiday rolled around. For American apple or cherry pie on the Fourth of July, it was tough going. Baskin-Robbins ice cream cones were but a dream. Even in the early 1980s, Amerloque's (French) wife would order the family Thanksgiving turkey four weeks in advance from the local volailler, so as to be certain of obtaining one: the end of November was basically basse saison for turkeys in France, back then. Things are somewhat easier now on the turkey front, fortunately.

Another American holiday that required a modicum of preparation was Halloween. During the 1980s, the last week of October would always find Amerloque and his wife haunting the open air markets in Paris and Normandy in search of suitably symmetrical pumpkins to turn into Jack O'Lanterns for the children. Halloween was imported into France in a big way during the 1990s, but its celebration nowadays appears to be on the ebb. For several years, the media (and shops !) here were full of goblins and witches, black cats, children's costumes and disguises. It was carefully and repeatedly explained to the French that Halloween was of "Celtic" origin (Bonjour la Bretagne, donc !) and was not simply an American culturoimperialist invader designed to eradicate traditional French culture. Halloween commercialism neatly filled the void between la rentrée and Christmas, too. For the past few years the holiday has been declining in popularity and has been subject to increasing criticism. In 2002 the Roman Catholic Church even devised a major anti-Halloween "Holy Wins" promotion, contrasting the Halloween emphasis on death, witches and vampires with the celebration of a renewal in life through belief in Christ. The media gave it huge play last year.

The French have seemingly rejected the permanent import of Halloween - if observation is anything to go by, that is. Note that making real pumpkin pie absolutely from scratch (without boxes of prepackaged "ingredients") turned out to be child's play compared to the effort required for some French holiday dishes. If several delicious dishes and recipes - and not just pumpkin pie - had been associated with the holiday, perhaps Halloween here would've fared better: the French would certainly have paid more attention to it !


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger rebmarks said...

When I was a child we lived in France for 9 years, from 1963-1972. There were 4 of us kids, and I remember well the excitement when my father managed to track down some American treat for us, such as a box of Devil Dogs! Mostly, however, my mother had to be very inventive at holiday times, especially Thanksgiving when she tried to re-create her stuffing for the turkey. She finally settled on the French crackers "Truc" which worked very well. In fact, so well, that back in the 'States she started using Ritz crackers, because they were the closest to Truc! We were especially grateful for cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling brought back from the 'States on request by business travelers. We never got to celebrate Halloween except at school (the American School of Paris), and were very jealous of the American kids who lived in the Seizieme, because there were so many Americans there, their parents could take them trick or treating to the homes of other Americans. When we moved to Australia, the situation was similar to that in Paris. When my parents moved to Brazil, other items became important -- there were no Baggies, Saran Wrap or tin foil -- only wax paper. So when I arrived in Rio from Sydney to visit my parents, my suitcase was full of those items. When I eventually moved to the 'States, the situation reversed itself -- I became obsessed with finding the best croissant, Petit Ecolier cookies, Pont L'Eveque, and Australian items such as Vegemite or Brazilian farofa. There's a type of "Canadian-style" sandwich bread here that reminds me of the bread I loved in Sydney.

But as the world becomes smaller, it has actually become quite easy, and I must say, paradoxically disappointing, to find many items such as these -- you can now buy cranberry sauce at the David Jones department store in Sydney. And you can buy peanut butter in Paris. And of course, French cheeses and pastries and other "gourment" items have become quite common, even at the local supermarket here in Boston. I miss those days when a Devil Dog was like Christmas all over again....

7:19 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi rebmarks !

Welcome aboard !

I miss those days when a Devil Dog was like Christmas all over again....

What I really miss are the foot long hotdogs with chili and onions that one can buy and consume during the seventh inning stretch during a Major League Baseball game. Mmmmmm ! (smile)

There are currently at least two American specialty food stores here in Paris: Real McCoy and Thanksgiving. A few years back there was The General Store on the rue de Longchamp, who undercut everyone in town, but it's gone now … the stores' shelflife seems to be about 10-15 years …


7:02 AM  

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