How to Eat Abroad

Every trip should include a food tour. It’s an invaluable experience that I feel enriches every travel.

I’m not a foodie, which is probably why I like them so much. I couldn’t tell you anything about palates or pairings. I’ll taste whatever you give me and comment “that tastes good.”

Tour guides will tell you what your destination is known for, how people buy food, and what to look for when you are purchasing.

One of the best food tours I’ve ever taken was with my mother in Paris. The mere act of being in Paris everything better and it’s a city bursting with great food. The very fact of Paris is great food.

The food tour in question was one where our guide took us through the steps of assembling a charcuterie in Montmartre. He showed us how to identify good butchers, bakers, and fromageries (lots of little plates dangling from door handles). We ducked from shop to shop, since the French prefer the qualify of qualified tradespeople to the convenience of a Super Stop and Shop, or god forbid a Target, where you can buy clementines and garden hoses at the same time.

In the basement of the Secret Food Tours Paris headquarters, our guide went over different cheeses, sausages, and breads are supposed to taste; how the combinations unlock something on your tongue. I couldn’t tell you really if it tasted that much better in certain combinations. I just liked it.

He gave us head cheese, a kind of meat jelly I recall as fairly pleasant and light. It was smooth to spread on the baguette, almost foamy. Head cheese is made of the head meats, far more enjoyable in practice than in concept.

Because I’m fairly certain it’s illegal to end dinner without a pastry, we ate two different types of éclairs (chocolate and pistachio, if you were concerned). According to our guide, the chocolate-covered custard-filled éclairs on American shores would be considered crimes in France. NOt just because of obvious inferiority, but because in France éclair toppings must match their interiors: a chocolate eclair must have a chocolate filled, a pistachio éclair must have a pistachio filling.

If I never went on a food tour, I would have never known that I abetted food crimes.

Why does Paris look the way it does?

Like most European cities of a certain age, Paris was once cramped with narrow streets and dense populations.  It was not built for convenient travel for carts or even travel across neighborhoods, but instead, it was developed chaotically and haphazardly.  It was the natural development of human congestion.

Paris of the 1840s had a reputation of being dirty and disease-ridden.  The population had exploded after 1815, but the city had barely grown.  It was also the center of the political turmoil France had developed over the decades since Napoleon was removed from power:  the July Revolution of 1830 pushed the deeply unpopular Charles X from power and the June Rebellion of 1832 was an anti-monarchist uprising against the more liberal Louis-Philippe.

The Revolution of 1848 had led to the abdication of Louis-Philippe, with the intention of instituting Universal Male Suffrage.  Unfortunately for the revolutionaries of Paris, left-wing policies were not favored by the more conservative National Assembly.

Just four months after the Revolution of 1848, the National Assembly was attacked by Parisian leftists after the highly popular Nation Workshops were shut down by the conservative Assembly.  The National Workshops were a highly popular works project that provided welfare and work placements.  With the closure of the National Workshops, Parisian leftists feared the work of the Revolution of 1848 was for nothing.  This event was called the June Days Uprising (not to be confused with the June Rebellion, as portrayed in Les Miserables).

This energized leftist movement swept Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte into the Presidency.  Bonaparte had reaped the rewards of his highly popular uncle, Napoleon I, former Emperor of the French, and his populist economic visions, with his pamphlet, “The Extinction of Pauperism.”  Bonaparte won broad support from all populations in France.

By 1851 Bonaparte had vastly expanded the power of the President, to the point where he was able to seamlessly declare himself Emperor, ushering in the age of the Second Empire.  As Emperor, Bonaparte was able to stave off unpopularity by making modernization of French infrastructure a priority, particularly that of Paris.

Bonaparte hired Georges-Eugène Haussmann as the Prefect of the Seine to head the project.  Haussmann expanded the streets, creating broad avenues, which connected neighborhoods.  The new Paris was expanded and updated with railroads, parks, new buildings, and improved plumbing.  The reconstruction of Paris employed thousands of men, with the new infrastructure also providing opportunities, also functionally addressing the National Workshops-related concerns of the June Days Uprising.

Like his uncle, Bonaparte was able to maintain broad popularity within France but was deeply flawed at maintaining a successful foreign policy.  Much of this popularity was due to his familial relationship with Napoleon, his populist public agenda, and his association with the modernization of France.

Bonaparte and Haussmann’s influence can still be seen in the wide Champs-Elysées, which connects the Arc de Triumphe (honoring Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz) to the Tuileries Gardens, then housing the Tuileries Palace.  The Île de la Cité saw the expansion of the Notre Dame complex and the construction of the major government buildings on the island.  They also expanded Paris to include eleven more arrondissements, notably Montmartre and Belleville, enabling to the blossoming artist community to be a part of the city.

Tourists and native Parisians walk along Haussmann’s streets and spend days in the parks Haussmann modified.