My Change of Heart on Picard

In December 2015 I authored a (perhaps too indignant) piece slamming the frozen food chain Picard (and even questioning its raison d’etre).  It’s Spring 2021 and I have to take back at least some of my words due to a series of events that led to my first (and second, third, and fourth) visit to the chain.

Mailers

Picard regularly drops mailers into just about every mailbox in France.  I have had a habit over the years of using any sale flyers, be they from grocery stores or sports shops like Decathlon or Go Sport, as free language learning supplementation.  I will leaf through them, looking for words or phrases I don’t know.  If I see anything interesting, I’ll tear that sheet out and add it to my “look at later” pile.  Then I’ll message my French friends and clarify things (an example from the past: “You guys call any sports shoes baskets, even if they are for tennis?”)  In early March of this year a mailer landed with the title Hello America featuring a number of “limited-time” special items.

Hmm, what do the French consider quintessentially American,” I thought to myself, and started leafing through the mailer with a smile on my face.  The cover had a “Big Fried Chicken Burger” for 4€50 as well as a banana bread cupcake for 2€.  The next page featured something called “American box” which gave you 11 pieces each of mac and cheese bites, mozzarella sticks, and pulled pork bites: 33 in total.  That was 8€95 and thousands of calories.

There were also the 3€50 “Tex-mex burrito” and 2€95 “Hot-dog a la New-Yorkaise.”  They even had bottles of Sam Adams beer for 2€50 each.  But the one that caught my eye was on page 3 of this version: 400g of “American chicken wings” for 5€40.

Chicken

Those who know me well know that I am a great lover of chicken in general and even more so of chicken wings.  It’s traditionally classified in the “American food” category for me (even though people all over the world enjoy chicken wings in their own style and cuisine) which I generally stay away from while here in France to make the visits to my family that much more enjoyable: combining people I miss with food I don’t often eat.  But when this mailer landed in my mailbox it was the middle of Lent and I had been fasting from meat for some weeks.  I also considered that I wasn’t heading back to the States anytime soon and that given that these were frozen wings, they could be broken out on Sundays or after Lent was finished.  “Well, for scientific purposes,” I reasoned, I should really check out these Picard chicken wings and make sure they are good.

I can’t say I eat frozen chicken wings regularly (or ever, that I can remember) but these were really good!  Could Picard have other frozen food that is good?  Again, in the name of science, I decided to find out.

Subsequent Visits

The Paris stores aren’t very large.  You just have large freezers everywhere and some cardboard boxes in the front you can help yourself to if you don’t have one of your own “keep cold” bags.  The other limitation Parisians often deal with is freezer space.  Most of us in the city have smaller fridges with limited freezer space.  I could pick maybe 3-5 items to bring home, assuming that I had an empty freezer at home.

I pretended that I knew what I was doing, but having never really been inside one of these before, I slowly went by every single freezer, making mental notes on what they had.  I even picked up a few things on those subsequent visits, including:

  • a 20-pack of breaded Alaskan pollock filets (really good)
  • some snack-size ham and cheese calzones (decent)
  • the aforementioned “American box” (honestly, not bad but only meant to be consumed in one sitting if you want a food coma: I’ve been away from the States too long to take down so many calories at once so I took it in parts)

In my eighth year in France, I still love to cook multiple times each day (more than ever, actually) and I still find it unacceptable that many people choose to make Picard a regular part of their lives rather than just an occasional one.  But, almost six years after I penned my last article on Picard, I’m happy to admit that I understand a bit better why the French might choose it: there are some quality flash-frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to the pre-made food I treated myself to, all at reasonable prices.  There’s even the bakery section where someone can grab frozen pain au chocolats that they can warm up in their own oven and make-believe they put the effort in to make them.

While it’s not very French of me to admit that I was wrong, perhaps that’s why the Hello America campaign so brilliantly ensnared me.  Bonjour, Picard.  You got me. 🙂

Photo from the Facebook page of Picard.

Book Club: My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child is best and rightly known as the woman who brought French cooking to America in an accessible and sensible way. You may know her through her recipes and her famous TV show, but this book, My Life in France, is all about the woman herself – her life in Paris and Marseille, and other places throughout Europe as WWII ended and the Cold War began. You would hardly guess that she worked for the OSS, which was the forerunner of today’s CIA – but in a way that’s believable as she really did “infiltrate” into an American kitchen that was focused on frozen foods and items you could make out of a box or tin.

It was also fascinating to hear her describe the French and their ways – it reads like it could have been written today, even though Julia is describing post-war France, almost 60 years ago!

Here’s a story she recounts about her sister Dort and struggles with French:

“Monsieur; voulez-vous couper mes chevaux avant ou apres le champignon?” The hairdresser looked at her quizzically while the ladies under the hairdryers broke into laughter. What Dort had been trying to so earnestly ask was: “Sir would you like to cut my hair before or after the shampoo?” But it came out as: “Sir, would you like to cut my horses before or after the mushroom?”

She also reflects on the reason why she felt so at home in this country:

“I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

On the French attitude towards “modernizing,” which I laughed out loud reading:

“The individualistic, artisanal quality of the French baffled the men Paul called the “Marshall Plan hustlers” from the USA. When American experts began making “helpful” suggestions about how the French could “increase productivity and profits,” the average Frenchman would shrug, as if to say: “These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes you suggest.”

Indeed – it is this contrarian view against the rush of globalization and frenetic intemperance combined with a balanced attitude of “enough” that attracts so many of us to France.

Of course, this is a book by Julia Child and you will find yourself, if you have even the slightest inclination towards cooking, jotting down recipes or tips she casually sprinkles throughout the book.

It’s a great read, with quite a few photos, many of which were taken by her loving and devoted husband Paul Child.

A version of this article originally appeared on my Goodreads page.  If you like what I wrote here, consider tipping.

Picard France

Picard: a Dirty Little Secret of the French

So before we arrive in La France, we non-French perhaps imagine that all French people have an advanced knowledge of wines and cheeses, and while we don’t expect the full Julia Child/Jacques Pepin experience, we expect that most native French should be able to make a few classic French dishes from scratch, from maman‘s recipes or perhaps from grandmere.  This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What you don’t expect, what you can’t possibly believe, is that a store like Picard exists.

It only sells frozen food.  To be warmed up in an oven or microwave.  No, this isn’t some monstrosity dreamed up by an American.  This. Is. In. France.  And it’s wildly popular.

“I, I just can’t believe Picard exists,” I sputter to my French friends.  A slow smile often creeps into their mien – but Stephen, it has good food, bio (organic), you know – I wave my hand dismissively.  “Do you realize your word for kitchen (cuisine) means, essentially, thoughtful or good food in my language?  And then I find out that you guys are warming up premade food?”

“Oh, but Stephen, you know, no time, metro, boulot, dodo, etc.”

“In the land of the 35-hour work week?” I ask plaintively.

Now, I’m being a bit unfair about that 35-hour work week as I’ll explain in a future article about the work lives of the French.  Suffice to say I have more than one French or expat friend who works until 20h00 on weeknights, so I fully understand and believe the, “I’m too tired to cook” response.  I know, because I’ve been there.  I’ve come home later than 22h00 many nights when I lived in America.

But when life becomes a succession of warming up food (or buying takeaway), what is the point of living here, or anywhere, for that matter?  One of the things I enjoy so much about France is the superabundance of fresh food and produce; butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers, bakers: they are out at all hours, replicating what has been done for centuries, giving you the key ingredients to make food for yourself.

The thirty minutes you spend warming up some second-rate boxed lasagna, organic or not, could be spent making an omelette or a salad.  Or pasta.  Or grilling some veal, or rabbit, or lamb, while boiling some potatoes or steaming some veg for garnish.  In fact, 30 minutes would be long for “end of workday” versions of any of those suggestions.

I don’t expect all to take as much pleasure as I do in buying food, making my mise-en-place, and delighting in the cooking process, down to the colors of my food in correspondence and interplay with whatever season we find ourselves in.  But I do expect those who inhabit a country conscious enough of their own pride in everything to put a cock on the crest of the national sports teams to live up to the inheritance, the patrimony, they have been bequeathed, and has been bequeathed to the whole world.  The whole world looks to France as a (perhaps the) standard of cooking.

Which means Picard is simply not good enough.  Ever.  Generations who worked in the fields and offices long before Picard existed managed to cook and eat well.  You should too…whatever country or galaxy you live in.

PS: I should note that it’s simply more expensive to eat processed food, both in terms of financial cost and health cost.  However, I tend to see these as “last ditch” arguments.  People should accept the premise that cooking their own food is a good to be desired in and of itself.

An even more fun PS: my evolution on Picard, five years after I first wrote this article.

Photo from the still-running cooking. eating. carousing. blog