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.

picardIt 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.

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Postscript: 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.

The loss of Netflix and Hulu, or “How I started reading again”

I’m an early adopter.  Not the “have it first” type, but the “that’s really cool I’d like to try that” type.  Sometimes this works out well, other times one accepts bad experiences as the cost of being among the first to try them.

Those of us in our 30s are not “digital natives.”  Email and the internet really hit their stride after our undergraduate years.  But it doesn’t mean we take to “appification” any less, particularly ones that involve video.  Some of those video apps that I have particularly become attached to in previous years include:

Amazon Prime

Hulu Plus

NBC Sports (meant I could watch Premier League matches)

Netflix

Pandora

I knew before I arrived in France that none of these applications were ordinarily available and had started to cogitate about work-arounds or (gasp!) the possibility that I would simply “go without” while I was in Europe.

My degree is in Literature and I have thousands of dead-tree books carefully collected through years of library book sales, out-of-control spending at Half-Price Books, or at any other known honeypot for a bookhound like myself.  The smell of those pages – old and new – were pheromones for me.  They woke me up – excited me – made me simply happy.

However, in the final two years of my residence in America my reading pace had slowed to a trickle.  Instead of the usual 2-3-4 books a month I had slowed to not even finishing one book per month.  I would sometimes go a week or longer without even touching a book.  It wasn’t until I was out of the warm comfort zone that was my American existence (that I created for myself – I don’t blame anyone else!) that I realized what had happened: Netflix and its imitators.

It wasn’t entirely Netflix’s fault.  I should say it was the fault of having easy access to a nearly infinite library of video titles.  While I’m happy to doff my hat to the era of television that played host to the original Twilight Zone or produced my beloved The Prisoner, I have to say that the current era of television is perhaps the finest in history.  If we look strictly at script and writer-driven shows, like Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, Luther, Sherlock, and the like, we are witnessing the marriage of what any reader loves, whether he/she knows it or not: real, meaningful stories combined with expert costuming, cinematography, and directing.  There are many moments on any of the series I’ve listed above where one could freeze a frame and give an hour-long lecture on everything occurring in that sequence.

In a sense, I didn’t realize I had abandoned reading because I was still occupying my time with ideas and stories and concepts that mattered to me.  It was only when I had to confront having to get a VPN workaround (I hate the name of my service, but it works) and its own challenges – like only working 85% of the time – made it so that I accepted that I would just go without for a while.  There’s always time to catch up on those series at some point in my life.

What happened in that going without?  Reading, like the waters of spring coming forth from a snowmelt, burst in through all the well-known streambeds of my free time.  Public transportation facilitated this by giving me countless chances to get in a “quickie” with some novel or work I had downloaded for free (because it was in the public domain) and read on my Kindle app on my iphone or ipad.  That led to even more reading (I was foolish enough to bring a number of dead tree books with me to Europe) and before I knew it, the old paradigm had reasserted itself in my life: free time spent in large part reading, with a tiny bit of TV via the free Fox app and a weekly movie in the theaters.  Unwilling to pay for any premium services like Netflix, I simply enjoy Pandora (I still haven’t converted to Spotify, but I am open to listening to you tell me why I should) and the occasional guilty pleasure of Masterchef or Hell’s Kitchen (I love cooking and I love Gordon Ramsay).  Last week my mother told me I should watch the new Jack Bauer 24 series and I haven’t yet told her that I already watched the first episode, having failed to stop watching 24as I should have – after the 3rd season.  Remind me to tell you about my feelings on the art of non-finishing some time.

So, can I ask you to try something?  Something that can be done from the comfort of your own home?  Give up Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus for one month.  Watch what happens.  I’m not on a crusade here.  I just want you to experience what I wasn’t able to until I left everything I knew to move to a place where I only knew a handful of people.  All those programs you’re terrified you’ll miss will still be there for you.

If you ever go back.