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.
“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.
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.