Emily Jones / Dining Editor

February 23, 2017

The Poppy Seeds of Parisian Cuisine

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My host mom welcomed me to her apartment with some sort of cake. Well, she said it was a cake, but it was sloped at the top, as though it had been baked in a loaf pan, and it wasn’t frosted. She said it was au citron (lemon) and graines de pavot — a phrase I didn’t recognize at the time, but I devoured it nonetheless. I was starving, and it was delicious.

In preparation for my first morning of orientation, she asked what I usually ate for breakfast.

“Eggs, toast or cereal,” I told her.

“Eggs will take too long to make in the morning. And we don’t have a toaster. But I’ll put out some cereal for you,” she said, ushering me off to bed.

It was only in looking in the mirror that I realized graines de pavot were poppy seeds, and I had been talking to her with teeth full of them.

Petit-déjeuner (breakfast), 7 a.m.: a mason jar of céréale — or rather, oats with hazelnuts — and a container of lait demi-écrémé (semi-skimmed milk) sat at my end of the table. Towards the center of the table were a box of packaged pain grillé (toast), a baguette, various containers of confiture (jelly) and a massive jar of Nutella (“C’est une drogue,” my host mom had said.). The gâteau (cake) we had eaten the night before, along with a box of Speculoos cookies, lay near my host mom. A silver cannister of café (coffee) loomed between us. (“I never go to Starbucks,” she had told me, pronouncing the word with such a thick French accent that I didn’t recognize it at first. “We drink much better Italian coffee.”)

My host brothers sipped hot chocolate from huge mugs, slathering Nutella on chunks of baguettes that they had torn with their hands. My host mom dipped Speculoos in her coffee.

Déjeuner (lunch), 1 p.m.: a salad, an omelette au fromage (cheese omelette) with frites (fries), and crème brûlée at a restaurant near my study abroad program office. I had considered ordering a croque madame (grilled cheese with ham and egg) without the ham, since I’m vegetarian — before remembering, as we had learned in one of our orientation seminars, that it’s considered ridiculous to ask for French staples like croque madames with substitutions or eliminations.

The three parts of the meal comprised a formule (formula) of an entrée (appetizer), plat (entrée) and dessert. These formules are fairly common in French restaurants, offering a decent amount of food for less money than it would cost to buy each separately, so we took advantage.

The waiter disappeared for a half hour at a time between the three courses, and our seemingly excessive two hour lunch break turned out not to be so excessive. After finishing, it took another half hour to locate the waiter to ask for l’addition (check); we were almost late getting back to our next seminar.

Dîner (dinner), 8:30 p.m.: My host mom had told me to be home around 7:30, but the older of my two host brothers didn’t arrive home from school until 8:23. We waited for him to sit down to a spread of mashed patates douces (sweet potatoes), endives and pâtes avec sauce tomate (pasta with tomato sauce).

As my host brothers scooped mounding heaps of pasta onto their plates, I wondered aloud, “How do you make it from lunch to dinner at 8 p.m.?”

“Kids usually have a goûter (snack) at 4 p.m., and I’m like a kid, so I sometimes eat a snack too. But most adults will have a coffee instead,” my host mom responded.

She noticed how much pasta I had served myself: an amount that I would consider a moderate American portion but was scant compared to what my host brothers had served themselves. She asked if I was on a diet. “Are you sure you don’t want more?”

In the time it took her to coerce me into taking more pasta, the younger of my two host brothers had already scarfed down all the food on his plate and was helping himself to another serving of pasta.

She asked what I had eaten for lunch, and I described my meal to her. When I told her the crème brûlée was “très très délicieux,” she stopped me. “The world délicieux is already such an exaggeration that a French person would never say something is très très délicieux.”

A few minutes later the table suddenly quieted, as everyone seemed to have finished.

“I’ve noticed that Americans eat very slowly,” My host mom said.

But in truth I wasn’t the only one with food still on my plate; the younger of my two host brothers had taken more pasta than he could eat.

“I’ve had enough of your wastage!” She scolded him. “Finish your food or no iPad for a week.”

“But I’m full!”

“For a week.”

He reluctantly speared a few more noodles until his plate was mostly clear and my host mom seemed satisfied.

“OK, who wants un fruit (a piece of fruit)? Who wants un yaourt (a yogurt)?” my host mom asked.

After taking a “dessert” count, the younger of my two host brothers left the table to fetch an enormous bowl of kiwis, oranges and bananas, while the older grabbed four little mason jars of yogurt. Again, I was the last one left eating as I struggled to wrangle spoonfuls of kiwi out of its fuzzy skin.

In the weeks of culinary experiences that followed, I have eaten several lemon poppy seed cakes, délicieux but sprinkled with occasional misunderstandings and embarrassments.