“Do frog legs count as meat or fish?”
In my year and a half of pescetarianism, I had never before been faced with the question. Then I arrived in Paris.
On my first night there, my host mom asked why I’m vegetarian. I told her my reasons were partly moral, partly environmental and partly health-conscious. She said she had previously hosted a vegetarian student who became a carnivore again during her time in Paris after realizing how much more humane the French meat industry is than the American one. I told her I’d see.
According to my host mom, vegetarianism and veganism are gaining popularity in Paris — but compared to New York and especially to Ithaca, it’s much more difficult to find meatless (and animal-productless) options. Menus most often offer crêpes, quiches or sandwiches au poulet (with chicken), au jambon (with ham) and aux lardons (with bacon), among other carnivorous toppings; croque monsieurs (grilled sandwiches with cheese and ham); or a hunk of meat itself.
At informal crêperies and sandwicheries, usually only one type of crêpe, quiche or sandwich per menu is végétarien. Because of this, I’ve gotten quite acquainted with the single meatless option at my go-to hangouts: a crêpe au fromage from the crêperie on the corner, a quiche au fromage from the nearby sandwicherie or, if I’m feeling particularly indulgent, a sandwich aux trois fromages from the university cafeteria. More formal cafés and brasseries might offer omelettes or scrambled eggs for the octo-vegetarians out there, or fish for the pescetarians. But meat definitely reigns supreme.
Beyond Paris, the same carnivorous mentality seems to dominate. A few weeks ago my program took an excursion to the nearby northeastern city of Reims. After a morning of sightseeing, we went out for lunch, where our set menu consisted of carnivorous entrées (appetizers) and plats (entrées). As a last minute accommodation, I was served an entrée salad of vegetables and potatoes, followed by a plat of different vegetables and potatoes. They were good vegetables and potatoes, and I appreciated the break from cheese, but the, er, “meat and potatoes” of the meal seemed to be missing.
It’s not only that meat is popular; it seems that food groups essential for a vegetarian diet, like vegetables, are often overlooked. Though I have discovered certain vegetables here that I’d never eaten before (like céleri-rave, or celery root), I’ve struggled to find others. As Kristen Beddard describes in her book Bonjour Kale, kale was virtually nonexistent in Paris when she first moved to the city in 2011, so she started a movement to bring back the légume oublié (forgotten vegetable). Other veggies can be found in Paris, but only with determination. The other night, in scavenging for ingredients to make a stir fry, I couldn’t find broccoli at the first three supermarkets I visited. Perhaps broccoli isn’t a favorite French vegetable. But in general, the vegetable selection is more limited in the typical Parisian supermarket than it is in the typical American supermarket — and much more limited than the meat selections.
Maybe I’m just a silly American who should learn to appreciate the fine, fleshy delicacies of French cuisine. Maybe there’s a vast network of vegetarian and vegan restaurants I’ve missed while intoxicated in a cheesy haze.
But if French cuisine is to continue to be heralded as amongst the most refined in the world, it should start refining its vegetarian, vegan and other diet-restricted dishes.
My host mom served frog legs for dinner tonight.
“It’s not a myth! French people actually eat them!” She said as she coated them in flour and pressed them, sizzling, into a buttery sautée pan.
I decided that frog legs count as fish, and that I couldn’t leave France without trying them. Surprisingly, they weren’t bad.