Six different trips, six different grandchildren, and six different culinary journeys that will remain with them forever.
My husband spent twenty-seven years of his adult life living and working in Paris, the last four with me by his side – at least, mostly. We returned to live in the United States at the turn of the millennium, in time to watch our six grandchildren grow from tiny to teens. When we first returned, differences in culture, especially attitudes toward and experiences of food, surprised us both, but especially David. I knew that our grandchildren could not fully appreciate who their grandfather was until they could grasp ways that Parisian culture had molded his sensibilities, personality and tastes, so we decided to introduce each one to Paris during a school vacation the year of their 12th birthday.
Our guidelines. Because the experiences and discoveries during our own romantic returns to Paris have combined with restaurant introductions and recommendations from friends, allowing us to remain mostly up-to-date on the quickly-changing Parisian food scene, especially in the quartier where we stay, we have been able to establish basic guidelines for these trips.
First, we do not expect a tween trip to mirror our honeymoon-style visits, marked by experimentation, indulgence, and the return to our favorite haunts. Second, we were aware that each child had a unique temperament, complemented by their own short history of habits and preferences. As a psychologist, I knew that their reactions to novelty would also vary, as would the pace at which they could embrace whatever felt foreign. Third, while they each brought their own approach to food, we hoped that each would return home with at least one major discovery, something that would endure as they continued to grow, learn, and appreciate a broader range of tastes and temptations.
The basic structure:
The first or second night, depending on how tired they were, we took each grandchild to a restaurant where we could introduce them to classics, like escargots, typical French fish preparations, carré d’agneau, and duck. The tween would select three courses that appealed to him or her and we chose other dishes so that they could taste a variety of appetizers, main dishes and desserts. When they preferred one of our selections to theirs, we were happy to swap.
We selected a range of restaurants and eating styles so that they could experience everything from a simple museum cafeteria, boulangerie, sandwich shop, or lunch assembled from a market, to a traditional three-course meal in a restaurant with white linens and uniformed waiters. Of course, the red-checked tablecloths frequently found in traditional brasseries were a must as was, later in their trip, a more creative bistro with unique combinations and presentations.
We organized our days around leisurely lunches and longer dinners, underscoring the concept of dining as opportunities for pleasures of the senses and a basic ingredient of social life.
We carefully observed how and what each child was selecting, and then tried to honor individual culinary requests, making choices based on what seemed to appeal to each.
The primary takeaways from six very different trips:
1. Variety was usually an attraction, unless duck and chocolate were options. Our oldest grandchild, open to any new taste experience (any new experience at all, really) but aware of her initial preference for pasta, was immediately smitten by snails, eating six off the plate of 12 I had ordered. She also traded her ravioles for my husband’s confit de canard. All but one lunch and dinner she found a new chocolate dessert to order. The first exception was lunch at l’As du Falafel, when, after our Middle Eastern sandwiches, we ended with an excursion to a nearby chocolaterie. The second occurred our last evening in Paris. Asked what she might want to eat for dinner, she announced without hesitation, “I haven’t tried frogs!” La Grenouille it was, with frogs’ legs in both entrée and plat preparations. The Farandole de desserts sampling that ended her meal did include mousse au chocolat.
2. Variations on sushi and seafood. Two years later, we knew that her brother liked sushi and so expected he would enjoy all manner of “tartare de la mer” – and he did! The dinner when we ordered three different variations of moules-frîtes, one for each of us although of course we shared, was one of his favorites. But he can still list the ingredients in his last lunch in Paris, underneath the stained glass cupola at Printemps, where he demolished a shrimp dish. He became an expert in spotting Amorino gelato stores and evaluating the morning’s pain au chocolat.
3. Feast your eyes as well as your taste buds. The next grandchild had her first French dinner during a Passover seder in an elegant catering hall on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. Dresssed in her prettiest outfit, she sat in awe, studying the details of each course’s presentation. She discovered Daurade Royale, unlike any fish she had known, as well as classic French service. Aware that she might never again attend a Passover Seder where she was served by attentive waiters wearing immaculate tuxedoes, she knew that she could confidently continue to discover new fish dishes. On subsequent nights, she chose one fish main course after another as we wound our way through the city. As much as she loved the food, she was equally intrigued by the careful and attractive ways in which it was presented and displayed. We took photos of windows in patisseries and fromageries, the vitrines of Hediard and Fauchon.
4. A potato is not a potato is not a potato. The next grandchild began her trip disappointed that the first restaurant, where we had hoped to introduce her to several classics, was out of snails that night. But then we spotted the Golden Retriever sitting obediently under the table next to ours. We shared stories of bringing our well-behaved bichon to restaurants, especially the brasseries where the waiter always inquired, “Would monsieur [our dog] prefer red meat of white?” before he assembled a bowl of scraps to place in front of his paws. At that first dinner, our granddaughter discovered that French frîtes were made from real potatoes and did not need catsup. Unfortunately, after she broke her ankle on the third day, she needed to learn to use crutches and the task (including curbs, cobblestones, bridges, escalators, bus steps, ramps, and so on) absorbed a lot of attention and effort. As our own focus shifted from helping her discover Paris to helping her master a whole new set of skills, we were happy to accommodate her requests for what was familiar. We went to a pizza parlor on the Champs Elysées, rather than one in our quartier. Sitting on the wide sidewalk, we had front row seats to watch a vendor selling pirated pocketbooks scoop up his display each time the police monitors approached and rearrange it after they were gone. The Caesar salads she often ordered had house-made vinaigrettes that she adored, and high-quality shaved Parmesan. She found assembling her own citron pressé one of the highlights of her trip. The last full morning in Paris, she even managed to sweep through the corner open-air market skillfully on her increasingly familiar crutches. Later that day she selected Kusmi teas and designer chocolates to bring home for her mother. She left Paris knowing that her favorite French treat was a macaron.
5. A need to better understand quality – and qualities. The next grandchild was born a natural scientist. She intuitively changed a single variable at a time when she was learning. The morning we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, she spotted a Ladurée stand and, following advice of her cousin, asked if she could try a macaron, a chocolate one. It became the standard against which all other macarons were judged, as we criss-crossed the city, buying a single macaron au chocolat from McDonald’s McCafé to Pierre Hermé. She nibbled, licked, savored, and compared, isolating qualities that mattered to her. Finally, she rank-ordered them. Luckily, the plate of four assorted flavors (including chocolat, of course) that accompanied her chocolat chaud at Angelina’s introduced her to a partial range of flavors in which the confection could incarnate.
6. Strawberries, a taste never forgotten. The last granddaughter, also the youngest to make the trip only days past her eleventh birthday, greeted the delights of eating in Paris with the most surprise and enthusiasm. She had never imagined that food could taste that good or be worth so much time spent eating! Her first dinner she tentatively accepted one of my snails, asked for a second, then just smiled as she reached over to secure a third. Her first taste of duck was her grandfather’s confit and she preferred it to her more familiar rôti de porc. Her eyes became huge when she saw my île flottante and even bigger when she tasted it. She was up for anything after that. Duck prepared any way. Fish. Steak tartare and carpaccio. She tried as many different desserts as we had meals to provide them. One of her culinary highlights followed our visit to the corner market, where we picked up a box of the seasonal fraises Gariguette. To this day she describes those strawberries when she thinks of fruit. On her final night, she asked to try her own confit. We returned to le Scheffer, a beloved local spot. As David was placing our orders, her sweet face became stricken. Softly, she asked me, “Aren’t we going to order snails?” She had not recognized the word “escargots” when David had listed our menu selections.
Although we tailored each trip to the individual child, we did repeat a few highlights each time. Along with visits to the Louvre and the Renault showroom, we went to l’Entrecôte off the Champs Elysées for steak-frîtes followed by profiteroles au chocolat, mixed and sipped Angelina’s hot chocolate, ate freshly baked baguette and flaky, yeasty croissants for breakfast (accompanied by the Bonne Maman selection of six jams in tiny jars), and indulged in crêpes, both sweet and savory. We ate single scoops of Berthillon ice cream at our café on the corner and drank tea or Orangina (or citron pressé) late afternoons. All six kids loved the luxury of a good meal after an active afternoon, the fresh pastries that Grandpa purchased at the corner boulangerie, discovering the richness of full-fat yogurt – and the information that Danon was originally French. They gobbled up the Nestlé chocolate bars bought at Monoprix and the chicken on skewers from the Lebanese vendor at the street market on the corner.
Today, whenever they think of France, they all have different images of foods in their heads and on their plates, but, for all of them, their taste buds awaken, memories of pleasure and deep satisfaction return. We hope that, for each of them, we have added to the foundation of knowledge that culinary pleasures can last a lifetime. The French honor “le plaisir de manger”. So too, now, will our six grandchildren.