The last time I was in Paris, I had gone vegan only weeks before my flight left LAX. Prompted by my friend Veronica and the copy of Skinny Bitch she was peddling around on some wind swept pier in San Francisco, I purchased my own for a first hand glance at some potent and convincing vegan propaganda. Fueled by an aside about chickens getting their beaks cut off so they won’t peck each other to death per their instinctual primal bitchiness, I went on to check out some online video content that PETA had to offer. For the record, I don’t recommend doing this after having eaten a hamburger or gone for spaghetti Bolognese at the Chateau Marmont. The website’s pièce de résistance – in my humble opinion – was footage from a slaughterhouse in Romania involving a meat hook, a cow attempting to stand up straight while running from the proverbial white light at the same time, some yellow rain slickers, and a lot of blood. I mean, a lot of blood.
So when I landed in one of the culinary capitals of the universe, one that doesn’t pander to fad diets or vegetarianism out of strict respect for gastronomy, I was left in a bit of a pickle. When I came home and told friends that I hadn’t one piece of cheese or even a spoonful of yogurt from a rustic ceramic jar, many thought my dietary restraint, well, ridiculous. It wasn’t like I had been vegan since my teens; I was a newbie – a newbie whose digestive system would probably not have fully rejected the idea of dairy, meat, etc. In fact, my body would have likely rejoiced in the choice to actually come to Paris and eat like a Parisian.
But I’m boring, and my head and my body are often at odds with one another. In 2007, I flew all the way to Paris and this is pretty much what I consumed: English muffins from the supermarket, orange juice from the supermarket, some weird Borba brand skin care vitamin powder that I just got a bunch in a gift bag before I arrived, almonds and raisins, seeded grapes, numerous Cliff Bars brought over from the US of A, and half a glass of Rose imbibed while people watching in the Marais with the sun on my face and a new friend to my left. I did, however, make an exception for a particular salad made with arugula and tuna, served over a buckwheat crepe. That was about as French as my vegan diet would allow. Oh, and I did have a bite of Kelly’s lemon and sugar crepe she purchased while walking with me around St. Germain.
Two years later, I am back in Paris and have long since given up veganism after I felt I was not getting enough protein to my brain that my brain functioning had devolved to a state on par with that of a third grade D student. I did not come here entirely liberated, however. After an intense discussion at 1 AM with a DJ about his life changing decision to give up wheat, sugar, and dairy, I figured I’d alter my status as an average healthy person and tip the scales into absurd health freak. This meant shopping at Whole Foods for bread that looks like a giant soggy muffin and crackers that are made to crack your teeth.
One trip through the Fran Prix market the other day though and I had to throw up my hands: they were simply just not going to have my unsprouted wheat tortillas here, that was for sure. C’est la vie. I grabbed a gigantic loaf of wheat bread in a paper bag and called it a day. Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade and I am one ridiculous spade.
All of this no wheat/no sugar/ no dairy aside, Parisian food presents more than a few problems to the health conscious lady. Cream sauces are a no go. Giant chunks of Brie don’t generally find themselves on my gluten free brown rice crackers. Oh, you want some warm, chocolate filled croissants for dessert? Sorry, my meals usually end with coffee number 25 sweetened with stevia powder (read: battery acid that sort of tastes sugar but errs on the side of not-at-all). Everything in Paris strikes me as being exceedingly rich and totally devoid of the food paranoias found in places like Los Angeles where multi-million dollar companies are built upon bullshit like Kombucha tea and $17-a-bag gogi berry trail mix. In Paris, you don’t really see people with adorable whole wheat baguettes peeking out from a canvas bag while they sail past on a sweet little bicycle, neck scarf waving in the wind. The damn baguettes are white. The baguettes are white!
But after tonight, even I have become incredibly bored with myself. After work, I eagerly walk down to a tasty looking vegetarian place that I had wanted to try since I arrived to Paris. I look into the empty shop, save for the lone employee who is cleaning up with a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. I suppose the health movement in Paris can only be expected to go so far. I motion to him something that means “You are closed, no?” in a universal language I am not yet fluent in. His enthusiastic nodding indicates that he is getting off soon and I’m not getting my tofu salad with mixed vegetables.
Cold and uneager to walk around for forty-five minutes trying to forage something exotic, I opt to go to Le Pain Quotidien. For the second night in a row. This is embarrassing for a variety of reasons. Mainly, that there’s one down the street from my apartment in Manhattan and there’s one down the street from my previous apartment in Los Angeles. I am in Paris and I am eating at a chain. I flew 4,000 miles sitting in the middle seat on a redeye to eat somewhere I can walk to in five minutes any other day of the year. I currently possess a fair amount of self-loathing for myself so lay it easy on the judgment for now.
To make matters more pedestrian, every morning in Paris, I go to the local Starbucks three blocks down the street for a soy latte. Starbucks! The first time I went inside I thought it would just be me and every other asshole American who refuses to take themselves out of their comfort zone, but surprisingly Starbucks is taking off with the indigenous people of Paris. This morning, as I sit sipping the stevia sweetened soy foam out of my cup, I slouch down in my comfortable oversized chair and thought that it was sort of nice to have Starbucks wherever I go. It’s like my own personal US Embassy. This is generally the type of narrow minded mentality that I am not comfortable with having myself: this is the type of comment that allows me to pigeonhole someone else as unadventurous and boring with a capital “BORING.”
Back to my boring dinner Part Deux. Despite having reintroduced meat into my diet, I generally only like eating it a few days a week and definitely not multiple times during the day. I think there’s some merit to this, as opposed to my generally obnoxious and arbitrary restrictions on my universe. For lunch the last three days, I have ordered the same Cesar salad with char-grilled breast of chicken with dressing on the side. This is less so a personal choice and more a conscious awareness that the Park Hyatt is charging my client 33 Euro (my rough calculation puts it at under $50 US) for this salad and that’s one of the more reasonable items on the menu. I’d like to venture out and try some chicken satay with “two garnishes of [my] choice” but that’d set them back about 50 Euro, and in terms of manners and ethics, I just don’t roll like that.
To avoid getting the same thing I ordered last night, I ask the server what salad he would recommend. Unfortunately, his opinion of the most “complete” salad involves chicken and blue cheese. Pass. His next option is the grilled vegetable salad but I got a preview of someone eating that last night and it didn’t look entirely delicious – one of the few benefits of dining at a restaurant like it’s your personal kitchen. Which takes us back to…the same fucking thing I ordered last night: a salad they call “Salade Detoxification” to emphasize just how hideously healthy it is.
I point to the menu. I ask him to choose between the Detox salad and an artichoke heart number with basil and white beans. He doesn’t hear me when I say I came here last night and had the Detox Salad. “You should get the salad detoxification, yes. That one.” Sigh. “I’ll have that,” I grumble cheerfully.
After nearly thirty minutes of waiting for something that requires zero cooking, the server comes back to inform me that there is no arugula tonight. This is okay with me, as I had arugula on my third Park Hyatt 33 Euro Cesar salad just a few hours ago. The removal of a second does of the peppery green leaves makes me feel comparatively less predictable and boring. When the server offers to replace the arugula with avocado I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.
My salad comes out: healthy and green and the kind of thing that nutritionists have wet dreams about. Quinoa, sun dried tomato, mixed greens, avocado, and tomatoes. Yesterday there were shaved carrots and as I have my first bite, I realize that yesterday there was also some delicious dressing which appears to have gone missing this evening. I’m hungry so I figure I’ll keep chowing down until the waiter comes back so I can ask him for dressing.
As I sit scooping dry leaves and quinoa into my mouth, I become increasingly embarrassed that this is my second meal in a row at this same restaurant and I have ordered the exact same thing less than 24 hours ago. The thought of saying, “Excuse me, yesterday this salad came with this like white dressing that tasted like sun dried tomatoes…” makes me shovel the rest of my Salade Detoxification sans dressing and drinking water to aide in getting it down with ease. I eat quickly because I don’t want him to come back and notice that there’s not dressing and think me strange for not caring that there’s no dressing on the salad. This thought process is a sure fire route to indigestion, I’ll tell you that much.
I finish as much as I can before I get really bored and go up to the counter to pay. My waiter is behind the cash register, alternating duties between server/ bread slicer/ barista, he swipes my credit card and asks how everything was. I lie and tell him it was delicious, which is actually only a half lie because it was delicious yesterday. He asks me if he can ask me a question. I say sure. He follows asking if I am in town for fashion week. I say yes, which is less complicated than explaining showroom modeling to him. Another half lie.
It’s dark and blustery when I walk outside. My puffy black coat flaps against the back of my legs and I pull my hood with faux fur over my unbrushed hair. I look into restaurants with friends eating and drinking, enjoying each other and enjoying their food. Meat plates, Pinot Noir, smiles. I let out a groan because I’ve willingly just wasted another culinary trip to Paris. Then I promise to myself, the next time I come to Paris…I will be normal.