Gerard Mulot, Barthélémy Au Bell Viandier, La Dernière Goutte, Poissonnerie du Dôme, Poilâne. What do these things all have in common? They are all shops in around the sixth district of Paris, and they are all a pretty short walk from each other. Gerard Mulot is a dessert shop, Barthélemy is a cheese shop, Au Bell Viandier is a butcher, La Dernière Goutte is a wine shop, Poissonnerie du Dôme is a fresh seafood shop, and Poilâne is a bakery (bread only, the desserts and pastries are down the street at Gerard Mulot).
So what? So, apart from these being extremely high quality shops, there is nothing unusual about them. In fact, pick any district in Paris or any other French city, or small town, or Spanish city, or Italian, or Belgian or German or Dutch,… and you will find very similar shops within minutes of each other. Also, take a look at the size of the refrigerators of the locals; you will be shocked to see how tiny they are. Everybody always wonders about the French Paradox – how do the Europeans stay so much slimmer than us while eating such famously rich food? I don’t know, it might have something to do with the facts that they usually shop for less volume at one time, while walking from store to store for several miles, stopping to poke around in other shops along the way.
Remember, we live in a country of fairly recent immigrants and when most our ancestors got here, there was nothing close to the infrastructure to support specialty shops, and frankly, most of them came here to start a new life without many resources. Most of us are descended from people that needed food for sustenance, quality came second. This characteristic has been passed down to most of us. My family is a prime example. My mother did have her lines in the sand though. She tried to stay away from canned vegetables for one thing. We Americans seem to value different things in our society. How many people have you seen that are scraping and clawing to get by, are in enormous debt, buy very low quality foods in bulk, but have the latest model of the iPhone in their pocket (along with the associated large monthly bill)? I think it’s because buying a $17/lb. piece of Prime meat doesn’t get you any status but that iPhone sure does. We crave status and will go into debt to prove that we can afford nice things.
I am under no delusion that we can recreate a Parisian district right here in ‘Merica, but we can certainly be a bit more discriminating on the things we put in our mouths. A few businesses have tried, and some are terrifically successful (Zabar’s, Zingerman’s, Di Bruno Brothers,…), but I would like more of us to just try more things. For example, go to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and sample a strawberry from Harry’s, then go pick up a basket of strawberries from the supermarket and see the difference. Night and Day doesn’t begin to cover it. You’ll never be able to eat a bad strawberry again. Harry’s cost at least twice as much, but they are eleven times better (I measured). When you eat them, you won’t be able to help but to savor every precious bite, wanting the experience to last forever. Just that little taste is all you need. Or taste the $12/lb. Swiss cheese at the supermarket, then come here and taste the magnificent Josef Paccard Beaufort d’Ete and you will see what I’m talking about. I promise, you will start eating your food more slowly and savoring it more, the difference between eating and savoring is a great one.
Trying to shop every day at several different specialty shops in a city like Los Angeles is not impossible, but it’s very close to that. We drive everywhere, we get big discounts for buying massive quantities, and we have enormous financial stresses and professional obligations that make it difficult to spend half the day shopping for dinner. It is also quite rare in this country to find several specialty shops within steps of each other.
In short, we’re not the Saint Germain arrondisement in Paris but we don’t need to be. They’re not better than us, just older and different. We’ll get there in our own way in our own time but I think we can certainly learn a thing or two from our European friends about valuing high quality things, whether they be food, drink, or conversation. Start one item at a time is my suggestion. Choose your favorite thing to eat or drink. I don’t care if it’s cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, or strawberries. Do yourself a huge favor and go somewhere where they have experts on whatever it is you like. Buy the best one that you can find that the expert thinks is a match for your taste without destroying your pocketbook, just one. Don’t eat it alone. Find someone to share it with. A relative, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, that girl you just met on line who lied about her age (it’s okay, you lied about your weight), and enjoy the moment, and talk about it and why you liked it or didn’t. It’s possibly the beginning of a whole new thing for you. Life is too short, eat some good cheese J, preferably with some good friends.
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