Cooking à l’américaine

MaudEven before I met Maud I was trying to impress her.  If you don’t know Maud (rhymes with ode), you’ll just have to trust me when I say that she inspires that kind of behavior. I noticed her the first time all the parents were summoned to the kindergarten class attended by her son and my daughter. She’s French, and I tend to be drawn to foreign-born parents at my kids’ school; expatriotism inspires a kind of alert thoughtfulness that I enjoy in a friend. Plus the food tends to be better at their houses.

Yes, that’s an assumption I share with Europeans: that Americans don’t care about food.

As someone who does care about food, I was determined that this charming French woman recognize me as un-American, culinarily speaking. I had my first chance when we were both chaperones on a class field trip to the grocery store. As we ambled through Produce, I made some disparaging remark to my daughter about out-of-season peaches, in the tone of voice people use when they’re pretending to talk to their children, but really are talking to the grown-ups within earshot. (You’re right, dear; it is bad to cut in line.)

It totally worked. (Or possibly she didn’t hear me.) Eventually we began to cook for each other and then with each other, and over the couple of years we got to spend together before she moved back to France, I felt I put at least a faint question mark after America’s decidedly bad food reputation.

But I never managed to seem un-American to Maud, because of this one characteristic that is, like the grin that Americans wear on the streets of Paris, a dead giveaway: my cheerful embrace of the culinary shortcut.

Americans love shortcuts. This is a country where you can buy premade, crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the freezer section. Where you can buy frozen pastry dough or pre-baked pie crusts or graham crackers pre-crushed to make it easier to make a graham cracker crust. Or—screw it—just a pre-made graham cracker crust. And that’s if you don’t just go ahead and buy the pie.

In France, it’s true, if you arrive at someone’s house for dinner toting a beautiful tart, chances are you didn’t make it. They have experts to whom they cede special tasks like macarons and financiers and pain de campagne. 

But they don’t buy pie at the supermarket and sandwiches at the convenience store. (Convenience store! We even put it in the name!)

Since I personally don’t buy pie at the supermarket, I felt I had a right to honorary European citizenship. I make my own mayonnaise, for goodness sake! But I still love a shortcut. Anything that helps me cook, but doesn’t do the cooking for me. Pre-peeled garlic to make salsa. Egg whites in a carton to make buttercream frosting. Bags of chocolate chips and pre-toasted almonds for piles of double chocolate biscotti.

Oh, you don’t think of chocolate chips as a shortcut? Just ask Maud. Apparently, due to the small but perceptible drop in quality that occurs when chocolate is pre-chipped, almonds are pre-toasted, and spinach is pre-washed, you’re not going to find that kind of American-style shortcut in France.  They have standards to uphold.

On the other hand, American-style working-all-the-time is on the uptick. This leaves passionate French cooks (such as Maud) in a quandary: They have to do all the prep-work and the chef-work after getting home from work-work at 7. What are they supposed to do, eat at 10? Mon dieu, this isn’t Spain.

Obviously, French people need to live in America in order to cook like proper French people.

Right, Maud?


  1. Don’t try to impress Maud. Americans are Americans no matter what they do. The last time I was in France I went to a chateau where Josephine Baker once lived. They were playing a recording of her singing a French song and it sounded pretty French to me, who is a French speaking person (sort of.) I asked the tour guide whether it was obvious to her that Josephine was American. “Mais oui. It is so obvious to me, she replied.” So much for my sophisticated persona. Nous sommes qui nous sommes. Embrace it.

    1. Just to be clear: I wasn’t trying to impress Maud because she’s French. I was trying to impress her because she’s Maud. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

  2. 🙂 after 7 months back in France, we as a family are still surviving because you make sure that we have all we need every time I fly back home (sliced almonds for quick week nights salads – I used to slice them myself…, THE chocolate chips – we used to chop chocolate bars, vanilla extract – I just knew beans before moving to the States, corn tortillas…I’m still looking for peeled garlic though – we had an argument with my mother-in-law for whom peeled garlic is a total waste, or chicken stock…). I’m running out of stock though, should have a chat with my boss…

    Note that for me “cooking à l’américaine” is so much more than just prep food that this coming Saturday our friends are invited to a “4th of July on the 5th” party (no offense to the Americans but 4th is not a holiday here so Saturday sounds much more convenient for my project).
    The objective is obviously to have our friends drunk with American booze (we discovered Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Vesper, Cosmo, Mai Tai…) and to have them change their mind about American cuisine!
    The lucky ones who were invited home for Thanksgiving (once again on a fake date, the real Thanksgiving being in Virginia as every body knows) or for brunch or for Mexican diner already begin to think that definitely there’s something beyond Mc Donald’s.

    Well to come back to 4th of July, because you taught me so many things about cooking à l’Américaine, nobody is allowed bringing food because it won’t be as good as my American cuisine (see how you influenced me!), the price to pay is an entire week of cooking, slicing, freezing (and making some ice… no ice bags here). Please share your shortcuts!!

  3. It is a national sport in France to mock American cuisine…and yes the cheese is better there, and I do love a good charcuterie, with their lovely oeufs en gelee, but they have something we don’t ….entire stores of frozen food….breakfast,lunch,dinner,dessert,soups….just freezer case after freezer case….so if you are using peeled garlic and actually are cooking…

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