After living in Paris for nearly 13 years, the somewhat lackadaisical attitude that the French can have about food cleanliness still amazes me. There’s an illness here called “gastro” which is a heinous, contagious stomach-flu that can last anywhere from 1 night to over a week. While most French people, including my husband, refuse to consider it, I’m convinced that if the French took better care of the handling of their foodstuffs, there would be fewer cases of “gastro” all around. For instance, I was on the metro around Christmastime, when I noticed a man coming down the aisle, stopping at commuters along the way. When he arrived at my row, I saw that he was actually offering people candy from a giant, half-empty box of mixed chocolates. There was no lid on the box, the candies were unwrapped and the few pieces that remained were kind of battered and powdery.
He stuck the box beneath our runny, “height of cold-and-flu season” noses, and announced that on behalf of RATP (the Paris Public Transport System), he was offering a little treat to the holiday shoppers. The guy himself was a bit “rough around the edges”. The hands holding the box were smudged and calloused, the fingernails cracked and dirty. Being the streetwise City girl that I am, I knew that the moment someone took a candy, they would be “encouraged” to make a small donation to the “Paris Rail System”. I silently gave the guy props, though, for coming up with such a seasonal scam, but also felt bad for him, because with those nasty looking candies and his dirty hands, there was no way anyone would take him up on his offer. Just then, a completely sane-looking, conservative French woman sitting across from me looked up, plucked a candy from the box, and with a “merci” and a smile, popped it into her mouth – AND ATE IT! 24 hours later I’m sure she was curled up in bed with a gastro, making no connection between her current state and the friendly RATP man from the day before.
But maybe, for the French, the instant gratification of the dining experience outweighs the potentially hazardous end result. For instance, on my first trip to Paris, I was a typical, forward thinking 20 –something. I had budgeted exactly enough money to last the 21 days of my trip, but ran out of cash on the 20th day. Being twenty, I saw it as an adventure. I filled up on free hot chocolate and bread at my hotel, then spent the day on a last wander around Paris. By the time I reached the Eiffel Tower it was late afternoon, and I was absolutely weak from hunger. I plopped down by the Champ de Mars, and went through every nook and cranny of my backpack looking for loose change. In the end, I had scraped together nearly 20 francs (a whopping 3 euros!). Buoyed by my new-found richesse, I headed over to get a hotdog from one of the vending trucks. Making my way through the tourists, the pickpockets and the guys selling Eiffel Tower key chains, I noticed two young entrepreneurs standing on the steps of Trocadero.
There, they had set up a makeshift bar-b-cue out of what looked like a piece of an old car engine lined in aluminum foil, and were grilling hotdogs and selling them for 10 francs each. After a lifetime of American media exposure (and a germaphobic mother to boot) my immediate reaction was a mixture of disgust and outrage. Salmonella! E. Coli!! Botulism!! But when I got to the snack truck, I found that I could either spend my entire 20 francs on a “clean” hotdog from them, or I could buy one of the streetkids’ hotdogs and have money left to splurge out on a bag of chips and a soft drink. Knowing that my next meal wouldn’t be until I was sitting down in the airplane the next day, I made my choice and headed back over to the steps of Trocadero. To this day, it was the tastiest hotdog I’ve ever had.
Now before all you American food-bloggers in Paris get your Princesse Tam Tam’s in a bunch, let me just clarify- most (that is to say the great majority) of legitimate Paris food vendors adhere to strict rules, licensing and sanitary checks in order to stay in business. In addition to the traditional Parisian street fare like crêpes, paninis and gaufres (warm waffles covered in powdered sugar or chocolate sauce- I know, right??) the past few years have also seen a boom in urban food trucks in Paris. Authentic burgers from Le Camion Qui Fume, tacos from Cantine California or a moving delicatessen (huzzah!) at Bugelski Deli. and lots (lots) more, all offer up American-style food-handling practices along with their American-style nosh. So, if you’re planning a visit to Paris, I don’t want to scare you away this very authentic (and delicious) Parisian experience. I’m just suggesting that you take off the rose-colored glasses before placing your order (and pack the Maalox, just in case)!