As an American native living in France, I happily accepted when a Parisian hostess invited me to dinner and proposed that each guest bring a traditional dish. I decided to make my first cheesecake. I telephoned a small but renowned American food shop in Paris and learned that it stocked all the graham crackers, cream cheese and other known-only-in-America ingredients I needed.
The store, called "Thanksgiving" (http://www.thanksgivingparis.com), is in one of Paris' most historic quarters. Its main thoroughfare, rue St. Antoine, began as the course along which knights raced on horseback in jousting tournaments. I decided to make an afternoon of it, to wend my way through the picaresque alleyways and end up at the shop. I invited along two French neighbors, ages 60 and 80, both avid readers of international travel and culture news. They had seen the 2009 movie " Julie and Julia," were fascinated to learn that Julia Child had revolutionized American cooking with French fare and were curious about just what Americans had been eating before Child came along.
We found Thanksgiving on a winding cobblestone street. The storefront looked like an entry into a magic shop. The interior, no larger than a living room, was lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves of dry goods I had forgotten existed.
Instantly on entering, I grabbed a can and exclaimed "Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup!" I excitedly told my neighbors that a recipe from the 1960s consisted of emptying unreconstituted Campbell's over raw chicken, adding a tablespoon of sherry and some sour cream (unknown in France), baking it and calling it coq au vin.
I ignored my friends' bewildered expressions and happily proceeded to the next shelf: Durkee fried onion rings! Women in the 1960s sprinkled them on casseroles, I told my friends. They looked puzzled. In French a "casserole" is the baking dish itself. I explained that the English word refers to the food inside, which might include chicken and Uncle Ben's Instant White Rice. With cream that has been soured. And unreconstituted Campbell's. And canned fried onion rings.
The younger woman turned pale.
I could see that my friends were not enthused about my trip down memory lane. I felt relieved that the store didn't stock Velveeta.
By now, American expatriates crowded the place. I got in line, hoping the cashier could point out my ingredients and I could get my friends out of there quickly. While I waited, they continued browsing. The older woman came up to me and whispered: "Why do Americans sell mustard of the Frenchies?"
I replied that the store sold mustard produced by a company called "French's." I felt certain that the women were making mental comparisons to Parisian specialty condiment stores, which are stocked with shelves of mustards from Dijon, Bourgogne and Provence, along with mustards with tarragon and a l'ancienne (that is, in the old style, with mustard seeds).
I was right. Their next question: "What kind of mustard is it?" I replied, "Yellow." I pretended I didn't hear their comments about how Americans have mustard in colors. And I ignored their subsequent remarks about brown sugar.
There was no ignoring the next question, however. The older woman pulled me out of line and led me behind a pillar, where she obviously believed a basket of goods had been intentionally hidden. It was filled with apparatuses in clear plastic packages. She gingerly picked one up by the corner and held it between index finger and thumb. Her face was drawn. "What is this?"
I said, "A turkey baster."
I took it in both hands, the bulb in my right and the tip pointing downward in my left. "When you roast a bird, you place the tip of the baster in the pan juices and squeeze the bulb. The juices aspirate into the tube, and you squirt them on the skin." I dared not say "the breasts."
The younger woman said, "For this in France, a lady would use a spoon."
The no-nonsense 80-year-old took the baster, pointed its tip toward the ceiling, gave it a fearsome upward thrust and said, "I thought it was for — schloop!"
The younger woman asked if I knew what a "lavage" was. I'd heard the French word used in reference to "laundry," but after "schloop" I had the sinking feeling I was about to learn more.
My friends confirmed that the word refers not only to clothes washing but also to washing "the interior of the posterior." They asked me for the English expression. I saw that the other customers were beginning to take notice of my older friend brandishing her baster. I meekly replied "an enema."
I headed quickly back toward the line, with my friends trotting cheerfully behind. On the way, I reconsidered buying a bag of favorite crackers I had taken from a shelf. Why? they asked. "I don't need the calories or the preservatives," I said.
My astonished neighbors asked: "Americans sell crackers with preservatives?"
"Preservatives are probably included in every box here," I said. "The crackers, the cookies — " I hesitated. I didn't want to explain Jell-O. Or dried onion soup in cream that has been soured. Or, for that matter, "dip."
"You have the same thing!" I protested. "Rows of supermarket cookies and cereals with preservatives!"
The older woman replied loftily: "I assure you no French woman ever awakened, said ‘Bonjour,' and reached for a cereal box with preservatives!"
Instantly I realized my mistake. The French word for additives is conservateurs. "Preservatifs" refers to, well, synthetic items that men use for contraception and protection.
I apologized. "Of course French women don't reach for cereal with those surprises inside." The younger woman, who had studied English, helpfully volunteered: "In America, you call them ‘condominiums.'"
I finally reached the cashier. I asked if he would point out the rest of my cheesecake ingredients, sped around the room gathering the rest of my groceries and paid. At last I hustled my friends safely outside into Old Europe. That is, until we passed the front window, with its resplendent display of Stovetop Stuffing.
The French are more than familiar with stuffing: tomatoes stuffed with the aromatic sausages of the Auvergne region, cabbage stuffed with ground meats from the famed grazing farms of the Limosin province.
My French friends asked: "Americans sell instructions for stuffing in a box?"
"No," I said. "The stuffing is in the box."
"Americans stick dry crumbs up the bottom of a turkey?"
"No," I said. "They add water."
My friends smiled brightly. "With a turkey baster: schloop!"