What pumpkin can tell us about cooking in the US and France
One evening I'm sitting in the kitchen peeling the vegetables for the vegetable soup we have five or six evenings a week. It's Danièle who decides what kind of soup and buys the veggies, sometimes at the marché (outdoor market) and sometimes at the supermarket; she also cooks the soup. My job is to peel the vegetables. That week it was pumpkin-and-white-bean soup, a popular soup where my wife comes from (Dordogne).
That means I've got a a fat chunk of pumpkin to peel. It's my least popular vegetable - hard rind! As I'm hacking away at the rind, it dawns on me that I'd never peeled a pumpkin in the States. Carved? Of course. But peeled? Never.
After, I got out my trusty Better Homes and Garden cookbook and looked up every single recipe I could find that called for pumpkin. Not one started with raw pumpkin, every one started with canned pumpkin! When I asked my wife about canned pumpkin, she gave me a blank look. She'd never seen any in France, had never cooked with it, and didn't know anybody who had, including her mother who'd run a restaurant. Conclusion: in France pumpkins come from the marché, in America they come in a can.
One further note: Pumpkin is only available in season. From October to February.
The connection of the French to what they cook with and through that to the ground it came from is much closer and more intimate than Americans'. Pumpkins come from the market and often from the farmer who grew it, not from a can. And you cook with them at pumpkin time, not otherwise.
Have you ever bought a potato or head of lettuce with dirt still clinging to it? I hadn't before moving to France. Happens when you're buying at the marché where the veggies or fruit were often gathered the day before. And after a while, you learn walnuts have a season and are best when eaten fresh during walnut season. Who knew? OK, let's check your general cooking knowledge. When is walnut season? (Answer at the end of the post.)
Cooking is more than a necessity in France, more than an obsession, more than a passion. It's one of the foundation stones of the lovely structure that is French culture. Calling it cooking is like calling a Rolls-Royce a transportation tool. Better to call it by a more serious word, like gastronomy. I grew up eating American food and I like American food, but I would never think to call what I grew up on gastronomy. Even UNESCO refers to it as the gastronomic meal of the French in its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If you click on the link, you'll notice that the citation stresses the importance of both wine and socializing in French gastronomy.
Since the event is as much about socializing as eating, when you're invited to someone's home for a meal, you can expect to be at the table till midnight. And since the French are more formal than Americans, there are rules you need to know (and are expected to observe) when invited to dinner in a French home. But that's a post for another day.
Still, let's not get too carried away - fast food is alive and well in France. Though some would like to burn them down, McDonald's is everywhere, and McDonald's France is the most profitable unit in Europe. Here next to Bordeaux is a university that stretches over three towns and several big lycées (high schools), and we have our McDonald's. Then, there are the kebabs (North-African-style carry-outs) and sandwicheries (sandwich shops) beyond counting that are overrun by students at noon. The national news carries reports on how the leisurely two-hour lunch is being replaced by the hasty sandwich gobbled down at the desk. In town it's not unusual to see someone walking down the street while eating the end of a round sandwich sticking out of a paper sleeve. (Follow this link to learn more about eating a baguette sandwich.)
(If you're looking for free Wi-Fi in France, find a fast-food restaurant. The major chains with free Wi-Fi are McDonald's, Flunch, Quick. Lots of others do, too.)
French paradox: the land of haute gastronomie is also a great fan of fast food.
Answer: Walnut season is in the fall, September to November.