Here's a little background about me. I spent the 2010-2011 school year teaching English in Grenoble, France. Before that, I spent a year working in the heart of Chicago in the Jewish non-profit community. When I was abroad, my eyes were opened to the everyday experience of the Jewish community in my town and in the country at large. I experienced what it meant to me to be not only Jewish in France, but a Jewish, young, female, American in France. It was a ridiculously fun, thought-provoking and thrilling seven months and I'm excited to share these stories. By the way, all thoughts and opinions are purely my own…I take full responsibility for any sweeping generalizations.
One of the conditions of my host stay was seemingly simple: only kosher food allowed in the house. Easy enough, right? However, France is a land filled with delicious traif and endless combinations of milk and meat, and to be honest, I'd never kept kosher before. Of course I knew the basic tenets: no milk and meat, no pork, no shellfish. But from zero experience to a household with two separate dishwashers, I had quite a bit to learn.
I was an eager student, thanks to the enthusiasm of my host mom Daniele. When the only food I brought home from the grocery store was yogurt, she sensed my uneasiness. Sitting at the kitchen table and enjoying a cup of afternoon tea, she described that she hadn't always followed kosher laws, that she hadn't even kept kosher until she met her husband. I let out a sigh of relief. It was obvious, yes, that I wasn't quite sure what I was doing. But at one point, neither did she.
We soon wandered over to her cabinets, filled with troves of food. It was a varied mix of French supermarket staples, products with Hebrew labels on them and a few Manischewitz items thrown in for good measure. The B. family has plenty of relatives in Israel, who from time to time bring over goodies from the homeland. But almost all of the sundries, she said, came both from everyday shopping at French chains and trips to the kosher market, the Makolette. Never one to turn down a trip to a Jewish deli, I was delighted when she asked me to join her on her next visit.
I couldn't help but notice the funny juxtaposition of the tiny, nearly hidden-away Makolette being just down the street from a huge, beacon-like McDonald's. We hopped out of the car, driving back into the city after dropping off her son for a day of med school classes. During my first couple weeks in Grenoble, I must have passed this market a few times, but like most Jewish buildings in this town, it was understated, barely marked and easy to miss.
Walking in, the joint was a little sparser than I expected. To my grave disappointment, there were no bagels to be found. Strangely enough, the food I missed most in France was a hearty bagel and shmear…you can take the girl out of Chicago, but you surely can't take the Chicago out of the girl. The floor plan was pretty open, with lightly stocked shelves and a butcher off to the right, chatting rapidly with his guests. It was quiet on a weekday afternoon. I wandered around, noticing cans of gefilte fish, Israeli imports and more. As Daniele did her shopping, I settled on a pack of pita chips and some tried-and-true Sabra hummus. Pretty soon, we were out the door. I would venture back to the Makolette on other various occasions, most notably to pick up ingredients for my first-ever homemade latkes.
At home, Daniele gave me a thick packet, its contents listing every item in every major French grocery store that was certified kosher. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
But I was fascinated. Admittedly, I was hesitant…I wanted to experience all of the culinary delicacies the country had to offer! And while outside of the house I explored French cuisine to the hilt, when I went grocery shopping, I looked forward to poring over my reference book. To my delight, my very favorite French cookies, PIMs, are certified kosher...what a relief! As I flipped through the pages and my knowledge grew, I experienced the culinary life in France from a completely new and enlightening perspective.