08 April 2011

Why There Will Never Be Another Julia Child

An excerpt from the long-anticipated memoir, My Life around France, by an unknown American author.
At 12.30PM we rolled to a stop in La Place du Vieux Marché, the square where Joan of Arc met her fiery fate. There the guidebook directed us to Restaurant McDonald’s (“McDonald’s Restaurant”), which had opened in a medieval quarter-timbered house. Paul strode ahead, full of anticipation, but I hung back, concerned that I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.

It was warm inside, and the dining room was a comfortably plastic-and-particle-board space, brightly colored. At the far end was an enormous counter with several cash registers, behind which something was cooking that sent out heavenly aromas.

I sniffed the air. “Paul,” I whispered excitedly, “is that what I think it is?” Paul nodded.

Grease. Already I felt at home!

There really is a McDonald’s in historic Rouen.
The city refused to permit the company to remodel the building, which is why the restaurant has no Golden Arches and doesn’t look like a conventional McDonald’s.

We were greeted by the assistant manager, a slim middle-aged man with dark hair who carried himself with an air of gentle seriousness. Paul spoke to him, and the assistant manager smiled and said something back in a familiar way, as if they were old friends.

“May I take your order, Madame?” the assistant manager said — in English!

“I’d like a Big Mac,” I said, adding, “Did I say that right? And also a Diet Coke,” since I was trying to watch my figure.

Within seconds, the assistant manager had placed my order on a little plastic tray, with Paul’s Big Mac and fries right next to mine. Paul paid, and then he led me to a nice table not far from the door. The other customers were all French, and I noticed that they were treated with exactly the same courtesy as we were. Nobody rolled their eyes at us or stuck their nose in the air.

Actually, the staff seemed happy to see us. As we sat down, I heard two businessmen in grey suits at the counter asking questions of another cashier, an older, dignified man who gesticulated toward the menu and answered them at length.

“What are they talking about?” I whispered to Paul.

“The cashier is telling them about the Chicken McNuggets they ordered,” he whispered back. “How they were raised, how they will be cooked, what side dishes they can have, and which parts of the chicken the McNugget comes from.”

One of the businessmen raised his voice and gestured more vigorously. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“He wants to order wine,” Paul replied. “And they don’t carry it.”

“Wine?” I said. “At lunch?” I had never drunk much wine other than some $1.19 California burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day. I was happy with my Coca-Cola. I like something really sweet with my meal, and wine is so bitter.

Suddenly the dining room filled with wonderfully intermixing aromas that I sort of recognized but couldn’t name. The first smell was something greasy. “That’s your Big Mac,” Paul identified it, “fresh from the heating lamp.” Then came another warm and greasy fragrance from my french fries. This was followed by a whiff of something astringent, which was probably a delicious sauce being squeezed out of a little red packet labeled “KETCHUP.” My stomach gurgled with hunger.

We began our lunch with the Big Mac, or, as it is known in France, “le Big Mac.” I was used to Big Macs in American McDonald’s. But this Big Mac was remarkable for the spongy buns, the flavorless sesame seeds, the unidentifiable and yet lumpily familiar “special sauce,” the dense and unforgiving meat patties, the anonymous pickles and onions, the plastic-like tomato and papery lettuce. Why, it tasted exactly the same as the Big Macs in America!

And the cheese! I was afraid that the French might use some unusual kind of cheese, perhaps even a cheese with a flavor. But Paul explained that all McDonald’s everywhere use the same processed American cheese-type product on all their Big Macs. Indeed, it was sticking to my fingers already, just the way it did back home.

“Bon appétit!” Paul said. I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume of my sandwich. Then I lifted a single french fry to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The potato was crisp on the outside yet delicate on the inside, with a light but distinct taste of grease that blended marvelously with the ketchup. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.

At last, a truly French french fry! This country was turning out to be so much easier than I’d expected!

Then it was time for a special treat, which Paul had ordered without my realizing. A deep-fried apple pie, with the lacy flakes of pastry on the outside, the inner crust that tasted of wet leather and paste, and the gooey fruit filling that was so hot that I burned my tongue and couldn’t tell whether it tasted like anything at all.

Another revelation!

It was exactly like the apple pie in the McDonald’s back home! In Pasadena, we used to have McDonald’s apple pie five or six times a week. But at the McDonald’s in Rouen, I experienced my first French pastry — just like all the pastries I’d ever had before.

Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air. Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.

“Promise me that everything we eat on the trip will be exactly like this, darling,” I said.

“But of course!” Paul laughed. “And remember, we’ll always have McDonald’s in Paris.”

Julia and Paul:
Here’s to the spouses who give us the gift of France.

NOTE: In real life, Julia Child was known to praise McDonald’s french fries.


Brightshadow said...

Why isn't this in Cries and Whispers or whatever they call it at The New Yorker?

William V. Madison said...

It's "Shouts & Murmurs," and yours is a valid question, I must say. Thank you for raising it.

Buck said...

This was absolutely brilliant. It really does belong in the New Yorker. Thanks for posting it.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Buck -- I thought you'd like this one!

Other readers are reminded that Buck's blog, "Channeling Julia Child," is an always-entertaining celebration of our heroine's enduring excellence:


Mark Bradford said...

Years ago, I heard Julia in an NPR interview respond to the very question: "Don't you ever just want a Big Mac every once in a while?" She responded thusly: "Well, when you're traveling, what're you gonna do? Actually, I prefer the Quarter Pounder . . ."