French Friday: Cloth Napkins, Iced Water, and Doggy Bags

In his extremely well observed, funny, entertaining, awesome novel The Nix, Nathan Hill writes:

“Samuel was disappointed that a foreigner’s first impression of America would be made here, [at O’Hare International Airport], and what America was offering them was a McDonald’s (whose big message to the incoming throngs seemed to be that the McRib was back) and a store specializing in gadgets of questionable necessity: HD video pens, shiatsu massage chairs, wireless Bluetooth-activated reading lamps, heated foot spas, compression socks, automatic wine-bottle openers, motorized barbecue-grill brushes, orthopedic dog couches, cat thunder-shirts, weight-loss armbands, gray hair prevention pills, isometric meal replacement packs, liquid protein shots, television swivel stands, hands-free blow-dryers holders, a bath towel that said “Face” on one end and “Butt” on the other.

This is who we are.”

When my children were old enough to notice their unfamiliar surroundings but moreover express their feelings about them, they pretty much summon up their French impressions in a similar way.

On one particular trip I had warned them. It’s summertime, I said, the airport will be stuffy, crowded and people will likely be a little pushy. My kids didn’t care much. Their goal was to get there and see their grandparents.

Yet on our early morning arrival, in a particularly rowdy aiport, I recognized on their tired faces the marks of disappointment.

“This is only the airport,” I reminded them when hurried careless passengers kept bumping into them.

Then we took the highway. Truth is the gray suburbs that surround Roissy airport are simply ugly and even depressing. It is hard to believe that they are the gateways to the French capital.

In my kids’ eyes I read: These tagged, bleak buildings along this noisy, jammed highway belong to Paris? The Paris you keep babbling about?

“Don’t worry,” I announced in a cheerful voice. “Remember? This is not Paris yet.”

Like Samuel, I was disappointed that my born-American children’s memorable first impression of France would be made here.

But I was not expecting that my elder daughter’s friends from kindergarten would feel the exact opposite way when they visited our home. Not instantly. Still.

 

 

People have often asked me if I served wine to my children. No. Never. 

Soon after school started, Julia, Peter, and Tommy became our regular guests. When they had lunch at my home the table was already set when the school bus dropped them off. I still remember the sparkle in their eyes the first time they took in the tablecloth and cloth napkins, the real glasses and the flowers.

Although these are from Public House, in Chattanooga, we always use cloth napkins at home.

“What are we celebrating?” they asked.

“Nothing,” said my daughter, puzzled by the question.

Her surprise, and soon her siblings’, would, years later, be sometimes tinted with a touch of embarrassment. Why was their maman using cloth napkins and glasses and not paper napkins and Dixie cups like their friends’ moms?

“I’m hungry!” Peter said that day, tapping his plate with his knife.

“Unfold your napkin,” my daughter said.

“Can we eat while we watch TV?” Peter asked, standing up.

“That would be so much fun!” my daughter said.

“I only eat red apples, white bread, and orange cheese,” Julia announced. And later on, no matter what I served, she said, “I don’t like that.”

“Have you tried it before?” I asked, serving quiche and a green salad on that first lunch date.

“No, but I know I don’t like it,” Julia answered, leaving the table.

“I swear it’s good,” my daughter said.

Julia made a face, but in the end sat down and ate.

“Can I have a coke?” Tommy asked.

“We only drink water,” my daughter said.

“We also have orange juice and milk,” her younger sister added, opening the fridge.

“I just drink OJ and milk for breakfast,” Tommy said.

I poured Tommy a glass of water. “Can I have some iced water, please?” he asked.

“But it’s cold outside!” my daughter said. I never served water with ice at home, especially in winter, following the French way.

“I only drink iced water,” Tommy insisted.

My daughter got ice cubes and added them to everyone’s glass. “Yum,” she said with a shiver after taking a sip. “It’s so-o good! Maman? Can we drink water with ice cubes, too?”

With iced water, I realized that friends’ culinary opinions and habits would soon matter more than mine. And of course my homemade lunches could only pale in comparison to the exotic hot dogs, hamburgers, and Jell-Os served in the school cafeteria.

“Nobody brings this kind of lunch at school,” my daughter declared one day, pushing her lunchbox as far as she could on the kitchen counter.

“That’s true,” her sister added. “Can we have Lunchables instead?”

“No,” I said. Does it really exist? I wondered.

“Then, can we at least eat the school lunch like everyone else?” My elder daughter crossed her arms on her chest.

“What’s your favorite food?” I asked the girls.

“Pizza!” they shouted.

“Okay, what about having the school lunch on pizza day?”

“Yeah! Merci, Maman!”

I wouldn’t have received a tenth of their enthusiastic cheering if I had treated them to lunch at the Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower. Or to dinner at La Coupole.

The historical brasserie on Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris

The great outdoors will always be my favorite fancy dining room.

One day, I met Julia’s mother on the parking lot of the supermarket.

“I never saw you before,” she said as we loaded our trunks next to each other.

“I come at least once a week,” I said.

“Funny that we never bumped into each other before.” Then she glanced at my cart and laughed. “I know why!” she exclaimed. “We don’t visit the same aisles.”

I laughed, too, when I saw the bags of chips and bottles of soda piled in her cart. She pointed at the green apples and the loaf of French bread lining mine.

“Darn,” she said. “I forgot to buy those. Julie loves your apples and bread. And Tommy’s mom wonders where you get your cheese because he likes it.”

Julie? Really? She only loved red apples. And Tommy? He blocked his nose when I put Camembert on the table.

It turned out that my daughters enjoyed some success with their homemade lunches. Their friends loved the baguette and Brie sandwiches, the pear cake, and madeleines I baked from scratch, while my daughters claimed to favor true American food.

French Crème Brûlée

Versus…

A More Typical American Dessert

A French Steak Frites

Versus…

An American Meat Sandwich with Fries

I had not thought of making a good first impression when I received my daughter’s friends, but I was glad that I did. They had never been to France, of course, and had never met anyone from there until we moved to town. Our home and us represented both France and the French people. And I liked the idea that these children would remember the way they felt when they visited us for the first time. Because we all know that first impressions are not easy to forget. Good or bad 🙂

As for me, this same year, I became the favorite guest of a mother who came from India. Her daughter and my preschooler became instant friends at the nursery school.

“Do you like spicy food?” she asked me once as we were picking up our daughters.

“I love spicy food!” I said. “In fact Indian food is among my most favorites in the world.”

Her beautiful face broke into a grin. “Good,” she said. She lowered her voice. “The Americans find my food too spicy.” Behind her confidential tone of voice was a hint of disappointment but also of hope, now that she had met me.

She invited me for lunch on a cold winter day. She wore an elegant sari and her home smelled of curry, red chili, turmeric, and coriander. I was impatient to taste her food. And what a feast it was! When the children were finished eating they sat on a rug and played, while their mothers drank tea. Fire crackled in the chimney. Indian music played in the living room. In accented English the mothers shared the stories of their lives from before. They forgot they were in Massachusetts, until the voices of their little girls, speaking perfect-pitched American, reminded them that they were still in the US.

So the host who had cooked too much food asked her guest, “You’ll take a doggy bag home, of course?”

“Of course,” said casually the guest.

Atypical French Breakfast table. Most of us don’t eat much in the morning. Some even go sans napkin:)

Comments

  1. Les serviettes – j’aime les serviettes!

    This sounds so similar to our house. When we have guests – they look at the food and I know they are thinking “what am I going to eat”.

    Food is one of the many ways we try to stay connected to France.

    Our wooden serviette rings are another and they are adored in our family.

    Another great post. Truly enjoyed reading it.

    Merci

    Suz

  2. Another wonderful post!
    It must be interesting to have children of a different cultural upbringing, I’ll say that much. Closest I can come is that two of my kids are definitely not northerners for having spent so much time in the south. The south stuck to them and the north never left me.
    We use cloth napkins all the time, but we drink ice water all the time, too.
    My kids took/take packed lunch, too. I do recall the first request being pizza day for all of them as well. That was the first day packed lunch was a no for all of them.
    It’s interesting when kids visit our home, I’m fascinated by what they’ll try. Most often, they’re adventurous eaters and I must admit, I prefer the ones who will eat, and compliment, whatever is served.
    My #3 went to a new-American home a few weeks ago, and the mother was deeply concerned she wouldn’t have what the girls wanted to eat at the sleepover, but it turns out food from other cultures is delicious and they all ate it and raved about it. That made me smile 🙂

    • You’re right about kids being usually adventurous. But mine are older than yours and most of their friends still ate pretty bland food 🙂
      It has changed a lot and many children love to cook too. The TV shows helped change the American kitchens, I think. We have new gourmet, smart people who want to eat fresh nourishing food. Their own kids can only be more discerning. In the 90′ it was still very slow and many of these kids were cautious about good they had never tried before.
      There are substantial differences between the west and east coast and the same between the south and the north. I can imagine your kids liking fried green tomatoes while you’d rather have tomatoes and mozzarella?
      I will always favor cloth napkins, even though it means washing and ironing to paper ones. But I love the pretty or funny paper ones for food finger when you have people over and share a drink before dinner. These can be great. Thank you, Joey for another cool visit. Enjoy your weekend.

  3. So funny, how children will claim not to like something unfamiliar, then go home and ask for it, once they’ve tried it. 😀

    • I remember once being intimidated when offered a large cheese selection. I was 10 and at one of my school new friend’s home. At my home we only ate two of three different cheeses. My friend’s parents were wealthier and everything looked and was fancier. So I wasn’t sure what to choose. I didn’t like the cheese I picked but I did remember the names of the others and later asked my mom if she could buy some. I wanted to try them at home before being offered something I had never seen before. So I understood my daughter’s friends.
      What added to the situation for them was me speaking French:)
      Thank you, Maria.

  4. It’s funny the way our kids and their friends “see” us, that older (and even older) generation. For years we used cloth napkins. Now, we don’t because there are only two of us and keeping the amount of laundry low is an issue. But we still set our little tables and a lot of the junk you find in other homes, you won’t find here. We simply don’t eat that way. I meant to buy baguettes today, but I forgot. Tomorrow. They are only good for the day you buy them, so …

    This was a wonderful little trip down memory lane, even though I’ve never been in France OR California 🙂

  5. Well, I have been in California, now that I think about it. Like … half a dozen times. Oops.

  6. You can invite me to enjoy your French cooking anytime, Evelyne. 🙂 And spicy Indian food is an all time favorite. Don’t get me started on kids’ eating habits. I just don’t get it. I have to ‘bite my tongue,’ so to speak. –Curt

  7. Wonderful cultural post – and great observations about the different approaches to mealtimes and traditions. I will have to get your recipe for homemade Madeleines sometime (my younger son is an outright Madeleine monster). : ) BTW, bought beautiful, (Basque) fabric napkins on holiday in France this summer, but admit to only using them (* sigh*) for special occasions…

  8. This is so interesting Evelyne, so strange the way that what is normal to us is exotic to someone else, but you helped to broaden some horizons there and I think those children will always remember that 🙂

  9. I love these examples, Evelyne. We entertained so many of our children’s friends who had never tried salmon, lamb, or eggplant. They were always surprised by the late hour that we ate. But, when I run into them, they always tell me how much they loved dinner at our table. Bon appetit!

    • This is great to read your own stories, Claire. I’ve also discovered other dishes at some of my friends even if it was in France and enjoyed typical American meals too. Kids are usually curious and willing to try new things. It took my kids’ friends a little bit of time to get used to our French style but I’m glad they had the exposure and ultimately enjoyed the different food, way of eating and the late hour too:)
      See you on your blog.

  10. very nice

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