Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paris, Poverty and People

I have had the opportunity to travel. In those travels I have mixed and lived with people from backgrounds very distant from mine. Their experiences are truly worlds apart from my own yet within them I have found more than one element of similarity. Some that are leaps in the imagination to get to and others as close as your front door and as familiar as your old shoes.

If all of these elements, there is the singular element of food that is indeed the ultimate common denominator. When I lived in poor neighborhoods in Paris and shopped in the local grocery stores with my African, Arab and Asian neighbors, the familiar was always swirling around us. Universally loved flavors we all shared. Coca-Cola, bread, ice cream, frites...Others, were as foreign to me, like their roots and spices, as perhaps my eating pork was to many of them.The Halal butcher and the French butcher share a common practice but certainly their inventory was different.

My experiences in Paris, the immigrant Paris, has allowed me to see the quest for food from another angle. I recall one day standing in line at the check-out counter of the neighborhood ED supermarket. ED is a hard discount chain.Not much variety but the general basics in everything and not at all expensive compared to the Monoprixs and Champions. On this particular day, an elderly woman was paying, or attempting to pay for her items which consisted solely of a plastic wrapped package of Danish salami. Probably 30 ultra-thin slices in the pack. The woman who was dirty and poorly dressed in rags, really.. rags, reached into her thread bare coat pocket and pulled out a paper cup, probably an old espresso cup she found on the ground. In that cup which was serving as her wallet, were a few coins. her bony, dirty fingers reached into the cup for enough coins to pay. There was one customer between her and I ( I was third in line). The second customer, another woman, well dressed and attractive, offered to pay for her food. The cashier had been asking the first woman a question but she either did not understand or pretended to not understand. The second woman provided a coin or two and the first woman left without saying anything. "C'est pour manger, monsieur," the second woman said to the cashier.

As I watched this scene play out, I wondered if my compatriots would be as quick to pay for someone else's food like that. I'm sure it would happen there as well as here. And then I thought, how many times had I ever in my life seen a person so obviously impoverished in my country. Not often. They are there, but they are not often seen.

In Paris the impoverished live amongst the well off. There are poorer neighborhoods and extremely wealthy neighborhoods for sure. But that in and of itself does not determine whether a quartier's residents are eating or not eating on any given day. It is not a determinant of an average income or any income at all.

I still look in wonderment at people who have to survive in this city with no family to rely on nor good job to go to. These are the people who make literally something from nothing everyday. These are the survivors.

This blog therefore is dedicated to delving deeper into the cuisine of poverty. Poverty food. It is not an oxymoron. It is the fruit of the human race's quest not only for survival, but for survival with flavor, savour, spice and beauty. Some of the most delicious things have come from this and they are reminders of what we are capable of as human beings.