I felt a bit guilty when I lied to the very kind customs man who welcomed us back into the United States.
“You’re not bringing in any food?” he said.
“No,” I replied.
In fact, my bag was 50% clothes, 50% food. I had several very alive raw milk cheeses, a few packages of salted Italian bottarga mullet roe, a large box of vialone nano risotto rice, five or six cans and jars of foie gras, four boxes of dried pasta and miscellaneous containers of salts. It is probably only the first two that would’ve raised border control eyebrows.
Coming home from our honeymoon on a flight from Paris on September 11, 2001, we got diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we then spent several days at a Canadian air force base in the countryside. I had packed a bagful of raw milk cheese to bring home that time, too, and now my bag was quarantined. When we were finally brought out onto the tarmac to reunite with our luggage, I could smell mine before I found it.
“Do you think we can still eat the cheese?” I asked my wife hopefully, and she scowled.
You can’t get really good cheese in the U.S. Because of our strict pasteurization laws (a process ironically created by a Frenchman), we must eat dead cheese.
I hear that the European Union is pressing for pasteurization of cheeses. I hope this does not pass, as we would lose one of the world’s great artisanal products.
* * *
I’ve written in the past about another of my favorite foreign products — exotic flavors of potato chips.
Wherever you may be in the world, you’re likely to discover a flavor of Lay’s potato chips that you’ve never seen before. In England, you can find flavors of Walkers brand chips (aka Lay’s) in flavors such as steak & onion, prawn, and cheese and onion.
One of my favorite chips ever was the Lay’s Ruffle poutine flavored chips we discovered in Quebec last summer.
In Italy, we ate tomato flavored chips and Bolognese flavored chips.
In French Annecy near the Swiss border at the foot of the Alps, we discovered a new favorite — fondue Savoyarde. Just like the picture on the bag, it tasted as if each chip had been dipped in melted gruyere.
“Whoa,” my wife said. “That’s a lot of flavor.”
We were served a deliciously savory potato chip at a friend’s lunch party in Normandy.
“What kind of chip is this?” Leslie asked our host, Ghislain.
“Bouillon,” he replied.
In the kitchen, I discovered the bag — Lay’s poulet roti (roasted chicken) flavored chips. I guess “bouillon” was more or less accurate. Along with a bottle of wine and some cheese, they were the first things we purchased upon return to our flat in Paris.
* * *
My pal Donnie, spending a couple days longer in Paris than we, sent me a photo (below) of a public bathroom in the city. “It’s a good thing I only have to pee,” said his comment.
My first day back in the states, I got depressed thinking about the Rue de Rivoli as I drove to do my grocery shopping in the baking heat past the lifeless strip malls of the San Fernando Valley’s Ventura Boulevard.
But then I reminded myself that as much as I was missing art and culture and history and good cheese and charcuterie and baguettes and delicious wine, there were things here that I was grateful for — not least among them, clean and functional toilets.