In the last months at my former job, a colleague of mine took it upon himself to teach me French, sending me one phrase a day to prepare me for my impending cultural odyssey. The carefully chosen phrases ranged from practical business (My name is Rolf-- I need a job) to social interactions (Yes, I would love to attend the all-night Jerry Lewis film festival with you) to cultural sensitivity and ambassadorship (We saved your butts in World War II). But the lessons started with a single word: jambon.
I suspect my tutor didn't realize just how appropriate a first word that was. The French love the pig (and really, what's not to like about the culinary bounty it provides?), and here ham falls almost into its own food group. It's not so much that there are so many varieties available, though there are plenty of regional variations as well as Italian and Spanish varieties available, but rather it's the sheer ubiquitousness of it that's so impressive. In the States, turkey has displaced the bologna, chipped beef, and olive loafs of my primary and secondary school lunches as the king of convenience meats (and that's not altogether a bad thing), but poultry barely merits mentioning here in comparison to ham.
And since French cheese is its own marvel, the combination shows up everywhere. Several years ago, some friends of ours visited France. When they returned, they spoke glowingly of Alsace and the Alps, but when we asked what they thought of Paris, they were strangely unimpressed. When we asked about the food, they said the only thing they ate in Paris was ham and cheese.
I'd always assumed that answer was an exaggeration, but after being here awhile, I realize that with a little bad luck, one could indeed unwittingly eat nothing but ham and cheese for several days. Croque monsieur? Ham-and-cheese with bechamel sauce (the McDonald's here even offer the Croque McDo). Quiche Lorraine? Ham and cheese in eggs and cream. There are 3 named salads on the menu of our local brasserie with no description; when I asked what each of them was, the answer was that each had lettuce, ham, and cheese, and the type of cheese differentiated them. And of course that sandwich or crepe or gallette you're eyeing at the market is most likely filled with ham and cheese.
Of course, there's plenty else on offer in the City of Light. Which is why said friends owe it to themselves to visit, again. I can promise that they won't have to eat ham-and-cheese while they're here, unless they want to. But I wonder how they'd feel about a week of squid?
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