In a Paris Cafe: Or, Beware the Sausage Appetizer

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I love, love, love to eat when I’m traveling. Whether it’s barbeque in the south, seafood on the coast, or tapas in Spain, I am always looking to try out the local cuisine.

My language skills are rudimentary at best; I usually learn a few words in the local idiom, but I generally speak like Tarzan: one painful word at a time, all in the present tense. I hungry now. I sleep now. I buy many shoes now. And since I’m always keen to try new things (except, apparently, a Berlitz course) I often wind up ordering something on the menu that I don’t quite know what it is. This gave rise to the human flesh story, which is not in this episode. And it gave rise to the Episode of the Sausage Appetizer.

I was in Paris. (Wow! Doesn’t that just sound amazing? That is possibly the coolest thing, ever, to be able to say). April in Paris, they tell you, is fabulous. The stuff of song and poetry, the springtime of the soul. It was not April. It was the last week in March, and Paris was holding on to the bitter damp of winter with both hands. It was FREEZING. It was rainy. It was, in the way only weather can be, miserable.

I did not care. I was in Paris. (Wow!) I was in Paris and I was going to eat in outdoor cafes, nibbling quiche and drinking red wine, even if it killed me, even if I froze off my feet and I had to stump home on my ankles. My thoughts turned to some of the heartier options on the menus, to help stave of hypothermia.

Many of the cafes had “chacuterie” on the menus. I had never had this famous dish of northern France, though I had read about it, and I have what I assume is an excellent recipe for it in my Julia Child cookbook. In the book, it’s call “chacutrie garni” – garnished sausage – and the photo showed a comfortingly messy, homestyle platter with fat sausages, pork chops, potatoes, and mounds of saurkraut. You can almost smell the steamy kitchen it came from. I’ve always admired the concept – it seems like the best sort of beery excess, more food than anyone could eat – but I’ve never actually made it.

After days of tramping around in the frigid rain, the idea of this warm, homey platter became an obsession. The quiche was very nice but in the evening it was COLD and I wanted that hot food. I found a cafe with the magic words on the menu, and found a seat. It was still, barely, warm enough to be outside. My cane chair was damp, but I had the vision of dinner to keep me warm.

I ordered from the waiter, who looked slightly surprised yet impressed at my order. We confirmed that I only wanted a serving for one – did he think I was on a saurkraut binge? a garni junkie? And he trotted off with my order, leaving me to wonder vaguely why they didn’t have the “garni” part of the title on the menu. A Parisian quirk, clearly. I dismissed that thought and observed the man at the table next to me, who was intently smoking a Gitane or a Galoise or what ever it is they smoke there, smoking with such intensity that he was lighting the fresh cigarette with the stump of the old one, and clearly waiting for someone.

His date and my dinner arrived at the same moment, though it was hard to tell who was less pleased. “Chacutrie” in Paris is not the near mythical Alsation dish of my dreams. It is, in fact, a platter of cold sliced sausages of various types. A HUGE platter. It seemed like pounds, like a sausage nightmare, a nightmare where your dish keeps refilling itself. And I, the ignorant American, had ordered it.

So I had to eat it. All of it. Oh, no.

As I plowed through my sausage festival – foie gras sausage, pork sausage, duck sausage, something with nuts – I watched with increasing interest the activties of Monsieur Gitane and his date. You know how you constantly hear that French women are the most seductive in the world, that they are the most stylish and knowing, that they wrap their men around their fingers? This woman was having none of it. She sat down and instantly made a cell phone call, with only the most perfunctory acknowledgement of her escort, and chattered away like an American teenager. Their drinks came. Her phone rang again. More chatter.

I was beginning to sweat from the sausage. There was no way I was going to finish this. There was no way I was going to concede defeat and not finish it.

Monsieur Gitane smoked furiously. His date chattered away, oblivious. I began to feel sorry for him. I definitely felt sorry for me. And also slightly sick.

Finally the table on the other side of me was filled, by a large and florid Frenchman smoking an extremely smelly cigar. That was the final straw, and I threw in the towel. Victory: to the Sausage.

Note so self: invest in a menu translator. And I staggered off, listening to Madame’s cell phone chatter as it drifted behind me, into the night.

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