la culture populaire for the couch potato: lessons in french tv

I can’t stand advertisements. I don’t like being told what to tell my doctor. I roll my eyes at deus ex machina plot lines and groan at laugh tracks. I am a TV cynic.

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It’s nothing noble. It’s just that I would really really really rather read. I am grateful that my parents encouraged the habit. From the age of seven, when I stammered out in-gre-di-ent in a Clifford chapter book I read to my dad, reading has had the power to transport me: away from the stuffy reality of a public bus, the pain of a stomachache, the boredom of a long wait, the torment of a heartbreak. Reading begets pure contentment.

I could write volumes about the virtues of books, which is why (insert irony, that loveliest of literary devices), I decided to start watching a little more TV. Call it cultural research: is there a better way to learn about a country’s values without leaving your couch? Plus, TV is just a little more convivial. Reading at the dinner table can (unfortunately) be perceived as rude. But when everyone is parked together in front of the TV, that’s considered quality time. Apparently.

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After something like a five-year hiatus from any TV besides reruns of Twin Peaks or The Office, I am learning all kinds of things.

Les Reines du Shopping

The Queens of Shopping, my guilty pleasure. In this show, the cheery stylist and trusted fashion expert Cristina Córdula assigns a theme to a week of shopping. Five competitors, all everyday women from age 18 to 70, compete to create the best look. They have two and a half hours to shop a list of Parisian boutiques and twenty minutes to do their own hair and makeup before strutting down a mini-runway, where the competitors judge the success of their outfit and their ability to stay on thème. The women’s shopping is interspersed with comments from Cristina and the other women– do they like those pants? Do they think this dress looks good on Florence (age 43, from Lyon)? Then there’s the finishing touch: the male narrator–invisible–but always full of funny and wryly sarcastic comments to direct the show.

Cristina, who feels like a friend by now, is likable and funny with her trademark hoop earrings, dimples, and especially her penchant for crying oh la la ! and bringing her manicured hands to her mouth in horror when startled by a true fashion faux pas.

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She’s what you want in a French fashion expert (though she’s Brazilian à la base). She’s kind but trenchant, the fairy godmother who says when the look doesn’t work, pas du tout. You trust her. She might point out your flat-chestedness or spotty complexion, but it’s only for your good, to help you figure out how to mets en valeur your best features. I’ve had similar experiences shopping at Sephora or Sinéquanone. As the vendeuse cinches a belt around my waist or runs back with a berry lip color to go with my light green eyes, or even claps as I walk out of the changing room, I feel like I’m in good hands: a little like Cinderella mid-transformation. And it’s fun to see this same trust the expert culture on the screen.

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L’Amour est dans le Pré

The name of this show, Love is in the field, is an allusion to a 1995 French comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le Pré, or, happiness is in the field. In the film, a miserable married man falls in love with a charming foie gras producer in the rural Gers department, finding his happiness chez elle. L’Amour est dans le pré proceeds along the same lines, fostering connections between people from different worlds. It seeks to provide lonely rural people, mainly agriculteurs, with amorous connections elsewhere. It can be hard for a solitary dairy farmer, for example, to get a day off, much less spend time in a city looking for dating possibilities. L’amour est dans le pré seeks to remove some of these obstacles. The host, Karine Le Marchand, interviews the participants and shows viewers their story: how they got to where they are, what their daily life involves, what they’re looking for in love.

The camerawork is stunning. Often, participants live in rural areas like the Auvergne (where I spent last year) that are short on people but big on natural beauty. The film crew captures the region at its best, making it look dreamy: somewhere a tired city person might happily exchange their stilettos for farm boots. There are closeups of farm puppies and cute pigs, aerial views of proud pines or grand dormant volcanoes, screen-filling blue skies.

Interested viewers write the show, requesting to meet the person who caught their fancy on TV. These first meetings are filmed (awkward, much?), and then, the agriculteur chooses the three people who most interested him or her to come stay for a weekend at their place (often a big farm house with plenty of rooms). Unlike The Bachelor, a choice doesn’t have to be made. Often, though, there is a real connection, and the show has led to numerous marriages and new babies.

I’m intrigued by the concept: old-fashioned in that it hearkens back to mail-order farm brides, almost, the tradition of a hopeful farmer who writes for a wife. Yet it’s modern, too. The problem is a little bit new: loneliness and isolation present in modern society like never before. Western cultures are getting further and further away from our food and the people who produce it, and it seems that these people often get left behind. I think it’s pretty neat that this show is working to change that, in some small way.

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Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie

A New Look for a New Life is your classic extreme-makeover show, hosted by Cristina Córdula. Each episode starts with Cristina sitting on a couch and watching the plea for help of her latest client (or more commonly, their family or friends). Cristina, please help us, they implore. C’est pas possible. You see footage of the poor fashion victim, twirling in one of their favorite outfits, showing off their closet, all ignorance and bliss, while friends and coworkers and spouses discuss the person’s neglect, colorblindness, or poodle haircut. Aïe aïe aïe ! Cristina cries, hands flying to her mouth. Oh but that, ça n’est pas. Po-ssible. What are you thinking mon chéri ?! 

Over the course of the weeklong relooking, Cristina dramatically transforms the hopeless fashion victim into someone who stands up straight, who likes looking in the mirror. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but they can transform how we feel about ourselves. I think Nouveau look pour une nouvelle vie does a good job urging people to upgrade without mocking or humiliating them. This show has moved me to tears a few times.

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Un Souper Presque Parfait

Souper is an obscure, Québecois word that means “supper.” An almost-perfect supper is a reality show where five strangers are brought together to take turns entertaining the others. Who can throw the best dinner party? To that, I say: who cares? Still, I was amused to learn of the existence of this most-French of shows, which asks: did the host choose appropriate apéro snacks? Was the décor classy and on-theme? In the episode I watched, a woman made osso bucco and then had the guests entertain themselves with photobooth props while she prepared dessert. The final entertainment was to go outside and shoot Nerf guns. Between good friends, this could be fun. But five strangers on camera? It was painful to watch.

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I’ll keep suffering through grocery store cheese advertisements, all in the name of cultural research.

But I won’t give up books just yet.

Photos are from a trip to Paris and a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Pompidou. Read more about Paris: Shoebox in Paris. Gypsy Jazz

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mon chou: kale, the forgotten vegetable

img_3431 In French, instead of sweetie, you might call someone mon chou.

My cabbage.

I appreciate the double meaning. Le chou is both my cabbage and my sweet. But all cabbages are not created equal. It’s kale that’s my drug of choice.

Looking for a light read in the ‘American Expats in France’ genre, I recently read a memoir entitled Bonjour Kale. It was fun to find out that the kale I enjoyed for dinner tonight, last night, and pretty much every night I cook for myself, is largely thanks to fellow American Kristen Beddard, a New Yorker who found herself a bit lost in Paris, lacking a day job and lamenting the absence of her favorite vegetable.

Five years ago, kale was the superfood and comfort food du jour for foodies around the US, but in France ce n’existait pas. Sure, you might be able to find a row in someone’s personal garden, but certainly not on a commercial scale. Stores didn’t carry it and market vendors and farmers hadn’t heard of it. There wasn’t even a consensus on what to call this neglected vegetable. There was, however, a term describing its sad state. Kale was a légume oublié–a forgotten vegetable–one that had fallen out of favor. One theory goes that kale was a hearty “poor man’s food” that reminded people too much of their lean days during World War II.

Beddard wanted to change this if she could. There could be such a thing as celebratory kale. Glamorous, chic (and full of antioxidants). Kale’s image needed a makeover and Beddard, with a background in marketing, felt she was the woman for the job.

First, she started a blog intended to detail the progress of “The Kale Project.”

Next she went to the market, gathering the courage to ask local farmers, in her beginner’s French, if they would be interested in growing le chou kale. She would provide the seeds. She made her case: healthy, delicious, and here’s proof it will sell…

A few said yes.

As it grew, Beddard made kale connections, identifying expats and restaurant owners ready to buy in case of a supply.

She visited the farms to see the progress, once carting back two full trash bags of kale on a three-hour train ride.

She promoted the vegetable at a Yelp event, a winter foods festival in Paris where she served pesto and smoothies and talked about her project. It was a hit.

As the supply of kale increased, so did its value in the public eye. Beddard’s website included a map, “Kale Spotted,” that let followers know exactly where they could find this vegetable, forgotten no longer.

She was interviewed by various media outlets and even got to help decide what to officially christen this revitalized veggie: le chou kale (sounds like kahl) it would be.

And there it was. Beddard said she was never in it for a profit. Bringing kale to Paris was its own reward. (Though you might also count as reward the kale-based tasting menu she was personally served by Alain Passard.)

I appreciate the book most as a business story: a great example of how to identify a need and meet it. A Humanities alum like me could use the lesson. “Make your passion your paycheck,” that’s the goal. As for the book’s subtitle: “a memoir of Paris, love, and recipes,” I’m less convinced. While the recipes are great (I’ve tried two), and it’s fun to learn of each one’s diverse origins (from the author’s mother to Passard), I don’t think the story quite covers “Paris” and “love” effectively. This title oversells the product–or perhaps represents a different product entirely. When I think of Bonjour Kale, I think of…kale.

I would have called this book something like: Légume Oublié: One Woman’s Quest to Bring Kale to France.

The ‘American expat stumbling around France’ thing has been done before. I think there is room to do it again: but the writing should be really sharp, the observations astute. Foreign words should be included effortlessly, with grace (don’t define for readers un petit peu or mon Dieu!: instead, simply provide a bit of context). The author should have something original to say.

Beddard has that something (how many other Americans have started a transatlantic initiative for a beloved vegetable?) but her true story gets a bit lost when trying to keep up with the other players in the memoir market.

Still, I have Beddard to thank for helping me get my daily greens. I buy my kale at Marché Forville in Cannes. Or at the chain Grand Frais if I’m feeling more commercial.

It is still largely unknown. Little old ladies in line at the market might ask me: “now what are you planning on doing with that?” Cashiers inputting the code eye the kale suspiciously. “Ça c’est le chou kale?

Thanks to Beddard, I know to respond with a confident oui.

cheese girl at work

Today was my second-to-last day working in “Cheese Island.” I’ve really enjoyed getting paid to nibble on cheese all day and talk to people about it. As an added bonus, my calcium levels must be through the roof.

There are a lot of tasks to keep up with in the department, but my favorite is just getting my hands on some cheese and putting the new cuts on the shelf.

You start by figuring out what you need, when. Then you grab a cheese.  img_1303You unwrap it and decide how best to tackle it. For some cheeses it’s a no-brainer, but for others you need a more strategic approach. The alpine cheeses Gruyère and Comté, for example, are enormous and require some geometry. This Gorgonzola piccante I cut today was tall and heavy, and quite gooey and slippery once I took the foil off. It’s a pricier cheese, too, and doesn’t sell quickly. Those things need to be taken into consideration every time so we waste as little as possible and so the cuts are at a reasonable price (it’s all priced per pound).

Here’s the Gorgonzola unwrapped. You can see where air holes have been poked in the cheese, resulting in the mold growth.

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Then you cut it! This wire cheese cutter can tackle anything from triple-crème bries to the rock-solid Piave (in other words, pretty much everything except Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is practically an athletic event to prepare). You might decide to “belly” it, which is when you cut it in half twice, resulting in shorter and sometimes more solid and attractive (and/or affordable) pieces. I did that here. img_1310When a cheese is softer, like this Gorgonzola, you might also need to give the pieces “nose jobs”: that’s when you cut a small wedge off the end when making the triangular cuts. That helps it retain its nice shape instead of crumbling at the end.

Next you wrap everything, add labels, and weigh each piece to price it.img_1312Arrange it nicely, write down the sell-by date, et voilà !

All day I think about what I’ll have for dinner. That and cheese puns. After all, sweet dreams are made of cheese. Who am I to diss a brie?