Monday, August 06, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 2: Food

Being something of a culinary adventurer, of course one of the biggest things about Europe was being able to taste various local cuisines in their natural habitat. From fried squid sandwiches on Madrid to a good old pile of sausage in Austria, I certainly got to run a delightful gamut of meals over the last few months. Of course, in all that, one can't discount the prominence of the French hypermarket in the equation. Described by one of our American program coordinators as "Super Wal-Mart multiplied by three," the term "grocery store" doesn't begin to do Cora justice. A few further observations:

Restaurant food is really expensive. I mean, I guess it sort of is in America, too? Not nearly that bad. Let's look at, say, McDonalds. Admittedly, I don't know how much things cost at McDonalds. I don't eat there. That's not a reactionary Morgan Spurlock-eqsue movement, more of a "there isn't one on campus" combined with "I like Burger King better anyway." But there's no way that a Big Mac, medium fries, and medium Coke costs $6.15. That's how much said food cost, in Euros. So if there's no way it costs that many dollars to begin with, factor in the exchange rate to get $8.49? How they get off making me spend an Atlantic Station movie ticket to eat a hamburger, I don't know.

When we're not talking about MacDo (as the French are fond of calling it), stuff gets really pricey, really quickly. Take my lunch in Paris: a sandwich. Eight Euro. And it wasn't anywhere near as good as say a Quizno's sub, which would have cost me the same thing but in dollars.

French food is overrated. "Okay, guys, let's take a hunk of meat, slice it really fancy, and pour some sauce over it. Sweet. That's gonna run you thirteen Euro." And yet, people the world over have the impression that if it's French, it has to be marvelous. When I'm 1) abroad and 2) in a country that does not contain the Eiffel Tower, I don't need to eat at a French restaurant. Look in a travel guide for the best places to eat in most given cities, though, and what do you see? Something that starts with "Le." (Or any of the imaginative variations on "le" such as "la" or "les" or the dreaded "l-apostrophe.")

And what the hell is a Michelin star anyway? If it were up to me, I wouldn't have DeAndray and Bubba Wayne who just changed my tires cooking me food. I pretty much see it as "okay, now we can serve you less food and charge you more money for it, provided we serve it creatively." To quote the Wikipedia article on the subject, "the inspectors use secret criteria, unknown to even the most experienced chefs" and "As the Michelin Guide is published by a French company, some international food critics have denounced the rating system as inherently biased toward French cuisine." Shocking.

As with many things in Europe, the Germans have it right. Plate of sausages and sauerkraut for seven Euro? Wiener Schnitzel and weird potato ball things for nine? Good choices all around. Austrian cooking is basically the same level of deliciousness and cheapness. Bavarian is a slight variation on the theme, with the addition of the "gro├čebretzel" or "giant pretzel." This is about a foot in diameter, and you won't spend more than three Euros for it.

A trip to Europe turns out to be a great time to drink some alcohol. Now I'm not exactly a partier. I don't think I've ever been per se "drunk." But unlike anything else you might want to ingest, the booze in Europe is surprisingly cheap. And it's really, really good. I never had an American beer that I liked. And I only had one or two European beers that I didn't like. The Hofbrauhaus is amazing. French wine is amazing. Belgian beer, Spanish sangria, the list goes on and on.

And finally, the grocery store is totally bizarre. You think you've seen weird things at your friendly neighborhood Publix? You haven't seen anything until you've browsed a French store. Walking down the meat section, you see the familiar labels of "porc" and "boeuf" and "poulet" (chicken). Then... wait a second, surely you can't buy horse here? But there it was, "cheval." The juice selection was incredible, but there wasn't a jar of peanut butter in sight. Baguettes? As far as the eye can see.

Currently listening: "Rocknroll," Lovedrug

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