Saturday, January 29, 2005

Hopelessly Committed to ... Pancakes

We are deeply committed to Saturday morning blueberry (from Picard!)pancake breakfasts doused in liberal quantities log cabin syrup. It is a deeply satisfying event for both profound and pedestrian reasons -- it is a little emotional and gastronomic link to the US but it is also a signal that there will be no school today.

Unless you have ties to the US government and therefore access to the secret stores in the embassies or the military base PXes, to satisfy your need for American products, there are only a few stores in Paris that sell real honest to goodness American items like Jif, cranberry sauce and normal, plain Cheerios. The two best known which advertise all over the English language publications are Thanksgiving and the Real McCoy. They are, in two words, a RIP-OFF. Really, a tiny box of Bisquick that yields about 12 pancakes (or about how much my husband eats in a single sitting) costs about 3 times the price of a normal size box in the States.

Instead of paying the prices charged by the American specialty stores we just import it in our checked bags. The last day of our US trips are always largely taken up with packing. We commandeer the entire living room at my mother-in-law's house or a bedroom at my sister's house -- our two points of return to France -- spreading around all the goodies that we have purchased (now 30% cheaper with the rise of the euro) or been given in gifts.

Armed with a bathroom scale, we have the packing down to a science. We basically know how many industrial sized boxes of Bisquick from Costco (tip: check the expiration date) how many bottles of syrup, how many jars of Smucker's natural peanut butter, how many cheap paper plates, how many boxes of Chex cereals, and ... well you get the idea... that we can stuff in our suitcases.

We know how to wrap the glass, how many loaves of cinnamon swirl bread will fit in our little freezer, how to use underwear strategically as padding, what bags should get the heaviest pieces (the smaller bags) and how to fill every ounce of space in the bags (it all gets used and if it doesn't that means a quick run to the grocery store).

The result is that our friends are always amazed when they open our pantry to literally see America stuffed in there. The French are just now learning how to buy in bulk but nos amis francais are still thrown into fits of laughter looking at our closet. (Side story -- my French brother-in-law laughed for years about our drawer full of new, unopened toothbrushes. He now has a drawer of them himself.)

We travel back and forth between the US a couple times a year and my husband typically is there on business once or twice as well. So -- and bear with me -- with approximately 2 family trips times four family members and an extra trip for my husband and two bags for each of us (three bags for my husband because of frequent flyer status) at 70 pounds a piece plus one carry-on bag per person weighing 20 pounds, we have the ability to transport up to 1,820 pounds or nearly one ton of material from the United States to France every year. Assuming that our clothes and other personal effects that we bring from France and return with us take up 1/3 of the space and weight, that means that we could in theory sneak past the customs officers import about 1,200 pounds of goods from the United States. This of course doesn't count the items brought over by friends and family during the year.

The joke used to be that you had to show us a box Bisquik or a few jars of peanut butter through the peephole before entering the apartment. The reality is that we regularly travel with about 5 bags between us and while we are good -- real good --not all of the bags reach 70 pounds and the carry on bags are generally filled with toys, changes of clothes and other things to keep kids occupied on long journeys. So that means that we still have 800 pounds of luggage and 500 pounds or so of new American things. (Another side story, much to my France-based sister's dismay all this potential has not translated into a mule train of goods for her. Quite the contrary, we used to regularly bring a few bags for her when we were just visitors.)

I had a long laugh at Pat's comment to La Coquette's lament about schleppling 70 pounds up five flights of stairs. Expats are the only people in the world who actually want their bags to be (temporarily) lost by the airlines. The slight inconvenience of filling out forms and that rejection, that little emotional slap in the face you feel when the luggage carousel finally stops moving and your baggage has not appeared is all outweighed by that feeling of elation knowing that the airline will have to send the luggage to you and someone else will have to bring it up the steps.

-- said Auntie M in Paris
4:17 PM



There are things I would really like to have from the Great White North, like real Canadian Peameal Bacon, Labatt 50s (crap canadian beer), proper Dim Sum, tacos el asador and real Tropicana Florida Orange Juice. Last time I travelled back, yes my luggage didn't make the transfer and it was great to get home delivery, on two giant luggage bags full of THE shoe collection and... BOOKS!!! I still know what Coquette went through, though. Had to climb stairs by myself.

# posted by NARDAC : 5:34 PM  

I bought molasses the week before Christmas at one of the American stores you had mentioned---to make a gingerbread house with the kids. It ended up costing 6 Euros for a 355 mL jar of Grandma's Molasses! Can you find molasses at Monoprix or Franprix?

# posted by Oz : 6:08 PM  

Love our pancakes here too but have learned to do without Bisquick. I make a great homemade pancake with bananas that is soooooo good!! But I do miss Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima syrup. I brought back some on our last trip. Carrefour used to carry a brand that was very similar to Log Cabin but have taken it off their shelves some time ago. Seems it contained some "artificial" something that was banned in the EU. They do have another brand in which the label says it is from Canada and pure maple. I have so tried to learn to live and cook here with what is available here. But you do get those cravings for some items from back home from time to time!

To Oz: Molasses can be a bit difficult to find in stores besides the American stores that Auntie M mentions here. You can try: the Naturalia on the rue de Levis in the 17th (and perhaps some of the other Naturalia stores around Paris), and the Akineo in the 9th. Or I am told that molasses is called black treacle in the UK and this can be found in Gallerie Lafayette's (Haussmann). These were some recommendations awhile back from some friends.

# posted by Pat : 7:37 PM  

BTW - yes, I loved it that time when our bags were lost and the airport people had to carry them all the way up to the 5th floor! But sadly, that only happened one time. :-(

# posted by Pat : 7:39 PM  

I really enjoyed this entry, M. We've got a similar collection of unopened toothbrushes in our bathroom. There aren't too many American foods we can't live without--our guests brings us chocolate chips, brown sugar, and Thai instant soup--but for us, it's the toiletries we schlep back: Dry Idea deoderant, Crest Sparkle toothpaste, big bottles of Lubriderm. When I got to NY in a couple of weeks, I'm also planning to buy Ziploc plastic and containers and sandwich bags.

# posted by Lisa : 8:58 PM  

I was always amazed with your pantry. G. used to go nuts over the Oreos at your place. I always felt bad b/c I knew he was eating your imported food. Had I known you had the whole system down to an exact science, I probably would have been shoveling the cookies down my mouth as well!! I am so impressed with you and hubby and your little system!! Way to go!

The flip side is that when we moved back and the first time I went shopping for groceries I went nuts. It was like a feeding frenzy. I totally stock piled on cake mixes, Wheat-Thins, cereal, etc. I came home and was like---what the hell?? I can go back tomorrow....


# posted by Anonymous : 9:36 PM  

Hi Auntie –

You would really have loved living here in the 1960s and 1970s, when American preoducts were available only at the military PXs (as you mentioned) and at the ANIC (American National Interests Commissary), over on the rue Marcadet in the18th. Membership-financed (and it was expensive !), the ANIC closed some years back.. There one was able to buy peanut butter, Kleenex, Q-Tips, Tide and frozen chickens, as well as Milkbone for the family dog.

Things are far, far easier now, although even in the early 1980s, my (French) wife would order our Thanksgiving turkey four weeks in advance from the local volailler, so as to be certain of obtaining one (end of November was basically hors saison for turkeys in France, back then). Finding decent tequila or Calirornia wine was a daylong job; my US family would ship over "Masa Harina" mix in five-pound bags so that we could make proper enchiladas and tacos. (smile) The only place for "real" American meat (and chili con carne) was the restaurant at the Hilton Hotel on the avenue de Suffren, which imported all its meat from the USA. The restaurant "Joe Allen" took some of the pressure off the Hilton and, when it opened, was excellent … and quite affordable.

Some of the products you mention are available in France at the hypermarkets, although which product, when, at which hypermarket, is a never-ending panorama of infinite hassle and plain blind luck. A given store will stock, say, peanut butter for a year or so; then, without explanation, stop carrying it (You addressed this problem of product availability once in another of your entries, and I smiled all day: how right you are. If one sees a product one wants, one should buy it on the spot, because it might not be there ever again ! This goes double for spare parts.). Our local Super U, for example, carried Hershey's syrup and Bisquik for two years or so, but has now stopped. I'm told that the Inno in Montparnasse has quite a few American items, but I haven't been there in a number of years, so I can't vouch for it. (Methinks cheap paper plates would be far cheaper in France than the USA, inclusive of transport … unless they have a special design ?) Our local "Champion" (belongs to Carrefour) carries US muffin mix, Lea and Perrins (two sorts are available in France: the one produced in the US with an English label and the one bottled in Belgium with the bilingual French/Flemish label. They don't taste the same: the family is unanimous on that !) and Harry's hot dog buns (which are made by a Canadian company operating in France).

You say "The French are just now learning how to buy in bulk …". Well … I don't like to contradict but many French people have been buying in bulk for years at places like "Metro", which is a wholesaler reserved to retail shopping. Owners of retail shops (and their family, friends and neighbors) go/went to Metro to stock up, at wholesale prices. The trick was always to find someone one knews who had that precions "Metro" card. (smile) Nowadays, with the cutthroat competition from the hypermarkets and the disappearance of the mom-and-pop grocery stores, shopping at Metro is far from being as advantageous as it used to be. A thought strikes me as I write: perhaps I've misunderstood what you meant by "in bulk" ?

Note that one reason that many American products are not on sale here is that they are, quite simply, prohibited.

This is because, as Pat pointed out, they contain an "artificial" something … and that something is the food coloring ! Yes ! Many of them are forbidden here (and in the EU generally). We ususally have our US food colors sent here well in advance of Christmas (cookies) and Easter (eggs). Molasses usually contains prohibited food coloring, as does US Coca-Cola, Pepsi and a whole lot of other products I'm not sure about Dr. Pepper, though (it's on sale at Real McCoy, so I guess it managed to pass customs). Kool-Aid is definitely prohibited (another item we have sent, along with beef jerky).

Real McCoy and Thanksgiving are just the latest in a never-ending string of specialty stores that sell US food. The stores' shelflife seems to be about 10-12 years. A few years back there was "The General Store" on the rue de Longchamp, who undercut everyone in town.


# posted by L'Amerloque : 9:41 PM  

I should elaborate: _some_ Kool Aid is definitely prohibited in France, while some isn't. Depends on the color/flavor.


# posted by L'Amerloque : 9:46 PM  

Hey L'Amerloque - yes it is the added coloring. I could not remember when I was typing before. BTW - where is your local Champion and the hot dog buns?? We do not have any at our Champion and that is one thing my son would *love*!!!!

# posted by Pat : 10:09 PM  

BTW - if you live to the west of Paris (where you will find many expat families), I understand that many of the supermarkets there carry a lot of American/English products.

# posted by Pat : 10:14 PM  

NARDAC, Your post reminded me that we used to drive up to Canada to buy the high alcohol Brador beer. My roomate in college always drank Labatt's, it Labatt's 50 different?
Oz, I haven't found a molasses or molasses subsitute in stores here. If you get a chance, stop by the American Church in Paris (ACP) information center and they have a book on substitutes or equivalents of American products, like the Kiri cheese instead of Philly cream cheese. FYI... there is a Bloom program in March at ACP that might be worth your time. Email me if you want more info.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 11:14 PM  

Pat, My MIL makes her pancakes from scratch and I know they taste better, but I love my Bisquick. I've tried that maple syrup they sell at Casino, but my family doesn't like it. It's not thick enough.
Lisa, My pantry really is an embarrasement. There are actually only a few I can't do without. So many things have appeared here over the nearly five years we've lived here. When we first moved here, we couldn't find ketchup easily, now there are at least 3 varieties to choose from!
CMAC, I think I'll be the same way when we move back. There's almost too much choice in the US. I won't know where to start.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 11:20 PM  

in the late 70's early 80's my mother would also order a turkey way in advance for thanksgiving AND go all over town looking for a can of green giant corn. yep, just plain old corn. now, when i go visit my family in France i schlep cans of new england clam chowder (my dad loves clam chowder), bags of doritos for my brother, and of course bisquick for mom.

# posted by maryse : 11:23 PM  

L'A, You are always a wealth of information. They used to carry Bisquick at a store in Paris! But you never know what you'll find. I was in the Marais the other day and a small grocery store had Pam cooking spray on the shelves. My sister, who lives in the south always tells the story of one day how she found bags of fresh cranberries at her local intermarche. After a month of seeing them she finally asked the a worker how/why they were there. The worker told her that she had taken a trip to the US and loved the cranberries and convinced her boss to buy them. So you never know. The bags of cranberries didn't last long -- probably nobody but other Americans knew what to do with them. I might also add that the G20 on Belle Feuilles has quite a nice selection of international products... digestives, campbell's soup, Lea and Perrins, soy sauce.. it's worth a look. FYI.. my sister imports the Kool Aid because it's the best way to dye wool.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 11:29 PM  

Okay M - do you remember the store where you saw the Pam spray?

# posted by Pat : 11:38 PM  

Maryse, It's funny you should mention GG canned corn. I saw it in my small Casino the other day. It's amazing how many American products they have here now!
Pat, It's in a small deli, I think across from Goldenberg's on Rue des Rosiers. You can see the Pam from the street.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 12:34 AM  

Maryse, It's funny you should mention GG canned corn. I saw it in my small Casino the other day. It's amazing how many American products they have here now!
Pat, It's in a small deli, I think across from Goldenberg's on Rue des Rosiers. You can see the Pam from the street.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 12:35 AM  

I like your math - I would calculate as you would if I were in your place. Ah, and Bisquick - it may be a mix but it does contain your (mine really) memories of the weekend pancakes. Yes, yesterday and today I think peoples' homes are defined by certain foods on certain days.

I was just in the kitchen looking at the cupboards and thinking if I was there (Paris) I would want this, this,.....

Well it looks like you were a cookie solace of sorts to CMAC - what can be a more homey snack than sugary ol' Oreos? (Nutella and pain of course.)

A very thoughtful writing on food and the family.

Terry in SF

# posted by Anonymous : 4:02 AM  

What is the deal with toothbrushes? Are they really expensive there? Do the French not brush their teeth?

# posted by BohemianMama : 4:28 AM  

I love this entry as a expat for many years and many different countries I know the thrill of finding that special item! My poor husband has had to move the 10 bags of frozen cranberries in our freezer here in Trinidad in the Carribean!

We have one store here in Trinidad that has those "special items"! I know how to pack and I have no shame asking any visitors coming in to visit us to bring items: zip-lock bags, tea,Nutella,etc.



# posted by Anonymous : 5:25 AM  

Hey M,

Labatt's is the company. They make many different kinds of beers. Labatt 50 is one of the older brands. It's the beer old man drink on the porch.

Ahhh, almost forgot my crazy Cantonese mother, who brings me the loveliest things in her luggage: Seawood soup, made from 8 different kinds of seawood and roots; pink rotten tofu; pickled pig's ears and dried smelly salted fish. How she camouflaged the smell is an ancient Chinese secret.

# posted by NARDAC : 6:37 AM  

Terry, Actually the local Inno market (at Passy) now offers about 3 types of oreo's (however, never the colored cream ones for the various holidays!). When I return back to the US I know I will miss many products from France. Friends who used to live here have asked me to bring back Francine crepe mix and certain cookies that their children love.
BM, I think the toothbrush thing is the fact that Americans like to be well stocked and get a good deal. Toothbrush hording is just one example. Of course, I also bring back the character brushes for my kids (hello kitty, yu-gi-oh). The French, for the most part, just buy things when they need it. They definitely brush their teeth daily!

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 8:11 AM  

Joanna, Welcome to the blog and thanks for your comment. I know many Americans who import Ziploc bags. The French version just don't compare. 10 bags of cranberries? Your husband is a saint.
NARDAC, Your comment made me laugh. Thank goodness the French customs agents are mostly non existent. Last year, a US customs agent asked me if I had anything to declare and I said no. He then asked if I had any fruit. I was actually quite flattered that they thought I looked like a mom who carries fruit for her children. I did have an apple on me and he confiscated it.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 8:20 AM  

Hmm, here at our American imports store a box of Cheerios costs 8€! You can get the honey-flavored kind in a regular store but that defeats the purpose of Cheerios as a healthy breakfast, IMO. I would love some Smuckers natural peanut butter-- here we get the regular trans-fat kind-- yuck. And man, would I love some cranberries! As it is I have my parents stock up and freeze them at Thanksgiving and when we go visit I bake bake bake!

# posted by expatmama : 8:36 AM  

Thank you, Pat and Auntie M for the molasses advice. I'll use my jar of Grandma's Molasses sparingly! Thanks, L'Amerloque, for explaining the reason why I had a difficult time finding food colouring for the gingerbread house icing---at least I was able to find Smarties!

# posted by Oz : 2:08 PM  

I was laughing so hard at this! Can I tell you that my father was able to squeeze FIVE BAGS of plain Cheerios into my luggage at the last minute? There's NO WAY I could pay Real McCoy prices for cereal and I love me some cereal :)

# posted by Coquette : 10:18 PM  

Hey! Some fun comments here...no WAY you can buy in bulk "American-style", there's nowhere to put anything! If you want cranberries, ask for "airelles"...they had them this fall (packaged in amounts of 8 oz) in Monoprix all over the western banlieu. Thanks for the help with molasses- I didn't know it was also known as black treacle :)

Paul in Paris

# posted by Anonymous : 8:49 AM  

I've been here 17 (yipes) years and I too have chosen to replace at least 1 suitcase on every trip with grocery items -- pop tarts, jumbo skippy, bisquick, shoe leather (fruit roll ups they're called now) etc. I did discover a few years ago that you can buy 5 kilos of chocolate chips at the Metro stores so -- and 5 kilos DOES last quite some time... happy shopping

# posted by Jennifer : 4:54 PM  


# posted by home equity : 9:30 AM  

This post sounds so familiar. My sister and her family live in Switzerland. They come to visit every summer, and their preparation for departure is just as you described, even down to the bathroom scale. They lay out everything in the basement, and it takes an entire day to pack it up. This past summer they had to leave behind a bag of marshmallows and two cans of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. They just couldn't squeeze in anything else.

It's interesting how everybody has their own unique list of 'must haves'.

I'm working way my way through your entire journal, and am enjoying every post. Unfortunately, I know that you are back in the states and that soon I'll reach the end. Thanks for putting your experiences out there for everyone to read.


# posted by Anonymous : 4:13 AM  

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