I spent a couple days in Paris over the Christmas/New Years Holidays and it was amazing to be back in this city that I lived in and love so much. When I last lived in the French capital, I was still a vegetarian. I know the French traditions and culinary culture quite well, not only because I lived in France for a long time but also because my grandmother is French – today she is 96 and her eating habits are balanced and incorporate a daily dose of butter and a piece of dark chocolate every single day.
Being vegan or eating plant based is not really an intuitive thing to do in Paris or France in general for that matter. Although French people eat a lot of veggies and grains, pastry stores are ubiquitous and so are cheese stores and butchers. I am sure you heard about the ‘French contradiction’ which refers to the fact that French people are among the healthiest and lightest in comparison to other Europeans and obviously Americans. This seems to counter the theory that you can not eat ‘unhealthy’ things and still be healthy as the French diet is composed of a lot of fatty and high calorie foods. Now I want to focus on the cultural aspect of eating plant based in France and not discuss the pros and cons of the French diet on a health level, as I believe that there is more to the French lifestyle than just their food.
It is fascinating how health and organic stores seem to sprout from every street corner in Paris. Even in just a year, I saw so many more of these places this time and chains such as Naturalia and Bien sell a plethora of organic foods, locally grown produce, grains and nuts in bulk as well as an abundance of soy and gluten based meat substitutes. I also checked out the first and only all vegan grocery store of the French capital, called Un Monde Vegan (a vegan world). I was pretty blown away by all the different European brands that now offer vegan products: dehydrated root veggie chips, to ‘faux gras’ – anything can be found here. Again, lots of meat substitutes.
This leads me to my next thought: plant based eating is fundamentally different in NYC vs Paris. In Paris, it’s all about showing that plant based foods can resemble meat, they can look like meat and taste like meat and even smell like meat. It’s almost like the thought of giving up the concept of meat is impossible. In NYC, it seems to be more about plant based foods that come in a whole way. While you can find tons of meat substitutes, they are considered as processed foods, the consumption of which is not the ultimate goal.
I believe that the culinary cultures in Paris and NYC are fundamentally different and their evolution follows a different path: in Paris, and France overall, culinary traditions are deeply embedded people’s daily habits and eating animals and animal products is a given, not in excess but on a pretty much daily basis. In NYC, and maybe all of the US, the excess of animal consumption is truly present but so is a strong social justice movement that asks this into question. Because culinary traditions have a different role in U.S. society, and just seem less organized, less orchestrated and less uniform, asking animal and animal production consumption into question, works well as it is one of many belief systems.
Now how do I feel as a vegan in Paris? I sometimes get a sense of nostalgia, when I pass the delicious pastry stores or smell fresh butter croissants. But that’s OK and I still feel as much a quarter French as I felt before I became vegan. The reason for that is the fact that French, like Americans and anyone else for that matter, are all humans and we are all allowed to ask current belief systems into question and follow our own path. I think that there will be more and more vegan places in Paris and all over France in the coming years. This is a natural process that will happen all over the world and can be motivated by ethical, environmental or health reasons – or a combination of all. And I believe that the French will be able to make delicious plant based desserts and butter croissants – so I’m not worried 😉