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BBQIn this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin writes about North Carolina barbecue and the efforts by the only slightly facetious Campaign for Real Barbecue to maintain the traditional standards for the iconic pork product.

He makes allowances for the Great Divide — between Lexington-style and Halifax-style barbecue, that is, between western Carolina barbecue, made with pork shoulder and seasoned with a tomato-based sauce, and eastern ‘cue, made with the whole hog and doused with vinegar and hot pepper. hog snout 2005

At the outset, I should lay my cards on the table: As a Yankee moved to the South, I came late to the game, but because my first official wife came from Scotland Neck, way out east of Raleigh and Tarboro, I first came to love the stuff the eastern way. (Tarboro, by the way, was home to Ed Weeks, famous in the 1970s for growing record-size vegetables, including a 39 lb. canteloupe and a peanut 3 ½ inches long.) When I ate at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, I was put off by the sweetish tomato sauce. And without the whole pig roasting on the hickory ash and embers, you miss a good deal of the pleasures of barbecue. I should admit that for those adherents of Lexington-style, the product is more uniform. Only the best and most succulent parts of the animal are used. And for many, that is a plus. But for those of us going whole hog, we miss the bits of gristle we must occasionally spit out; we miss the odd globules of pigfat; and most importantly, the crispy burned bits that are the prize in the Cracker Jack box. “Please ma’am, more crispy bits.”

But I am not here to talk about barbecue, but about its sidekick, the hushpuppy.  We all lament the passing of those things we remember most fondly from our childhood, and I’m afraid that hushpuppies just aren’t what they used to be. cornbread 1

I the South, there are several kinds of cornbread. There is the traditional risen cornbread, made from white cornmeal — usually a self-rising mix, like Martha White’s — made with an egg, some oil and buttermilk and poured into a black-iron fry pan heated to 450 degrees and coated with a layer of scorching bacon grease. The batter sizzles in the grease and when it cooks up, in 20 minutes or so, there is a salty brown crust around the cornbread. You cut it into wedges and butter them up for eating.

My late father-in-law’s favorite meal was cornbread crumbled into buttermilk. cornbread cakes

There are also cornbread cakes, in which the batter is fried up on a griddle, like pancakes. Those of us who prize cornbread believe this is the ultimate — more exterior crust, less interior crumb. Butter them up and eat. Great with a mess of pintos.

More humbly, there is pone. This is cornbread without the fancy leavening and seasonings. My first official mother-in-law, from Scotland Neck in Halifax County, used to make the best version, which she called “dog bread.” You have white corn meal, some salt and water to make a thick, doughy batter, dump it into a pan of hot bacon grease and bake it in the oven. I comes out with a great bacon-y crust and an interior texture that can only be compared with a fudge brownie, only savory. You cut it into squares and the luckiest person gets the corner pieces, with extra crispies. You cannot imagine the perfection of dog bread with cooked greens.

Yet, it is the hushpuppy that wins pride of place. You cannot really be said to have eaten barbecue if it isn’t accompanied by hushpuppies. These are deep-fried cornbread tubules, brown and crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside.

The problem is that tastes change with time and the humble hushpuppy I first knew when I moved to North Carolina in the late 1960s has morphed into some sort of fast food that I hardly recognize.

The original was cornmeal and salt, like dogbread, deep fried. Nowadays, you are hard pressed to find a hushpuppy not sweetened up with sugar and with diced onion added. The old flavor is now closer to a kid’s breakfast cereal.

But this is only part of the problem. Hushpuppies used to be made by gathering up some of the dough on a large cooking spoon and flicking off bits into the boiling fat with the back of a tablespoon. The result was not uniform, but each tapered puppy had ridges along its length that fried up extra crispy. Now, almost every barbecue restaurant has an “extruder” that squeezes out uniform, round-sided football shaped hushpuppies, or worse, has one of those “squirters” like a showerhead that eject a rather loose batter into the fat. You wind up with something more akin to an unformed funnel cake. hushpuppies now

One has to recognize that foods — even so-called traditional foods — evolve, just as language or shoe styles evolve. And it is the Southern taste, defined by customer preference, that has given us the sweetened, oniony, turd-shaped hushpuppy. It seems to be what the people want. But one can nevertheless lament what is lost. And I miss the old, unsweetened, humble, crusty hushpuppy that I first came to love.

It is this way with many of our foods: The barbecue we get in North Carolina — even in eastern North Carolina — is now often made from pork shoulder instead of the whole pig and often it is cooked in an electric or gass oven and not on ashes (although they might throw some soaked hickory chips in for “added flavor.”)

And this devolution isn’t only Carolina or the South. There are people in New Jersey who can countenance Pizza Hut pizza. I don’t know how or why, but they do. And even in Arizona, one can find a line at the Taco Bell. Some people choose that over the taqueria down the street where you can get a real taco de lengua.  You can find Mexican barbacoa, but most people just want chimichangas and ground beef tacos.  It is a certain uniformity and loss of regional preference that has crept into our cuisine and I lament it.

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

shatley meal
If Mr. Yelverton had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone used the more formal address.

George YelvertonHe ran a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., and I knew him in the early 1970s. To call it a restaurant is an exaggeration: It was a hole-in-the-wall behind the main line of storefronts along the city’s main street. Butted up against the brick back walls of department stores and banks, Yelverton’s Barbecue faced only a parking lot.

Mr. Yelverton was thin, wiry, with high cheekbones and short silver hair and with the reserved demeanor of a gentleman. He made pork barbecue in the eastern North Carolina style.barbecue 2

Most people who know anything about barbecue know that the nation is subdivided by regional chauvinisms. There is Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue. Even North Carolina is split between Halifax style — eastern North Carolina style — and Lexington style.

It was a time of rapid change in the South, and change in Southern cooking as well. Many local barbecue establishments had changed their method of making hush puppies, using a new device that extruded corn batter into the hot grease like a carnival funnel cake. Mr. Yelverton didn’t approve.

“I never saw the advantage of doing things faster and easier,” I remember him saying one day. He showed me his technique.

“You mix up your cornmeal with water,” he said, making a stiff, granular dough rather than a batter. “Then you take a dollop of it up in a serving spoon.” He had a large, steel-handled spoon about 15 inches long. “Then you use the back of a tablespoon to whip off bits into the grease.”

Each serving spoon was subdivided into four or five hush puppies, each cut away from the gob with a flick of his wrist on the convexity of the tablespoon, leaving a perfect hush puppy, shaped like a lemon wedge, with ridges. They turned a beautiful, aromatic coppery color and were absolute heaven when you bit into them hot.

hushpuppies 3Recently, my wife and I were back in North Carolina and, though Yelverton has long gone, we stopped at a barbecue joint in Shelby. The hush puppies had changed: Not only were they plopped into the grease via the ubiquitous extruder, making little round cigar shapes (I’m being polite), but they were made with added onion and sugar.

“That’s not a real hush puppy,” my wife said. She can be very strict when it comes to the right way to do things, and hush puppies with sweetener counts for her not simply as a variant, but as a perversion.

“Hush puppies don’t have sugar in them,” she stated categorically.

My wife is typical of many Southerners: certain the way she grew up was the “right” way. It fuels many a heated discussion. You get obstinate opinions about whether to soak country ham, about whether Brunswick stew requires squirrel meat, about the best apple to fry.

“I like June apples,” my wife says. “My great-grandmother said they were the best.”

Her great-grandmother was a genuine Civil War widow and had the bona fides.

If there is one thing that defines Southern food, it must be the soil, the terroir, the sandy podzols of eastern North Carolina or the black loam of the Mississippi Delta. You can see it in the flesh of catfish made pink by the red-clay river bottoms.

Like patriotism, food preference grows from the land where you grew up and the people who raised you. It is what you know and what you are comfortable with.

Southern food is divided by region, by class, by race. The food of Louisiana is sui generis. The menus of South Carolina plantations were more upscale than on the small farm holdings in Piedmont North Carolina or Virginia. The hardscrabble diet of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something else again.

Yet, there is a certain overlap. Soul food and Southern cooking emphasize different aspects of the cuisine but share more than they don’t. Cooked greens, side meat, cornbread — these are the common denominators.

The original of both was humble — pronounced “umble” without the “h.” It was food grown on family farms, from hogs slaughtered on a frosty morn and made into sausage and head cheese.

greenfields mealThere is nothing fancy about it. I remember once a friend visited from New York, where he was an investment lawyer. We took him to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, N.C., where they serve family-style meals with piles of fried chicken, country ham, boiled greens, scraped corn, hot biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy so thick a knife can stand upright in it, served with little dishes of corn relish and pickled beets and washed down with sweet tea.

“I loved it,” he said later. “Especially the chicken sauce.” Chicken sauce! We all laughed good over that one.sally lunn bread

There is an upscale Southern cooking. It comes from plantations and includes such things as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread and Lane cake.

But for me, the best is the down-and-dirty recipes that came through grandmothers and aunts. Foods so primal there aren’t even recipes for them, like the dog bread I came to love — a form of cornbread so basic its ingredients might as well be earth, wind and fire. I first ate it in Halifax County, among the cotton fields and abandoned tractors, pickup trucks and windbreaks of oak trees. I asked how to make it.

“First, you mix up a mess of cornmeal,” she said. No half-cup of this, or 6 ounces of that. Just mix up a mess.

That’s white stone-ground cornmeal, if you are brave enough to try this, with salt and enough water to make a thick batter or thin dough.

In a black-iron fry pan, you melt some bacon grease or the renderings from streak-o’-fat-streak-o’-lean and heat it up till it sputters at you. Dump in the cornmeal and stick it in the oven till it’s done. Can’t tell you how long. It depends.

When it comes out, it is heavy as a transuranium element, with a thick, dark undercrust that makes it all worthwhile.

Cut it into wedges and use it to soak up your “pot likker” or your sop.

THE SEVEN KEYS

There are seven defining ingredients in Southern cooking. From Virginia through Alabama and out towards eastern Texas, these are the comestibles essential for your pantry. hog snout

Pigmeat

The hog is Providence’s gift to the Southern belly. Pork is central to so much that defines the cuisine, from barbecue to country ham to the many varieties of bacon — side meat, fatback, not to mention bacon grease. Nothing seasons pintos like ham hocks. “The hog seasons everything that isn’t him,” said one Southern cook. Pigmeat also defines the McCoy-Hatfield divisions between those who soak their ham before cooking and eating it and those who cherish the crust of salt that develops as they fry their slice of unsoaked country ham in a black-iron frying pan. Special mention should be made of liver mush, which is to North Carolina what scrapple is to Philadelphia.fried chicken

Fried chicken

There is almost no controversy over fried chicken. It defines White Southerners and Black Southerners, upper-crust and redneck. Fried chicken, slowly cooked in a black-iron frying pan till it’s brown and crusty on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, is the very badge of Southern regional pride.biscuits

Hot breads

You don’t find a lot of yeast breads, but baking-powder breads are all over. Biscuit dough can be baked into biscuits, buttered, covered in jam or jelly with dinner, or split in two and slathered with gravy for breakfast. It can also be dropped into boiling stock with cooked chicken to make dumplings. On the other side, cornbread can be baked in a sizzling-hot frying pan or in a black-iron form to make cornpone, or dropped into hot fat to make hush puppies, or, what may be the best, cornbread cakes, which are cornmeal pancakes, buttered and served in a stack with your pintos. You can’t beat a meal of fried fish, caught yourself, with new potatoes and scallions, eaten with a helping of cornbread crumbled into buttermilk.collards

Greens

The recipe reads, “Cook up a mess of greens.” This means you take a pile of collards or mustard greens, turnip greens, young pokeweed, or peppery “creasy greens” — which is wild watercress, “the caviar of Southern greens,” one woman called them — and cook them down with some fatback or bacon until they are a fraction of their precooked volume. You serve them with vinegar, and don’t forget to sop up some of the “pot likker” with your cornbread.leather britches

Field peas and beans

The number of varieties of Southern pulse is immense — field peas, Crowder peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans — and whether dried or fresh, makes a daily contribution to the plate. A variety of green beans, dried on a string on your front porch, is called “leather breeches” (or britches) and when reconstituted in a pot of water with seasoning meat, develops a deep flavor almost beeflike in character.biscuits and gravy

Gravy

In France, they say, “La sauce c’est tout,” the sauce is everything. In North Carolina, they say, “Could I have some more gravy on them biscuits.” A Southern gravy is sometimes so thick you might be forgiven for thinking it is mortar for bricks. Gravy comes in many forms: sawmill gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken gravy, chocolate gravy.peach pie 2

Pie

Finally, you can barely survive in the South without pie or its kissin’ cousin, cobbler. Sometimes, lunch is just a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Southern food isn’t always the most heart-healthy, for sure, but as one Southerner put it, “Is there a better way to commit suicide than pie?”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

nj pizza
I stepped into the Nanuet Hotel in New York’s Rockland County because I hadn’t had a real pizza in 15 years.

I’m not un-American: I’ve eaten my share of Super Bowl delivery pizzas and to this day, when both my wife and I have had tiring days at work, we phone in pizza from one of the standard brands.

But they aren’t real pizza. Like most people, I grew up in a region of America with an identifiable cuisine. Philadelphia has its scrapple and cheese steaks; North Carolina has its barbecue; Texas has its chili. New Jersey’s cuisine is pizza.

I know there are Chicagoans who say they know what real pizza is, but they are misguided. I grant they know something about kielbasa, but real pizza can only be found in New Jersey and portions of New York. It is different from the populist menu item in that it is almost Calvinist. It has no frills. There is no such thing as a real pizza with ham and pineapple, for instance, to say nothing of the crime against nature advertised as a “taco pizza.”

The real item has a thin, biscuity crust, lots of spicy, garlicky tomato sauce and a thin covering of mozzarella that bakes into a papery crust over a stretchy, palate-burning stratus. It can be dusted with some grated Parmesan and sprinkled with some ground hot pepper. And if you are in a daring mood, it can come with pepperoni. But that’s the limit.

It also takes 30 minutes from order to table — unless you are buying it by the slice, that is.Nanuet Hotel

Well, the Nanuet Hotel is a seedy bar and grill in a tiny, decaying town just north of the New York/New Jersey boundary. The narrow street is lined with cars along both curbs, some sit with two wheels up on the sidewalk. The storefronts are bars, laundromats, video stores and the occasional Korean grocery. There are no Starbucks on this street; no sushi bars; no upscale sandwich shops with outdoor tables under awnings.

The hotel has tilting white clapboard walls and a door whose sill is worn down to a hollow of splinters. Inside, it is dark and — unfortunately — smoky. Along one wall are shelves of Johnny Walker and Jim Beam; along the other are tables with paper place mats and paper napkins.

The man behind the counter is in his late 50s with a serviceable gut and balding head: He could be Peter Boyle’s brother.

There are two TVs playing with their sound down. One carries a soap opera, the other a Yankee game, but with a twist: it is a game the Yankees played against the Detroit Tigers in June of 1976. Ron LeFlore and Mark “The Bird”  Fydrich on one side, Oscar Gamble and Graig Nettles on the other.

“This is great,” Peter Boyle tells another aging customer. “I found this channel the other day and they were showing that Roberto Duran fight, you know, ‘No mas, no mas.’ ”

There is a Keno board with flashing numbers on one wall and a tumbler full of entry forms at each table: You pick numbers and give the card to the barkeep and wait for your numbers to show up and win big bucks. Your number never shows. Glasses clank and the spritz of beer bottles being twisted open gives the place the feel an old Jerseyite like me can call nostalgic.nanuet hotel customer

The pizza is thin, hot and scarifying and I drink a brew along with it. I tell the barkeep that I have come all the way from Arizona to taste the real pizza once again. He knows what I mean.

“It’s the water, I found out. My nephew tried to open a pizza place in Denver, but he couldn’t make a go of it. It wasn’t the sauce, you can import that from here if you need to. But the dough won’t come out right. It’s the crust.

“Now when he comes home, he buys a load of bread and rolls and packs them up with dry ice to take back with him. Bottom line is, it’s the water.”new york pizza

Everyone has a theory, but none of them has proved sufficient to export the Tri-State national pizza. You gotta go to New Jersey, New York, or southern Connecticut.

PIzza

Can anyone get pizza outside New Jersey? Is there chili east of Terlingua? Is clam chowder red or white?

kaiser rollRegional foods can develop a following as rabid as hockey fans. No facsimile can satisfy, and the true item does not travel well. Try to get a kaiser roll in North Carolina and you will find a hamburger bun with a swirl- top pattern. A real New York kaiser roll will, if you drop it, dent linoleum. It is hard and crusty, and it shatters when you bite into it.

Alas, they don’t survive outside the Northeast.

But if North Carolina doesn’t have a kaiser roll, neither can New York produce barbecue. To most people, ”barbecue” is a verb; you barbecue chicken or barbecue ribs. To a Tarheel, it is a noun that describes a pig roasted slowly over hickory coals and then chopped to smithereens. With dried hot peppers mixed in, it has a wonderful nippy, greasy taste that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Certainly not in places that feel superior about spitting out bands of rubbery gristle and bits of bone. It is eaten with hush puppies and coleslaw (to help cut the patina of grease that builds up on gums) and contains no tomato sauce.

chowder pair

Tomatoes provide the shibboleth for warring chowder heads, too. What is called ”Manhattan” clam chowder is red with tomato and spiced with thyme. To order such a concoction in Gloucester, Mass., is to utter fighting words. ”Real” chowder is thick with potato and white with milk or cream (depending on your level of gourmeterie.) Its seasoning comes from salt pork rather than thyme.giovanni's pizza NYC

New Jersey, land of eternal pizza, does not deliver to the rest of the country. You can get pizza elsewhere, but to a Jerseyite, or anyone in the Tri-State area, even the best of it is only Class A ball. Jersey pizza is the major leagues. It is not bought in a franchised eatery, it is made in storefront pizzerias by guys named Vinny. It comes with cheese on top and is never a midden of kitchen scraps. When feeling frisky, a pizza lover can get a topping of pepperoni. But ham and pineapple pizza? That is left to the provinces.

Of course, Chicago feels just as smug about its pizza. Stuffed pizza. Deep- dish pizza bubbling with cheese, tomato and toppings. To those with broad shoulders, it is real pizza.dogs

New York and Chicago are also caught in a dogfight. Should you look for an umbrella that reads ”Sabrett” or ”Vienna Beef?” The true Coney Island hot dog is spicy and has a casing that offers resistance to the tooth. As you bite down, it fights back, finally bursting to the bite with juice and flavor. The bland wieners packed in stores are in another universe — just fast food in a long form. The Coney Island dog is still a sausage.

Can you get sourdough bread outside San Francisco? The cushy loaf sold in supermarkets is feeble. A real sourdough almost fizzes in your mouth, and you have to tear at it with your jaws. It is a genuine ethnic food and probably should not be ingested by anyone trained on Wonder bread.

Is there salmon south of Seattle? Smoked on alder coals and served in a paper boat with fried potatoes, it is the quintessential food of Puget Sound. It can be mail-ordered (at prices that can make the less worldly-wise faint), but without the smell of the harbor, the moo of the ferry horns and the squawking of gulls, it is not the same.

The American South is as particular in culinary matters as in literature. If you think Faulkner can be hard to read, you should try following an authentic Dixie recipe. One form of cornbread, called ”dogbread,” is devised to be eaten with vinegared turnip greens and Brunswick stew. As related by a round, white-haired woman of eastern North Carolina: ”First you mix up a mess of cornmeal . . . .”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brunswick stew is seldom made at home. It is the domain of volunteer fire departments and incumbent sheriffs running for re-election. Sold to raise funds or given to garner votes, it is cooked up in a vat that makes you look for boiling missionaries. The stew is ideally made of squirrel meat, chicken, corn, tomatoes and ”butter beans.” It must be cooked slowly over a wood fire for days — some say weeks — until everything breaks down and blends.cheese steak

Transplanted scions of Philadelphia miss cheese steaks and scrapple. A cheese steak is a greasy mass of thin-sliced sandwich steaks and melted cheese on a roll, all covered with limp onion or peppers. Somehow, made at home or made on the wrong side of the Schuylkill River, it comes out wrong — the wrong cheese, the wrong roll or meat that isn’t thin or, uh, juicy, enough.

Scrapple that comes in cans and can be bought anywhere is not the scrapple that Philadelphians want next to their eggs as they read the Inquirer at breakfast. It is a kind of sausage made out of what no one else would consider eating. All scrambled together and fried up, it is irreplaceable.

Dirty rice and boudins in Louisiana, baked beans in Boston, soft tacos de lengua in the Southwest, or the pure salt of country ham and redeye gravy in Virginia: None of these can be had in their pure form anywhere but on the dirt that brought them forth.

Regionalism in food, though, may be a dying treasure. Just as television has evened out regional dialects — some rural idioms are now grist for doctoral students doing field work among the senior citizens of Arkansas and Appalachia — so franchising is helping to do away with the peculiar zest of regional specialties. If you can’t get a real pizza outside New Jersey and New York, neither are you likely to find a truly bad one. Smoothed out and made bland, you can phone out for one in the middle of Nebraska. When Fuzzy Nelson of Madison, N.C., sold his barbecue for franchise in New York City, the recipe changed to make the dish more palatable for the Big Apple.brunswick stew 1890

Like the loss of regional beers and the disappearance of downtowns across rural America, the mellowing of food chauvinism seems inevitable. You had better discover local specialties before they go the route of the fajita.

Caricature by Tony Bustos

Caricature by Tony Bustos

Leave a man to his own devices and he becomes a grunting carnivore. Let him make his own food for a month, and he will turn his home into a Aurignacian cave.

I’ve done this myself many times, when my wife left home to visit our daughter out of state. At such times, any vegetable in the fridge has ample time to turn into brown goo out of malignant neglect.

It is an odd development. I can cook; I did so for many years on a daily basis. I even enjoy making a nice rogan josh or Mexican mole. But with my wife gone, and with the advent of summer, I’ve lost all desire to cook.

And it isn’t about thinking a wife is only good for cooking and cleaning. I sometimes cook, and we share housework. This is the 21st Century. No, it is that I’m a better person all around when she is home. When we are separated, I don’t function. I seize up like an unoiled motor.

So, I live the bachelor life. I watch baseball and I sleep and I go to work.

I lose the gift of speech.

Typical dinner: I stoke up the patio gas grill, take a steak out of the freezer, drop it thunk-rock solid on the gridiron, go inside and watch an inning of baseball, go out and flip the meat over, watch another inning and then plop the steak on a paper plate and eat it with a beer as I watch the rest of the game.

I don’t even need a knife and fork. I just bite off mouthfuls. I am Attila, scourge of God.

Every once in a while, I feel the genetic need for something vegetable. On those rare days, I order a pizza with the works.

The dishes pile up. The cave floor is paved in chicken bones and the cat wanders around them licking the last bits of tissue off them with her rasping tongue.

It is an ugly sight.

It is a good thing men don’t run the world, or we would be in one heck of a hopeless mess.

 

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Ah, Paris! The Eiffel Tower, the bérets, the Apache dancers, “La Vie en Rose,” haute couture, zee Fransh ak-sant, onion soup, vin rouge, escargot.

Baloney.

The Paris of movies and tourist brochures is, frankly, a load of hooey. If you go to Paris to see the city of  Amélie or Avenue Montaigne, or worse, the city of An American in Paris, you will be disappointed. There is no Maurice Chevalier here, singing “Louise,” no Piaf, regrets or otherwise.

Paris is a city, not a romantic illusion. There is traffic, there is noise, there is filth on the streets. On street corners, teenage toughs with shaggy hair make out with the girls during school lunch hours and workmen carry long pipes of PVC to replace worn out Paris plumbing, and cars stop midstreet to block those behind, while someone jumps out and opens the rear door to make deliveries, oblivious.

It is a working city; not a theme park. It has edges, it has smells. It has its crankiness as well as its graces.

Yet, Paris is still one of the greatest cities in the world. For some of us, the greatest, no contest.

Oh, you can still get a bowdlerized version of the city from on top of a tour bus, with a cheesy tour guide pointing out all the familiar places: Napoléon’s tomb, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Panthéon, the Opéra, the Louvre. But if you only look for the guidebook Paris, you will miss the real city. It is there to be soaked in, like the fragrance of a newly cut camembert.

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The best way to discover the real Paris is to find a neighborhood to stay in, and then to walk the streets, shop in the stores and eat in the cafes and restaurants. Avoid the usual areas: Don’t book a room in the Latin Quarter or the Marais or, god help you, Montmartre.

Paris is divided into administrative districts, called arrondissements. The Fifth is a huge tourist area; try the nearly forgotten 12th or the off-on-the-side 16th. You will hear the screams and chatter of school children playing at recess. You will see the regulars downing their apéritifs at the corner bars. You will find not only the boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries (pastry shops) and épiceries (corner grocers), but also the small shop where a seamstress can repair a torn trouser leg, the cheap, smarmy cadeaux shops, with their cheap plastic “gifts” — the kind people give each other when they don’t really care what the recipient thinks, but nevertheless feel socially obligated to offer. You find the pharmacies under the flashing green neon crosses, where the pharmacist can help you find anything from a toothbrush to doctor when you need one on a Saturday morning.

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If you walk around your neighborhood, in a very short time, the tradesmen will begin to recognize you as you pass. They’ll smile and wave, perhaps ask about your family.

The butcher will be a larger man, with a mustache; you can see him through the window hacking away at a side of beef.

The épicier, or corner grocer, is most likely an immigrant, maybe Korean, perhaps Algerian. He will greet you when you enter: “Bonjour.” He will ask what you need and help you find it.

There are self-service supermarkets in the city – the Champion or the Monoprix – but it is still the épicier that you should go to, with wine ranked on one wall like books in a Victorian library, shelves of canned goods, a refrigerator for milk and crème fraiche.

You always let the grocer pick out your tomatoes or onions. He is expected to know which ones are best and is expected to have your interest at heart. As Captain Renault says in Casablanca, “It is a little game we play.”

In the morning, you stop at the boulangerie for a croissant and a coffee – the national breakfast; in the afternoon, you stop again for a baguette, which may be the best bread in the world. If you are in a hurry, you can stop at lunchtime and get a tartine, a sandwich made on an open face half-baguette.

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One of the best parts of a visit to Paris is the outdoor market, or marché. Once or twice a week, in certain sections of the city, awnings will be erected and from early morning to early afternoon, booths will offer vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, poultry, wristwatches, purses and overcoats. The markets throng with people.

You couldn’t walk without a “pardonnez-moi” or “excusez-moi” every 20 seconds. Little old ladies with their two-wheeled grocery carts trailing along behind them like luggage. Young couples eyeing the cheap jewelry and gaudy watches. Old men looking acerbic and grumpy, with their hands in their overcoat pockets and a scratchy white three-day stubble on their double chins. Little schoolchildren on aluminum scooters.

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One stall will be a fishmonger, with heaps of silvery dace and mackerel, red-fleshed, skinned flatfish, piles of oysters, boxes of shrimp and langoustine.

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The next will offer meat, with freshly butchered shanks and steaks, and platters of livers, kidneys and other oddments. Perhaps a fresh rabbit, fur on, hangs upside down. More than one stall will be end to end vegetables and fruits, with cauliflowers, tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, peaches, apples, pears.

A few meters down the road, the food will give way to junk jewelry and hairpins. Further, there will be clothing stalls, shoes, jackets.

Then, more food. One great-smelling stall has whole chickens on rotisserie racks, about 6 skewers high, over a trough with golden roasted new potatoes glistening in tasty duck fat.

The hawkers all smile and call out as you pass. “Poissons très fraiches,” or “Poulet, poulet, six Euro, deux pour dix Euro.”

Some markets, like the one at rue Mouffetard in the spring and summer, is a hook for tourists, but most of them, and all of them in the off-season, are really there for Parisians, who really do load up every Saturday, or Wednesday or Sunday — whichever day their particular market opens. By 2 p.m., everyone is packing up their wares and getting ready for the new market tomorrow in another part of the city.

A neighborhood consists of apartment buildings, primarily. In the older neighborhoods, the buildings were erected in the 19th or early 20th century. They will have sculpture over the doorways and carvings on the windows. They are elegant; they are everywhere. But in newer neighborhoods, the apartments can be outright ugly: Designed in the 1960s as modernistic, and now grimy with soot on what was once shiny brushed aluminum paneling, or covered with graffiti on bland stucco. Parents walk their infants in strollers or hold their older kids’ hands as they walk to the market, the school or the post office. Bicycles are everywhere and so are the motorcycles and scooters, making up most of the background noise of Paris, mixed with the perennial “eeee-aaaaw, eeee-aaaw” of the emergency vehicles – les pompiers.

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I cannot know what others find in Paris, but this is what we find that keeps drawing us back, every two years, when we can round up the wherewithal to go. There is certainly an exoticism in a place where no one speaks your language and they eat kidneys and snails, but it isn’t the strangeness of the place that draws us back; it is the familiarity, the sense of having found a home — a spiritual home, a place where the populace seems connected to the things we feel connected to.

Living in America, we are miserably confined to a world view that simply isn’t satisfying. I bump into those who reflexively insult the French — “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and the like — but who have never been to France. Or Chile, or Shanghai. They tend to believe the American way is the only way, and evince little curiosity concerning how others may live, and whether it may, in fact, be a satisfying way to live.

Yes, the hotel rooms may be small, very small; if they have an elevator, it is hardly larger than a phone booth; if they don’t, the stairs will not have met anything like a building code. Floors will likely have steps up or down in unexpected places.

The concierge will be of great help, or at least willingness to help, and almost always speaks pretty good English, but will also almost always be speaking on the phone to a friend.

But the small rooms should not be a problem. After all, we’re just sleeping there.

But I have heard many an American whine and complain about the size of the French hotel room. If they want a Holiday Inn, they might consider a vacation in Missoula or Muscle Shoals.

 

EATING

Neighborhoods thrive on their restaurants. Every street is filled with them.

Each night, they will be full from 8 to 10 p.m., with gesticulating diners talking and drinking. But not smoking: Smoking has been banned in all Paris restaurants. The obnoxious smoker spewing cigarette ash all over the place used to be one of the signature characteristics of the city, but that is all gone now. Diners will occasionally excuse themselves from their table and step outside for a furtive puff and come back in when they’re done.

The guide books spend a lot of time explaining the difference between a cafe and a bistro or brasserie or salon de thé, but really, all that is old hat. Most often you see signs for cafe-restaurant or bar-brasserie. Everything has morphed into everything else.

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The real difference to notice isn’t the cafe and bistro, but the pizzeria and gyros shop. Most of the restaurants you come across, outside the billions of cafes that line almost every street and bedizen most street corners, will be ethnic: Thai, Korean, Italian, Basque, Indian, Japanese.

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They will, of course, be French in their approach. Even if you are ordering Chinese, expect a three-course meal with a wine list. Fromage blanc for dessert? Don’t be surprised to find things you’d never find in a Chinese restaurant at home, or in China.

The standard neighborhood restaurant is a two-man affair. It will be a storefront with a few tables outdoors, unused in the autumn chill, and about six tables inside, with a bar at the back of the room, where the waiter stands.

Waiter isn’t quite the right word for him. He is host, bartender and, sometimes, streetside barker. He will be friendly, will smile, will point out what is best on the menu tonight. He is an indispensable part of the dining experience.

But behind the door at the back of the small room, where you see a dim light and perhaps some steam, there is the cook and scullery man, working like a slave, pumping out the escalope de veau or the tortellini Provençal.

He will be a frumpy, dumpy man, or a lean, wiry Algerian, and periodically he will pop out of the kitchen in long, formerly white apron, a shirt with its tails hanging out and a five-o’clock shadow on his face, will scurry like a rodent from the kitchen to the stairs — every such restaurant has a spiral staircase to the basement, located among the tables, where the pantry is kept — and he will disappear for a few minutes and then reemerge, like a prairie dog from his hole, with an armload of fish or potatoes or cooking oil, then disappear back into the hot kitchen.

The first time he did this, as he came up, he looked over at me and smiled, almost like a child. He knew how pathetic he looked, but how competent he knew he was in the kitchen. I’m sure he and the waiter could not possibly have switched jobs.

I mentioned the menu, but in fact, the menu is something else: You order from the “carte,” which is the bill of fare. A “menu” is a prix fixe dinner, offered as either a money-saving alternative for the price-conscious (and a chance for the restaurant to move any items too long hanging around, or in too abundant a supply), or an obvious gimmick for tourists, to make their choices easier among the many strange-sounding food items available.

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The menu (or formule, as it is also called) will usually offer an entrée (or first course) and plat (main course), or plat and dessert, for a very low 10 Euro or 13 or 15 Euro, depending on how swanky the food is or in what neighborhood the restaurant is located.

A good menu will offer all three courses. Drinks are extra. Coke is more expensive than wine. Literally. Oh, you can buy really expensive and good wines to have with your cote de veau, but in a cheap cafe, a glass of vin du pays will set you back 2 Euro, while a Coke is likely to run 3.50.

On a chilly, drizzly fall evening, the warmth, physical and emotional, of the neighborhood restaurant, is the essence of the Paris experience.

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