A brief moment of produce-induced swooning

Quine wasn’t kidding: Gavagai really is a thing, and you don’t have to go any further than the grocery store to experience it.


Winters in Paris are nothing to write home to mom about, but they’re nothing to complain about, either.  (To be nothing to write home to mom about explained in the English notes below.)  If you can get past the crushing darkness, which descends on you at the relatively civilized hour of 5 PM but doesn’t lift until a quarter past 8 in the morning, the weather is relatively mild.  Your mileage may vary depending on the strength of your heater, but overall, the winter weather here isn’t really that bad.

One of the beauties of life here is the produce in the markets.  The stuff in the supermarkets is as crappy as the produce in the supermarkets in the US, but if you go to your neighborhood market, the situation changes totally.  In my neighborhood, the market takes place Sunday and Wednesday mornings.  The produce, eggs, meat, and dairy products are pretty local.  In the US, the situation is quite different, for very specific reasons.  Most food gets shipped long distances, and that has consequences for produce in particular.  The plus side of the American supermarket is that you can buy any fruit or vegetable whatsoever 365 days a year.  The downside is that to make those fruits and vegetables available year-round, they have to be shipped from distant climes, which means that they cannot be ripe, or they’ll bruise in transit.  So: you can have any fruit or vegetable you want, but it will always be unripe and tasteless.  That’s pretty much the situation in French supermarkets, too, at least in Paris.  (I have no clue what goes on elsewhere.  I avoid leaving Paris as much as possible, due to the whole lapins anthropophages issue in the countryside.  Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)

The supply chain for Parisian markets is pretty local, which means that you don’t have the constraint against ripe produce–you don’t have to worry about everything getting ruined in transit because it doesn’t get shipped very far.  That means that in the summer you can buy pretty much anything, but in the winter it’s mostly apples and potatoes, and you can tell how long they’ve been sitting in someone’s cellar.  (I exaggerate here, but just a bit.  I did say mostly.)  The payback: in the summer, the produce is incredible.  If you have never walked by a crate of strawberries that were so ripe you could smell them: it’s amazing.  If you have never had a merchant ask you when you were going to eat your produce, and then pick it out for you so that it would last exactly as long as you needed it to before being overripe: it’s quite the service.

So: it’s Sunday, which means my market day, which means my weekly dose of vegetables.  (I try to keep my vegetable consumption down to the minimum required for life.  Where there are vegetables, there are des lapins anthropophages, and…well, like I said: you’ve been warned.)  My marchand préféré (I suggest that you pick yours based on the length of their line–longer lines are better, and they get extra points for higher ratios of old ladies) had some cherry tomatoes, and they were lookin’ good.  Price: 2.95 a barquette.  

Seulement voilà (the problem is): what’s a barquette?  If it’s a container, I’m in good shape.  If, on the other hand, it’s a vine with attached little red things, then since there are several of those in one of those containers, we’re talking about more money than I’m willing to pay to run the risk of attracting the unwanted attention of the aforementioned lapins.  (Some of you will recognize this as the classic Gavagai problem.  In the language of Molière, you can also spell it Gavagaï.)

Solution: ask for just one barquette, and see what the guy hands me.  That done, I took my purchases home.  Once out of my shopping bag (you must carry a shopping bag–disposable plastic grocery bags are illegal here now), I set my barquette of cherry tomatoes on the table and took a whiff.  Boom: right back to my childhood.  A warm summer day, tomatoes warm in the sun.  You get that kind of “sense memory” in an American grocery store exactly never.  You get soft towels here in Paris exactly never, but oh, the produce…

You’ll find notes on the English and French vocabulary used in this post below.  For more on the role of cherry tomatoes in Parisian life, check out Olivier Magny’s book Stuff Parisians like, which turns out to be accurate far more often than I ever would have thought it would be.


French notes

la barquette: small basket (of fruit or little vegetables), tub (of ice cream or margarine)

English notes

produce (noun): agricultural products and especially fresh fruits and vegetables as distinguished from grain and other staple crops (from Merriam-Webster).  Note: this is a noun, and is pronounced with stress on the first syllable, not on the last syllable (as is the case with the verb).  How it was used in the post: One of the beauties of life here is the produce in the markets. 

to not be anything to write home to mother about: to not be particularly special (in the American sense of the word special, not the French sense).

How it was used in the post: Winters in Paris are nothing to write home to mom about, but they’re nothing to complain about, either.