Food From the Street: Paris versus New York
by Melissa Clark
I used to believe that everything eaten in Paris is necessarily better than it would be in New York. From that first bite of an airport croissant downed ravenously in the back of a cab into the city, to the cumulative last-night-in-Paris dinner at some cherished little bistro, food in Paris seemed imbued with a golden aura.
Of course, much of this aura stems from the fact that I am happily on vacation in Paris, and I live and work in New York. But after a more extended trip to the City of Lights, one that I would call a working vacation, I found myself yearning for those culinary delights never talked about in polite society, or written about in books. I missed eating food on the run, food from the street, a category of cuisine that while available in Paris, is so vastly different from that of New York that it has to be considered a separate species. And that includes both the cuisine itself, and the culture that surrounds it.
For one thing, in New York, street food is relatively democratic. It is not unusual to see a line of pin-striped Wall Street bigwigs and baseball-capped cabbies queued up together in front of a hot dog stand. Working women of every ilk suck Frozfruits(tm) in the summer, slurp skim-milk, cinnamon-topped mochaccinos in winter. Tourists and natives alike can make a cheap meal from one of the many ethnic lunch carts docked on curbs around town: Mexican tacos filled with carnitas, tongue, or chicken; Middle Eastern shish kebabs and falafel slathered with creamy tahini; Jewish knishes split and smeared with mustard; Chinese dumplings, scallion pancakes, and even stewed ducks' feet; Caribbean rotis stuffed with fish or curried vegetables. And everyone, from the man in the limo who sends his driver to wait "on" line, to the construction workers on a lunch break, is happy to make a meal of one of the two typical New York staples which I think were made to be eaten out of hand on the street -- a slice of pizza and a bagel.
In Paris, street food is a more stratified, less variegated endeavor. For the most part, eating on the street (not counting sidewalk cafes) is relegated to tourists, immigrants, and students. You would never see a dapper Parisian businessman with the French version of a hot dog (stuffed into a baguette and covered with melted cheese) in one hand, cell phone in the other. No, proper Parisians eat at tables in restaurants, bistros, cafes, or homes. Only the "visitors" and the young are allowed the privilege of eating a fried beignet by the quai, or a cold croque-monsieur (melted ham and cheese sandwich) near the fountain at Blvd. St. Michael, or a chocolate-filled crepe while window shopping on Rue St. Honore.
Ironically, the one type of street food in Paris that is as democratic and unifying as anything in New York is one that I would never, ever eat at home: fast food franchises from America. Everyone, from the most bejewelled socialite to the pink-mohawk-sporting teenagers, happily partakes of Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, and Baskin Robbins. While a year ago I might have been appalled at such a sure sign of the decline and Americanization of my beloved French cuisine, I now take a more circumspect view. Sure, I'd rather that Parisians of all walks of life embrace eating all kinds of food on the street (preferrably bagels and pizza). But at least a door has been opened.
Now, if we could only get a good chocolate-filled crepe on the street here in New York ...