It’s no secret that a date in your past can mean a new family in your future. In the south of France it’s a double date, involving our geographical proximity to North Africa and France’s colonial past. Because we’re just a quick kiss across the Mediterranean from Tunisia and Algeria I can buy fresh dates still on the branch, more delicious than any I’ve ever tasted, and I find harissa, and ras el hanout in just about any shop. We hear Arabic on the streets, see women in traditional dress, and couscous is on the menu more often than coq au vin.
It’s not exactly what I expected before coming here. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by the diversity, and take full advantage of the culinary implications of having Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian food and ingredients tossed into the melting pot. But as an American, even one who’d been here several times before, my idea of France was really all about Paris. Parisian chic, a Parisian accent, and its big city sophistication were spread throughout France, in my imagination. And then there was Provence, full of lavender and sunshine. The rest was hazy.
Here in the non-imaginary south, outside the idyll of A Year in Provence, my world is expanding. A couple of days ago we went to an old small town, where people have been living since the Neolithic. It’s deep in la France profonde, an out of the way spot you can get to on one lane roads without ever meeting another car. We arrived at lunch time on Monday, only to find that almost every place to eat was closed. The two choices that were available: a brasserie featuring couscous and a Moroccan soup as the plat du jour, and the kebab place. Since we love kebab
it was an easy choice for us. But still, it made me wonder. Was there even any “French” food to be had in this town? Or are couscous and kebab really French food too? It’s a familiar question to an American, since we’re always struggling with the question of what is “real American food.” Our immigrant past guarantees a richly diverse menu, and I’m coming to see that the same forces are at work here in this corner of France. There’s culture clash, as there’s bound to be, but it all comes together on the plate.
Although it has to be admitted that the influence of Paris extends all the way down to even the remotest of towns, and outside the realm of food. Because even here, in a little kebab spot in a town you can barely find on the map, filled with raucous laughter and enticing, spicy fragrances, it’s quite possible to see a guy
dark eyed and olive-skinned, dressed like a rapper from his studded pants to his stocking cap, carrying a purse. It’s so French.