Having not studied abroad as an undergrad, the opportunity to make up for it during my graduate studies was something I eagerly anticipated. I planned to take the Global Food Cultures course in Paris back when I first applied to the master’s program in Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt. Paris has always been a fascination of mine, a place I have long romanticized, and I could not imagine a better place to study the intersection of cuisine and culture than in the country revered as a global leader in gastronomy and the barometer of culinary refinement. During our stay this past June we were able to delve into a deep study of French food culture through comprehensive readings, academic discourse, and – most profoundly – hands-on, experiential research.
Over the course of our two weeks in France we wandered for miles through a diverse array of Parisian neighborhoods, visited outdoor markets and food shops, sampled luscious local fare, investigated food production and distribution infrastructures, studied the cultural context and rich history of the country and its people, assessed the impact of globalization and debated the merits, and perfected the art of the outdoor picnic. I have traveled in France and to Paris many times, but this trip gave me a fresh insight into the country and allowed me to study the French identity from a unique perspective. When Professor Berg brought us to popular attractions she took a deeper and distinctive approach. At Versailles we walked the grounds extensively and explored Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet to help us understand the cultural context of life in the French court and its impact on the evolution of haute cuisine. At the Louvre we wandered through the refreshingly calm and quiet exhibitions of royal cutlery and table settings, stopping to view an interactive exhibition that described the lavish spreads of food enjoyed at the French court.
A good portion of our time in France got us off the beaten path of tourists and into aspects of the country most tourists never even contemplate such as the marginalized ethnic communities, large industrial food distribution facilities, the growing organic and natural foods movement, charming community gardens – inspired by ours in New York City – in the outer reaches of Paris, and an introspective into everyday life of Parisians from all parts of the socio-economic spectrum. My favorite part of the experience was the exploration of the quotidian aspects of French life and the subsequent juxtaposition with what we think and experience here in the US. We delved into this with tastings (water, butter, salt, chocolate, wine, beer, cheese, bread and charcuterie to name a few), visits to small-scale, organic, sustainable farms in the countryside, conversations with local business owners, and by investigating the recent emergence of a local, sustainable and artisanal movement that is quickly gaining momentum. I learned and experienced more than I ever expected during our time in France for this course and I surely plan to utilize the tools of cultural examination that we cultivated in my future studies and travels.
Written for and originally published at NYU Steinhart News in July 2015.