Le Fast Food
Wendy Nelson on a new French paradox: How fast food in France isn't fast.
After months of waxing elegiac about how easy it is to eat ridiculously well in France, it seems time to talk about another popular part of French cuisine: le fast food.
D was demonstrably less excited about this project than some of my others. Although he actually orders poutine, all on his own, the fast food Poutine House that shares the Place de l’Observatoire with our Montpellier apartment – my maiden foray into instant meals – repelled him. Was it the cheesy buffalo-check décor? The long line of UberEats bikes and motos parked outside at Sunday lunch? (So much for Peter Mayle’s elegiac reminiscences of bucolic Sunday lunches in the south of France: apparently what a good number of Montpellieriens want after church is carry-out poutine.)
So, what is poutine, anyway? If you don’t live in Quebec—or somewhere with a similarly ghastly winter—you might be blessedly ignorant. Pour a glass of red wine (you need all the French Paradox you can get with this one) and pay attention.
Start with a trough – the bigger the better – of perfectly innocent French fries. Liberally disperse cheese curds (that incomprehensible fetal precursor to real cheese, which aficionados cherish for the way the curds squeak against your teeth; at Poutine House, they call the curds skouik-skouik) over the fries, which visibly begin to wilt under the weight and fat. Then pour meat gravy over the fries and curds, turning all into a fatty, soggy slush. Top with more meat (Poutine House offers bacon and tenders Caju, among multiple choices), onions (in a nod to French cuisine, five options, including onions confits, are available), and such cultural appropriations as jalapeños to – I shudder to suggest this – brighten up the dish.
I like fried food and cheese and questionable meat as much as – maybe more than – the next gal. But for me, poutine is a match made in hell that reduces each of the individual ingredients to their lowest common denominators: fat and salt.
At Poutine House, fat and salt don’t actually come cheap: D’s modest Originale plus my All Dress(adding cheddar cheese sauce, bacon, and grilled onions somehow seemed like a good idea) plus an order of onion rings and one of jalapeño poppers (in for a penny, in for several pounds) cost over 20 euros.
Nor does it actually come fast: one of the things we discovered in our descent into French culinary depravity is that France has a different sense of what constitutes fast food. Masked and distanced from our eager fellow poutine purchasers, we waited at least ten minutes for this mess to be assembled. (I think the extras going into the fryer were the hold-up.) That turned out to be one of the speedier lunches we purchased. But staff, who sadly failed to add “eh?” to their patter, were friendly and supportive as they broke our Poutine House cherry, encouraging us to get the carte de fidélité for frequent future purchases.
We “enjoyed” our poutine on the balcony of our apartment. While red wine would have been better for our plaintive arteries, we opted for a brisk rosé. Neither of us cleared our troughs. Note that this is not a diss against Poutine House. I’m not sure I could ever eat a bucket of poutine, however hard I tried.
After lunch I felt I should take a shower and then lie down on the sofa and reflect on my sins.
Having gone off the rails with Canadian fast food, it felt appropriate to come home to where it all started: McDo (pronounced Mac-Dough). It was clear to me that McDonald’s was a real thing in Montpellier. Every day, I’d see students and workers hurrying through the streets at lunchtime carrying the telltale bags from one of two outposts in town.
D, more trepidatious on this go-round, ordered Le Hamburger, the most stripped-down option. I chose Le Big Mac and a small order of fries. I also wanted to sample indigenous McDo creations, so I added Le P'tit Fondu and Le Croque McDo to my order.
First, two words about “fast.” It wasn’t. The absence of lines didn’t signal alacrity in filling orders; rather, I suspect the customers had gone around the corner to have a drink while they waited. It took 20 minutes to get my order. Since it was a sunny day and there was a comfortable bench, I enjoyed watching the scene. I was the oldest person at McDo by a minimum of 20 years, probably 30. McDonald’s is a strain on even a youthful metabolism, and French adults are wise enough to stay away from it.
When I went inside – finally – to collect my bag of goodies, the very cheerful staff person wished me an improbably heartfelt “bon appetit!” That would never happen in the US.
I brought the haul up to the balcony, which conferred an elegance that these meals did not merit, and uncorked a white to enjoy with our infusion of American culinary imperialism.
The classics tasted the way they did in the US: no surprises, which is, I guess, the point.
Ah, but the domestic creations! Honestly, Le P’tit Fondu wasn’t bad. I polished off most of it. It consists of a bun plus a hamburger made of pur bœuf* (accompanied by an ominous asterisk on the McDonald’s website) plus what was called – rather aspirationally, I think – melted emmental, plus fried onion bits. It was pretty tasty, in the salty/greasy way of satisfying fast food. Michelin’s little-known fast food division would give it a star.
On the other hand….there was the chilling Croque McDo. Many of us Francophiles have a soft place in our hearts – as well as a hard place in our arteries – for the classic croque monsieur: two slices of white bread surrounding ham and cheese, dipped in béchamel, sprinkled with more shredded cheese, and grilled or toasted. I got the feeling that someone in the McDo test kitchen came up with the name Croque McDo (“Ah! C’est génial!”) and then went home. The resulting product feels neglected and made up of cast-offs: inverted hamburger buns flat side out, sandwiching one flaccid slice of ham between two slices of McDonald’s universal “cheese” – this one emmental-colored – and then grilled. It was a pathetic little thing, skinny in appearance although its scrawniness belied its danger: it delivered a whopping 32% of my recommended salt and 29% of recommended saturated fat. Plus, it was inedible.
At this point, our digestive tracks were begging for something more properly French in the way of fast food, and there are many options. Crèpes, for example, are street food here, and are ready within minutes. Plus, you get to watch as they are elegantly and efficiently made in front of you….nothing mysterious or scary is going on out of sight in the kitchen.
Montpellier, like most French cities, has plenty of yummy Middle Eastern fast food. We had what one friend called “the best falafel outside New York,” and even as we were enjoying what was, in fact, very good falafel, we were puzzling over the idea of New York as the home of ur-falafel.
For my birthday lunch, while still under lockdown, we headed to JB&Co. This is a uniquely Montpellier operation around the corner from our apartment. All it serves is the #1 French sandwich: jambon et beurre(ham and butter). Your choices in ordering at this shop are both limited and exquisitely French. You choose:
Your bread (two choices of white baguette; you also choose how lightly cooked/soft or dark/crunchy the baguette is)
Your ham (four options, one without nitrates; one with herbs)
Your butter (with or without salt)
Pickles (cornichons) – the “Co” of the store name
Optional emmental slices (this time, the real deal)
That’s it. We carried our sandwiches to the park and enjoyed a delicious lunch.
After that brief retreat into real food, it was time to forge courageously back into the world of twisted bastardizations of nourishment. Next up was O’Tacos Original French Tacos. Sadly, The New Yorker, damn them, scooped me with their own story about French tacos. But I’d been curious about O’Tacos since the first day I arrived in Montpellier and was eager to give it a go.
I mean, stop and say that out loud: O’Tacos Original French Tacos. Where do you start?
I guess I’d start with the fact that it is originally French. I’m not sure it’s even guilty of cultural appropriation, it’s so far removed from anything taco-esque.
For one thing, excuse me, but its closest known relative is a burrito, not a taco.
A flour wrapper (available, American-ly, in M, L, and the truly terrifyingly XL, bypassing S altogether) is filled with your choice of “meat” (which, inclusively, embraces falafel as well as three versions of chicken, merguez sausage and other recognizable viandes); French fries; some kind of proprietary “cheese” sauce (undoubtedly don’t ask/don’t tell); condiments (everything from mayo to Algerienne and Chili Thai—none very hot) and then a deliriously weird array of optional add-ins. A small sample: Boursin; Laughing Cow (La Vache Qui Rit) cheese; jalapeño poppers; mushrooms; crispy onions.
Here’s the thing: it was really good! I got one with merguez and sauce Algerienne and supplemental raclette cheese and I ate most of it. (True confession: I could have demolished the whole thing, but even the M starter-size had the dimensions of my hand and I feared for my intestinal future.)
Also surprising is the backstory on O’Tacos: It was deliberately crafted to respond to the problem that most fast food in France is not halal. O’Tacos contains no pork products, offering instead beef and poultry bacon, among other options. In part because of this sensitivity to a good part of France’s population, O’Tacos is considered very hip. This, perhaps as much as the gut-busting caloric delivery, explains why I was, once again, the oldest person – by far – patronizing it. As befits French “fast” food, a 30+ minute wait provided plenty of opportunity to assess the other O’Tacos aficionados.
The only truly fast French fast food was also the least interesting: O Bretzels, which claims to be an Alsatian treat. I would love to do linguistic and cultural research on the prefix “O”, by the way. I didn’t have the time or the digestive fortitude to tackle other Montpellier options, like O Churros, another head-scratcher.
O Bretzels makes soft-pretzel-like small buns and has them pre-loaded with a variety of sweet and salty fillings. They are all displayed in a case that is open to the street, and when you place your order, you get it before you finish sounding out the words. The sandwiches sounded good—cream of Roquefort on one; ham and gouda on another; a red-flag foie gras and figs (how can you actually get foie gras for 2E80?) on a third; Nutella and pears for dessert. But in reality, there was just the teensiest dab of the allotted filling on a proportionally very big expanse of bread. On the other hand, it was both fast and cheap: 7E40 for two salted options + one sweet one and a drink.
There are going to be times when a fast food option makes sense in France. At the risk of being proscriptive: find the crèpes or the falafel. You’ll thank me.
Wendy Nelson is exploring pandemic life in France.