Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Travels with Alice

Deb at Readerbuzz recently wrote a post about books that should be read on a trip to Paris. She said: “The book you bring with you might be best if written by an outsider like you are yourself, a person who is charmed by Paris but is aware Paris, though amazing, is also deeply flawed, a person who loves Paris like we do our mothers.”

Some of Calvin Trillin's books about food and travel.
His wife Alice and his young daughters play a big role.
My idea of a highly enjoyable travel book with a totally American point of view but lots of insight into other places is Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice. It was published in 1989, and describes Trillin's experiences in the 1980s in Paris, Provence, and other places. Trillin’s observations still appeal to me -- eloquently. He is a very skilled humorist, as well as a penetrating commenter on all kinds of eccentric details that he sees when traveling. 

Let's start with Trillin's chapter titled "Prix du Hamburger," that is, the Hamburger Prize. He tells how he and his daughter Sarah and two other American children spent a day on the Champs Élysées sampling the hamburgers which they bought both at American fast-food chains and at French copycats. Of course Trillin has a vast appreciation for fine French dining -- but he's also curious about all kinds of food. If you went to Paris you probably wouldn't dream of eating at MacDonald's, but Trillin makes this type of thing into a mission.

The four members of this "inspection team" started at an outlet of Freetime, which is "a French-owned fast-food operation that offered Les Superhits, including a Hitburger and a Hitfrench ('même préparation que le Hitburger, avec des herbes de Provence' meaning same thing as the Hitburger but with herbes de Provence)." (Alice Let's Eat, p. 70)

Trillin's daughter Sarah, particularly, was a great lover of fast-food hamburgers, despite her parents' efforts to help her refine her palate.

"Sarah had never felt completely comfortable in establishments where a special order is necessary to get anything but the ornately dressed hamburgers the fast-food chains specialize in. She had always eaten her hamburgers just plain --- except for what one fast-food menu I saw in Paris described as "une touche de ketchup." (p 71)

And in case you need to understand Trillin's goals, he explains:

"I was under no illusion about finding hamburgers that blotted out memories of my childhood in Kansas City, or French fries that rivaled the kind of freshly cut, triple-fried pommes frites that had helped persuade Sarah that France might be a place where one could avoid starvation after all.... The word 'authentic' somehow seemed inappropriate, but I was sort of curious to see whether Paris fast-food joints were authentic." (p. 74) 

Freetime clearly didn't fill the bill. "As a start," says Trillin, "the hamburgers were rectangular." Burger King, in contrast, with its round and recognizable burgers, "was striving to be Burger King, and that left no room for herbes de Provence." The atmosphere in Burger King -- other than not being near a major US highway -- conformed to normal Burger King expectation.

As for the general method of judging, Trillin says:

"I did not … approach the Champs-Élysées in a resentful mood, like one of those boosters of American culture who keep asking why French intellectuals can't spend a little more time studying American contributions to modern dance and a little less time celebrating the middle films of Jerry Lewis." (p. 76)

 The MacDonald’s in Paris in the eighties were fairly new, replacing an earlier effort with a franchise that was cancelled because the American MacDonald’s felt that the proprietor of the outlets “was not maintaining company standards in matters like cleanliness.” (I remember this well.) Trillin continues:

After being deprived of his franchise by a Chicago judge, the owner “changed the name of his outlets to O’Kitch. The standard sandwich of O’Kitch became a Kitchburger. … The names of the dishes served by a fast-food restaurant in Paris are normally just variations on one English word — almost any English word. Freetime’s word, of course, was ‘Hit.’ Dallas Burger, I found, offered a Big Dallas, a Dallas Burger, a Cheese Dallas, and a Fish Dallas. A place called Fun Burger had a Funny Burger, a Funny Cheese, and a Funny Fish.” (p. 79)

Trillin and his team tried  the Kitchburger (not impressed), two Hitfrenches (not impressed), and finally a What a Burger called the Super What, for which they had to go across town. By that time they were so stuffed with all the hamburgers they had tried (not to mention the fries), that they said it was the best — and they went for ice cream. They thought this was the same conclusion that the newspaper Le Monde had reached, but it turned out that Le Monde’s “prix du hamburger” had gone to Burger King. Trillin’s conclusion: 

“Well, it’s complicated… Also, what would the French know about such things.” (p. 81)

Do all these French hamburger chains still exist in Paris? I don’t know, and I don’t really want to know. But I really enjoyed Trillin’s excursion into the subject. And I’m certainly aware that the French today are very grumpy because American fast-food has, they feel, corrupted their youth and disrupted a superior tradition.

American Fried and Alice, Let's Eat are two other wonderful Trillin books that have been on my shelves for decades. Though his adventures in food in these books took place in other places than Paris, I loved rereading selections from these books this week. The humorous descriptions of American food and many different countries’ food ways, I feel, have lasted beautifuly since the 1970s and 1980s when Trillin wrote them.

The Golden Arches and the Arc de Triomphe,
as photographed on the Champs Elysée much more recently.
(Perfect photo from a random website!)
Blog post © 2022 mae sander
Shared with Paris in July.


Iris Flavia said...

I´m old. I would eat French food if I was there.
But is sure sounds interesting. Square burgers - must be a funny sight.

eileeninmd said...

I do like to eat at local restaurants (not fast food) while traveling. The chain restaurants are good for when we are home. I have to admit, I did try a McDonald's hamburger while in London back in 1985. Have a great day!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

How lovely to see oneself quoted in a blog post!

Travels with Alice is a book I've always wanted to read. Trillin's attempt to compare American fast food hamburgers with those of the French is a fun idea.

Carola Bartz said...

This is certainly a fun and interesting thing to do and then write about, but honestly, while in France I wouldn't waste any time or money on American fast food. French food is just too good.

Yogi♪♪♪ said...

I do love a good travel book and Trillin's sounds like they would fit the bill.

Jeanie said...

You probably won't be surprised to know I'm a huge Calvin Trillin fan and that I've read this book more than once and love it! What a good choice for PIJ!

Marie Cloutier said...

when i was in high school in the late 80s i went to paris for a two week exchange and i remember how cross my teachers were at us for wanting to eat at a mcdonalds in paris! lol.

Veronica Lee said...

I prefer to sample the local street food when I'm traveling.
Trillin's sounds like an interesting travel book.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

In my mind Burger King burgers are the best of the fast food offerings. But I don't indulge. And I can't recall ever ordering a hamburger in France.

CJ Kennedy said...

That would be a fun trip to pick one food and to sample it across a region or country. Happy T Day

My name is Erika. said...

This book sounds interesting. I'm going to add it to my wish list, so thanks for sharing Mae.