The window was open, and a silver plastic radio sat on the sill, its crooked antenna reaching out over the zinc rooftops and clay chimneys of the unmistakably Parisian skyline. A solid chunk of salted butter was slowly melting in a sauté pan, like a Dali clock in the desert sun, filling the tiny top-floor studio with a warm familiar smell. On the radio a low female voice accompanied by jingling piano keys sang in French. In the building across the street, a leathery older man with a halo of white hair and a round shiny belly leaned out over his balcony window like the patron saint of the City of Light, looking down the long boulevard towards the golden-winged statue at the Place de la Bastille that shone in the late afternoon sun. It was a lazy Saturday, the third day of our first trip to Paris. The first couple of nights we’d been out late, but tonight we were slowly prepping the ingredients for dinner in the tiny top-floor apartment.
Cooking “at home” while traveling was as much a whimsical decision as it was practical. The notion of traveling like a local is usually more romance than reality, as most locals aren’t hopping from reservation to reservation at Michelin-star tasting rooms. On this trip, we decided we wouldn’t be either. Instead, we wanted to skip some meals out, go to markets and try cooking on our own (and occasionally just snack on a baguette and olives and cheese in a park). On a long trip, taking the time to prepare a meal in your own space can feel like a celebratory act - an intentional pause from the pressure of a meticulously researched and well-curated travel itinerary. It’s a process that demands a purposeful slowing of pace - water in the pot takes time to boil, attention must be focused in order for the garlic not to burn in the oil. Being inside with a pan on the burner and the window open, we were a part of where we were but separate - a long way from home, but not quite overwhelmed with all of the new information and experience of being in a foreign place.
For people that love food and the culture around it, a benefit of cooking for ourselves was the opportunity to learn about local and regional ingredients firsthand. Before cooking these ingredients, we had to find them; in France, we noticed that the street markets were usually more packed with shoppers than the chain grocery stores and had better, fresher options. We’d get carried along with the crowd of haggling locals, interrupted by vendors holding out fruits and vegetables for us to sample. At the poultry and meat counters, there were more cuts of meat than I’d seen before, anything from pig’s ears to a whole side of beef. Behind the butchers, rotisserie chickens slowly rotated in a glass-front oven, dripping herb-infused fat down onto sheet pans of small whole golden potatoes that were roasted in the jus. When we got to the market we felt lost in the bustle, but when we left an hour and a half later we knew how to find what we were looking for, how to ask how much it cost and how to pay the correct amount of foreign money. With a tote bag full of ripe fruits and vegetables and the quintessential tall baguette peeking out, we felt accomplished. Bonjour, merci, au revoir.
Cooking in requires relatively little: a sharp knife is a plus — but even a bendy, brightly colored plastic knife will do (just remember: a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one). If the plan is to cook in for even a few meals, a quick google search for a restaurant supply store can make the experience worthwhile. In Paris, we made a pilgrimage to E. Dehillerin, a supremely-classic 200-year old kitchen supply shop that everyone from Alice Waters to Escoffier has frequented, and Lindsey picked up a simple wooden-handled kitchen knife - a new family heirloom for the price of a movie ticket.
Funny enough, when we cooked for ourselves in France, we almost always made Italian food. Maybe it was comfort that we needed, being in a culture whose language we didn’t speak — or maybe it was the carbs – we did do a lot of walking around. The first meal we shopped ingredients for was risotto. We found chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus at the market, and after some confusion, we eventually found some short grain rice. When we finished eating that evening, we climbed out onto the roof outside our little apartment and watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the distance, while below us on the street road-raging motorists yelled at each other in traffic in the language of love.
Back home, some of our favorite routines of cooking are the simplest: music, wine, and a recipe from a book (The Art of Simple Cooking by Alice Waters is a kitchen bible). When traveling, having this similar experience is just as worthwhile. There’s a different twist, the available ingredients or the kitchen equipment, the view from the porch or window, but the simple pleasure is the same.