On being Vegetarian in France

Ethiopian restaurant in Paris

Ethiopian restaurant in Paris

When I was 10 I decided that I no longer wanted to consume meat. The decision was influenced in part thanks to a lovely fast-food poisoning experience, repeated shady Mcnuggets, stubborn determination and a vivid 4th grade imagination of the animals on my plate. Despite my parent’s pleas, I haven’t looked back. I don’t like it and I don’t miss it.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all vegetarian preachy on you (although I do have my reasons). I’m well aware that in many places meat is a commodity and an honor to be served.

But being a vegetarian is not without it’s difficulties- especially when travelling. Being a vegetarian in France- specifically Montbeliard (the saucisse capital of the Franche-Comté)- is riddled with confusion, mix ups and a general sense of “mais, pour quoi?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?”.

You see, the French have the mentality of bonne vivant, or good living, which means that  good eating is meat eating. Serving a main course without meat is not even within their realm of conception. If you go out, it’s to eat meat. If you have guests over, you serve meat. Take Antoine’s poor mother for example. The first time I visisted she emphatically told him that she prepared a nice stake for the occasion. It went a little something like this:

“Mom. Remember? She’s vegetarian.” 

“Oh… Well that’s ok I have salmon.”

“Mom. Vegetarian- no meat.”

“Fish is not meat.”

“Moommm-”

“Alright. I’ll think of something”

That something was salad- a crevette, or shrimp, salad. It was disheartening to tell her that I don’t eat seafood either. At least she tried. Now when I visit she makes cooking for me like a puzzle or a complicated game- what can I possibly cook that has no form of meat?!

What strikes me most is how bizarre, how unfathomable, it is to the French that someone would make the conscious decision to not eat meat. Growing up in the U.S., especially Texas, I had my fair share of people who didn’t understand. But it was more of a- “well what’s your reason?” kind of mentality and less of a “soooo no sausage?” utter confusion.

I always thought of American food in the stereotypical way- fast, greasy, and big with a strong emphasis on meat. But living in France has actually opened my eyes to the variety that is American cuisine. We are obsessed with fusion food and creative culinary experimentation (though sometimes this results in bizarre concoctions). Whereas the French seem to have a mentality of “this is good, why change it?” (forget about trying to make personal requests) which unfortunately results in me avoiding the duck, beef and lamb entrees and sticking with salads. I’ve realized that a big reason dining sans meat is easier in the United States, is that it is a country of immigrants and thus our food has influences from all over the world.

The best friend of a vegetarian in France is the marché. You can buy local, fresh produce in almost any town for a very little cost. True there’s the effort of cooking for yourself, but it tastes goods, costs less and can be as creative as you please. It’s not impossible to be a vegetarian in France- especially in the bigger cities. Crêperies are popular in many towns and usually have veggie options, or are more willing to adapt to your requests. While Falfel is difficult to find in smaller towns, when you do find it, it is quite delicious. Seek out the Indian, Lebanese, and Moroccan restaurants for filling veggie options. And if you do find yourself stuck at a typical meat centered restaurant, the salade de chèvre chaud (grilled goat cheese on bread salad) is always a good staple.

My personal savior- cheese (sorry vegans). I’ve been lucky enough to actually like the strong, smelly cheeses of France. At least I can redeem myself with cheese.

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