Sunday, June 11, 2006
It still makes me laugh every time I see the tiny shelf of American specialties in the "exotic foods" section of the supermarket.
The other day I was at a smaller grocery store than the one I usually go to, and the "exotic foods" section was so small that they'd put all of the mysterious oddities of the anglo-saxon world side-by-side in a tiny block of shelf-space. Boxes of Scottish shortbread were right next to individual cans of Dr. Pepper (sold at one euro and nineteen cents a piece). On the next shelf up, jars of mint sauce sat next to maple syrup (which would normally be stocked in the "Canadian foods" section of a larger French supermarket), with jars of peanut butter next and then some sort of Vegemite knock-off.
I'd never thought of myself as a huge fan of peanut butter, but after moving to France -- where they don't eat peanut butter -- I had the inevitable "you never know what you've got until it's gone" experience. Of course it's not hard to find peanut butter (tiny, tiny jars of it) in ordinary grocery stores. But the culture shock that I wasn't expecting -- however obvious in retrospect -- was that the whole range of peanut-butter-flavored products we know and love are quite impossible to find in France.
So when visiting in the US, my first purchase upon arriving is generally some "Reese's Peanut-butter Cups", and even though I'm theoretically a grown-up, my breakfast every morning for my whole visit is usually "Cap'n Crunch's Peanut Butter Crunch" (to my husband's disgust). Pardon the blatant product placement here -- I'm actually not getting paid to do this, I'm just curious as to what google searches this will attract to my blog.
So since moving to France, I've learned that the French don't eat peanut butter and they don't eat Vegemite. the Vegemite part didn't bother me so much since I'd never heard of Vegemite until my manager here was replaced by a guy from Australia. (Or so I thought -- when I told people I'd never heard of Vegemite, I found out that that line I never could understand from that one "Men at Work" song is actually "she just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich." Live and learn!)
My first experience with Vegemite was when my Australian manager picked some up at a specialty shop while we were on a business trip to London. I could see maybe acquiring a taste for it in very small doses, but man, that's pretty strong stuff!
As nasty as the Vegemite tasted to me, I knew that a lot of my French friends had a similar reaction to peanut butter. It seemed that in both cases, it was a taste to be developed in childhood or not at all.
Always eager to expand the human knowledge base through science, I decided an experiment was in order to determine which one -- peanut butter or Vegemite -- was more naturally repulsive to humans. A more ethical scientist might object to my use of my French colleagues as guinea pigs for my experiment, but I didn't have any real guinea pigs handy.
Here's what happened:
One morning I picked up some nice warm baguettes -- fresh from the bakery -- and brought them with me to work. There I cut them into small pieces, spreading some pieces with peanut butter and others with my Australian manager's precious supply of Vegemite (which he donated in the interest of science), and set the whole thing up on my desk with a little paper where everyone could vote on the question "Which is more disgusting?"
The peanut butter put up a good fight, but the Vegemite was the clear winner. :-)