I wanted coffee that day. Not the espresso finished in a matter of seconds that had become habit in the four months since arriving in Paris, and not the immense, watered-down interpretations of coffee reflective of what could be found back home. I wanted filter coffee, a mug of something strong, standing as coffee without pretense, without cream and sugar.
It was a forty-minute metro ride from my apartment in central Paris to the 11th arrondissement, where the Beans on Fire situates itself on the perimeter of Maurice Gardette Square. Walking into the café, you’re immediately confronted with a mass of heavy roasting equipment, which serves as a cooperative where many of the other coffee shops in Paris come to roast their beans. I looked around, shocked to see a crowd of young professional Anglophones eating scones with their coffee, the barista responding to customers in English, and the baker behind the counter frying doughnuts. And then I saw it, café filtre for three euros.
Satisfied with my coffee, I began speaking to the barista and baker about this business structure and learned they each functioned as independent entities within a common space. Amanda, the baker, is an expat from North Carolina and runs Boneshaker Sweet Rolls, while Tim, a native Parisian, is the head barista at O Coffeeshop whose travels to the UK, Scandinavia, and Australia have exposed him to a coffee culture entirely different from what was traditionally found in France. They each described themselves as “pop-ups” in their respective focus, spending Monday through Thursday at the Beans on Fire and then distributing to and setting up business in other cafés throughout the city the rest of the week.
Because of social media’s prevalence in the food world today, I compared this conversation to similar discussions on Instagram. Everything currently trending in Paris’ food realm confirmed this development of expat influence in the city. Images of avocado toast, chia pudding, açai bowls, pizza, and burgers dominated searches of the hashtag “parisfood,” confirming my suspicion that Amanda’s doughnuts were not simply a result of her nostalgia for what she could find back in the States, but rather a fulfillment of what customers, both Anglophone and French, wanted to eat.
This phenomenon appeared throughout my observations in the city. When I was told to go somewhere new, whether for coffee or for dinner, it was always a place where English was spoken and foods reflective of Anglophone culture were in demand. What’s more, I found that previous searches through print publications geared towards food proved antiquated, that this method of finding a restaurant had become obsolete. Food establishments were gaining attention not through Le Fooding or the Michelin Guide, but rather through bloggers and patrons who had found Instagram fame. This rise in social media’s influence over where and what we want to eat drastically changed the atmosphere of these cafés as well. Rather than simply enjoying the food and company, restaurant-goers’ immediate reaction to the food being placed in front of them was How will this look in a picture? How should I situate my latte so that it gets the best lighting, without glare, without compromising the barista’s work? It was commonplace for the person next to me to spend several minutes aligning the various plates on her table, proceeding to stand on her chair to get a better angle, a better shot. In Paris, food has gained what is almost solely a visual interest. Comments on these images of food no longer raise a question of taste.
This focus on aesthetics applied not only to the food but to the people as well. Patrons are always conscious of how they appear in a restaurant, driving one food critic I spoke with to deem them the new clubs, a definition which applies an entirely new social understanding and hierarchy to what previously fulfilled a simple human need: eating.
I created a blog during the year to document my findings. It was titled Sobremesa and served as an online journal composed of interviews with people who I saw as contributing to these shifts being made in the changing identity of Paris’ food. “Sobremesa” is an untranslatable Spanish term describing the time after lunch or dinner you spend in discussion with those who sit around the table as well. My intention for the blog was to become the online equivalent, a space where I exposed the connections between food and culture and showed how this interaction revealed a new image of Paris defined by its food.
Updating the blog allowed me to construct a narrative which gave voice to these developments, bringing to light the observations that visual representations like Instagram only skimmed across. Though I applied my findings to a general impression of Paris’ food culture today, I also heard the personal stories of the people behind such developments, reminding me that though food is indicative of the culture which drives it and reacts to it, food also serves as an intimate connection between people who would otherwise remain strangers.
Though so much was answered in these interviews and in my research, I’m left with the constant reminder that these are occurrences in continual development. Yes, the larger factors and results of cultural and culinary movements take years to generate significant change, but the smaller shifts are instantaneous. As a result, the question of what will happen next is always present in my research, a thought that can manifest itself in so many ways: What will be Paris’ next food trend? What social media platform will appear and completely change the way we see food? Will any of these developments be sustainable enough to alter the external perspectives of Paris’ food?
This all ends in a question of endurance. Before associating Paris with croque monsieur or steak tartare, we think first of the city’s appeal to inventive and authentic thought, a characteristic which will always put Paris at the forefront of creation, whether it be of literature, art, music, or food.
Isabelle Eyman is a senior English Literature and French Studies major. Her favorite places to read are in coffee shops, parks or in any window seat she can find. Upon graduating this year, she hopes to work as an English teacher in the private school environment, later working towards a Ph.D. in English Literature, focusing her work on food’s appearance in 19th and 20th century literature.