Plum Anxiety

October 9, 2006 at 10:59 am | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 6 Comments

The other day, Clotilde at Chocolate and Zucchini wrote about how to find perfect plums:

if you’re bold enough to ask the merchant for a taste, and bold enough to say, “Um, maybe not,” when the plum is not to your liking (if you develop a friendly relationship with your produce guy, boldness is not required; a simple smile will do), this will guarantee that only ripe, sweet, juicy plums will pass your threshold.

She’s absolutely right, of course, and yet it is this aspect of French food shopping that strikes terror into me. I have, of course, been doing my best to work up to this trial: so far I have had (very brief) conversations with the butcher, the fish guy, and the cheese lady. And they’ve all been polite and helpful so far. But the fruit guy! That’s a different matter.

With the fruit guy, it’s not enough to simply ask for some good plums. You have to ask the right way. Ask the wrong way, and you may offend him by implying all his plums are not good. (My mother, for example, once asked if a cantaloupe she’d been handed was really fresh. The fruit man was so enraged, he smashed the melon in front of her to prove how good it was, and then threw it in the trash.) No, this interaction takes a great deal of finesse: you must somehow find that uniquely French combination of confidence, politesse, and coquetterie.

There’s nothing like this in America. In the States, you go to the supermarket, you look at the plums, they all look awful, so you pick through them until you find a handful that look edible. You get home, you try them, and lo and behold, they’re not so great. Oh well, better luck next time.

But what if I come home with bad plums in Paris? The minute that slightly acrid taste or grainy texture hits my tongue, I’ll know that the plum-man was unimpressed with my performance — that somehow my impression of a real French woman was found lacking. And even if he smiled at my flirtations and offered up his wares with the greatest of chivalry, I’ll know as I sit at my kitchen table eating mediocre plums that he was secretly laughing at my American impudence — To think! That sad little girl thought she deserved the good plums…

It’s too much pressure! For now at least, I condemn myself to a sad, fruitless existence.



  1. There are some shopkeepers here who are really helpful, but some of them manage to strike fear in me! I try to always give a smile and ‘bonjour’, but it sometimes seems as if it should be my honor to be buying things from them. It only makes me love the nice ones even more. I admire you for making the effort to develop a rapport with your local shops, and I hope it pays off, sooner or later!

  2. Amanda –
    I’m sure I’ll build up my confidence… sooner or later. I just think it’s funny how buying fruit in this country can feel like asking someone out on a date.

  3. I chicken out and just buy produce at supermarkets or stores that only sell fruit. NO HUMAN INTERACTION. Just the way I like it. :\

  4. Robyn –

    I tend to feel the same way. But I also really want to support France’s culture of small food shops and outdoor markets… It would be so sad if all of France were taken over by American-style megamarkets. So I will to my best to overcome my social anxiety for the sake of good food.

    Some day soon I’m gonna have to break down and buy mushrooms, at least. How wrong can mushrooms go?

  5. I know: just steal all the good-looking plums when the plum man’s not looking.

  6. Meg: Don’t tempt me. Seriously.

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