What Julia Child’s Soup Taught Me About Being an Expat in Paris

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

My first stop at the Place Monge market in Paris is always the smallest booth on the corner, next to the Metro escalator. The stand is filled with fresh dill, basil, rosemary, and thyme waiting to be wrapped in brown paper, and rows of fresh eggs waiting to be sold, with the largest boxes boasting seasonal French produce, from fresh garlic to radishes to beets.

The line grows quickly — this is the first stop for all my neighbors, too — but it’s worth the wait.

I only ever make plans to cook recipes from my tattered copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on days when I know the market is open, somehow convinced that Julia Child’s recipes won’t taste as good without adding a pinch of French banter. Today, it’s potato and leek soup that I’m shopping for — it’s the ultimate comfort food, and costs pennies to make.

I tell the vendor my soup plans, asking which potatoes she recommends (there are at least four options). “Charlotte,” she says instantly, before filling my basket with a kilo of the most soil-covered ones. I throw in a bunch of thyme and rosemary for good measure, and bid her a “Bon dimanche!” before heading to my next stop.

Past the butcher and the florist and the honey vendor is my favorite produce man, who always has a fading handwritten sign over his booth and a machete by his side to chop off the carrot leaves. He hands over a few branches of leeks, asking if I want them trimmed. I don’t, only so they can peek through the top of my basket on the walk home.

When I first moved to Paris in 2011, I was overwhelmed and riddled with anxiety anytime I was confronted with a French conversation. A trip to the market was petrifying, and I would go only to observe, never to interact. My years and years of studying subjunctive seemed useless, as I was too nervous to ask for a sandwich at the boulangerie and tried to remain as anonymous as possible, never wearing any color other than black. I didn’t feel like I fit in, but also didn’t know how to.

It wasn’t until three years later, when I was planning my return to France, that I read and re-read Julia’s memoir, My Life in France. When she reached Paris in 1948, she could hardly speak a word of French, relying on her husband Paul’s translations — and her charm — to order food and handle all the complications that expat life in France had to offer.

Julia became fascinated by the market (hers, by the way, was on rue de Bourgogne in the 7th arrondissement), where she became “a willing disciple” of Marie des Quatre Saisons, her nickname for the produce lady. With Marie, she could practice her French, but moreover, she was learning all she could about France and its food, with Marie ushering her into Parisian life and giving her a sense of community.

Inspired by Julia’s confidence and bright attitude on even the gloomiest of Paris days, I knew that the market would evolve into my inspiration and community. By my third visa renewal, the produce man knew me as the American who always asked for kale, the wine man always dug up a hidden bottle of organic Gamay for me, and the butcher waved hello as I walked past on my way to the boulangerie.

Like Julia, I had finally found my people at the Paris market, and — also like Julia — I had never really been taught how to cook, relying constantly on improvisation and the ideas that swirled on the walk home.

Inspired by Julia’s confidence and bright attitude on even the gloomiest of Paris days, I knew that the market would evolve into my inspiration and community.

The first time I made Julia’s potato and leek soup, I took the time to feel France at my fingertips as I brushed the soil off my produce, washing and re-washing until all that was left was a morsel of familiar terroir, the sand and dirt swirling around my sink. I poured myself a glass of wine, a Pouilly Fumé recommended by the man at Nicolas (my wine man was, of course, out of town for all of August), looking over the swirled iron railing and felt Julia there with me, if only through her soup.

I hovered anxiously over my two electric burners, watching and waiting as the aroma lifted out of the pot and wafted through my 250-square-foot apartment. I impatiently held the immersion blender at the ready, waiting for everything to soften and infuse together before pulverizing it into a creamy, flavorful soup.

Julia’s soup, with only a baguette (warm when I bought it; the best kind) as accompaniment, was so simple — more simple than many of the meals I had successfully (and unsuccessfully) cooked in my four tiny French kitchens. The recipe made enough soup to feed me for a week, every spoonful a reminder of how my curiosity had finally overcome my language anxiety.