It’s early on a weekday morning, and I’m sitting on my couch, drinking my first coffee. I start the day typing in the web addresses of my habitual reading list, looking for articles that will carry the day’s conversation, serving as dominating points for the discussions to come. Though I’m not surprised to find pieces focusing upon society’s constantly-shifting, unstable relationship to food, after having a conversation with Kristen Beddard, creator of The Kale Project and author of Bonjour Kale, I read these with a different perspective, consuming them from a more-educated stance. I’m no longer cynical about our reliance upon foods sharing a common ground of ease and accessibility, but rather understand the root cause for the phenomena, the shifts being made in how we conceive of our daily routine and the standards to which people, women particularly, are held: that we are somehow incomplete or unsuccessful without juggling both a job and the management of a family.
I sat down with Kristen a few weekends ago at a café just off the Avenue du Président Wilson, myself just having just come from the market and Kristen thinking about what she would buy there afterwards. Two American women, the conversation moves inevitably in this direction of work-life balance, trying to simultaneously navigate both our professional and personal lives. And of course, at the center of this attempt at equilibrium always lies the question of food.
Before we address these subjects though, I ask Kristen about her move from New York to Paris, about the challenges the transition posed. “We moved to Paris in the summer of 2011 for my husband’s job. We met working for the same advertising agency in New York. He was already doing a lot of business in Paris, so it got to the point where he was over here more than he was in New York. So I think it was the pull of his job, the excitement that comes with being newlyweds, and the thought that it would be an adventure.”
But it’s funny, because though many American women have this conception of Paris as the ultimate center of style, elegance, intelligence, and culture, driving a desire to move to the city or at least experience it in some way, Kristen never shared this interest. “I was never a Francophile. I wasn’t someone who was dreaming of the Eiffel tower and macarons. I studied abroad in Spain, and so France was never on my radar. I came here for four days in 2005, and of course I liked it, but there was never that pull, that thought that I couldn’t wait to get back. And I had been happy in New York. I loved my life there. I felt like an empowered woman. I had reached this point where I understood what I was supposed to be doing.”
In facing unfamiliarity and trying to ground herself in a language she didn’t yet know, a culture she hadn’t yet experienced, Kristen turned to something which solidified her understanding of home: kale.
“Early on in our move here, I realized that I couldn’t find kale. The first week we were here, we were walking around the market, looking for something to make for dinner. I remember it was in September, perfect growing season for kale, and I saw all of these different types of cabbages, but it wasn’t there.”
It’s interesting, because when Kristen talks to me about growing up with kale, how her mother incorporated it regularly into weeknight meals, I immediately contrast this with thoughts of kale salads going into vogue around 2011, at the same time that everyone began seeing kale chips as the perfect substitute for their potato counterpart. In America, kale doesn’t hold the immediate connotations of comfort that mac and cheese or Saturday morning pancakes boast. It’s not innate in our culture, it’s not ingrained in others’ idea of American cuisine. It’s something deeply-personal about how she grew up, reflective of her mother’s cooking style, of how she wanted her daughter to eat. For Kristen, kale represents the transaction between what Paris could bring her, and what she could offer the city in return.
“I started getting obsessed with it. Before, I didn’t really know much about kale specifically, so I began doing research and learned that it descended from a wild cabbage. It’s thousands and thousands of years old, and in France, it’s considered a légume oublié, a lost and forgotten vegetable. But what’s interesting, is that when I’d show farmers and chefs and restaurant owners pictures of kale, they wouldn’t even know what it was. They had never seen it before.”
We compare this to how the vegetable situates itself within American culture, continuing upon this idea of kale as a fashionable foodstuff, boasting similar glamour to today’s açai bowls and turmeric lattes. Kristen notes the transition from the omnipresence of Starbucks to the popularization of juice bars throughout the country, concentrating themselves in New York at the same time that Kristen began the project. This interest shifted to Paris just within the past few years, the desire to buy into America’s stringent enforcement of health only now beginning to hold influence in the new businesses showing up in Paris’ storefronts.
But just as we acknowledge this reflection of American culture on Europe, Kristen reflects upon her initial intent for the project. “I never wanted kale to be ‘overly-cool’ in France. In America today, I think there’s kale fatigue. It’s in everything, around everything. Kale in places that kale shouldn’t be. I never wanted it to become that way here. I just wanted to make it available, to give people that option, rather than trying to force anything. Again, I focused on that fact that kale was something that was lost and forgotten, and I just wanted to bring it back, so that if people wanted to have it, if they wanted to use it, they could.”
And they did. Kristen was able to get a small number of farmers to begin growing kale, bringing it to the market so that individuals could use it at home. She focused also on the city’s coffeeshops, cafés, and restaurants, supplying Loustic (a café just off the Rue Beaubourg in the third arrondissement) with kale salads, kale pesto, and kale chips, as well as showing chefs how they could integrate the vegetable without relying upon its dated, default use of a garnish.
“The project began at a really good time, because the néo-bistro movement had already taken off, and those chefs were starting to use vegetables in a way that’s different from traditional French cooking. They’re putting them front-and-center, basing entire meals around a food group too often thought of as lifeless and mundane. And because they’re not high-end gastronomic restaurants (the price is barely more than the service charge of 15% in France’s more luxurious restaurants), they’re more accessible, they reach a much larger and more-varied array of people.”
The movement is based upon ideas of innovation and cosmopolitan approaches to cooking, invoking an international twist upon traditional French cuisine. It’s a representation of the globalization becoming more and more apparent in the culinary world, a phenomenon which exists perfectly in conjunction with the appearance of American mindsets seeping into the French practice of eating.
“The whole topic of health started dominating conversations at that time as well, and as a result, more juice bars and more vegan restaurants and cafés have popped up. When I came here in 2011, Bob’s Kitchen and Bob’s Juice Bar were open, but there was little else that offered something similar. In the five years that I’ve been in Paris, so much has changed.”
Interest was evidently growing, but something in what Kristen tells me shifts my focus, making me question how the French reception of kale differs from the American obsession and why. It’s a matter of approach to health and its inextricable tie to our conceptions of food. I ask Kristen about this again, “In the States, you have people that will try to eat only kale for ten days straight. We latch onto every food trend, we’re always looking for a quick fix. The French are the opposite, they promote and practice a well-rounded, well-balanced diet. They consume an array of food, nothing is off-limits, everything is eaten in moderation. It’s sad, because in the United States, we only focus on the end result, how food will make us better in some way; if it will make our skin brighter or our hair shinier we’ll consume it in excess, whereas in France, it’s the process, both the preparation and the consumption, which brings pleasure.”
Such differences mark the infatuation Americans have in French eating habits, how a culture can practice a regimen that in reality mirrors nothing of the systematic approach we take in the United States. Why are we incapable of accepting something so simple, so straightforward and sincere? Why are we looking to convolute all possible pleasure taken from one of the greatest sensory activities humans engage in, that of sharing a meal?
These questions bring the topic back to sustainability, to the contrast the concept plays against words such as detox, diet, fasting, and any form of eating popular in the United States today. There’s a gap between these privileged viewpoints on eating and people whose financial means keep them from being able to consume with an overly-conscious approach to nutrition and how one’s food contributes to the health of our economy and society as a whole. We’ve made it a luxury to eat well, we’ve attached entitlement to something that should be understood as a basic human right, and we’re using this to place ourselves above others. Rather than using social media to create community, we’re using it as a wrongful source of pride, an intent with which we use food to mask.
I return to what Kristen is saying, laughing at my own initial thoughts when arriving in Paris. Like the American she’s describing, I too ate in a way that focused solely upon what food offered me, following claims about the cancer-fighting properties of walnuts and theories of how garlic eliminates blemishes, only to read months later that something else did it better. Of course, educating yourself about what health benefits food offers is by no means a dangerous practice, but once it becomes obsessive, it’s clear that we’re moving away from a food culture that can be supported in the long-term, or that’s even respects food at all.
“It’s so easy for food trends to hold influence in the United States because America doesn’t really have its own food culture. We’re a result of so many other cultures coming together with their own strong backgrounds tied to food. This gives us options, yes, but there’s no consistency, there’s no tradition for people to fall back on, to revert to for comfort. So instead, we respond to trends, allowing them to guide the food choices we make every day.”
“Our roots aren’t grounded in any one culture. Up until World War II, it was common to have gardens, to make all of your meals at home. But post-World War II, it was the introduction of appliances, of canned food and the big food production companies. Food culture became about ease, about a woman not having to cook, not having to slave over a stove and to make things from scratch. My grandmother was born in 1925 to a generation of women who prided themselves on being able to make a casserole from a can. And so this idea of ease translated to this trend of quick fixes, which unfortunately has backfired on us, because no one really cooks, no one has time to cook. It’s a fast society, and everyone is too busy that it doesn’t become a priority.
“And it shouldn’t be a privilege to give food precedence, it shouldn’t have to be a choice to make it a priority. Even to have time is a privilege, because now our society is okay with the two-income family, but it’s gotten to the extent where there’s societal pressure to make that happen. On one hand, of course it’s incredible that we’ve made such leaps and are now innovative about the idea of women working, but we are simultaneously feeling this demand to make that our life trajectory. If you take time off from work, like I did for my daughter, you’re constantly asking yourself what you can be doing on the side to stay relevant, so that one day you can return to the workforce. We’re expected to work, we’re expected to raise a family, we’re expected to do everything, but of course, that’s when our nourishment suffers and the nourishment of society suffers alongside.”
I ask Kristen about possible solutions, about how we can return from a mindset that has resulted in such instability. “We’re going to have to restructure our society. This is an issue where you can’t just change one thing because everything is connected, and so unfortunately I think it’s more of a societal issue. It requires changes in public policy; it’s not something that can change overnight.”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t make eating well a priority. There’s so many statistics which say that Americans spend much less of their income on food in comparison to other countries and the argument against that is that food is cheaper in America. But then we need to step back and question that, realizing that it’s cheap because it’s so poorly made. Years ago, people didn’t eat meat every day because it was expensive, but now we can have it daily because the animals we use aren’t raised in an ethical way. Of course, not all meat is like that, there’s organic, grass-fed beef, but it’s more expensive to raise animals in that way, so people will inevitably look towards a cheaper alternative.”
We return to the specifics of Kristen’s project, looking at it in relation to everything we’ve just discussed. “In the beginning, it really was just about kale, but what’s happened through my work is my realizing that I do have this interest in food and in this way. When we were in New York, I didn’t think about food as much. Yes, I ate well, I bought vegetables and fruits, but I didn’t think about where they were coming from.
“It’s been a self-awakening, and I attribute all of that to living here. Of course, France isn’t perfect, they’re moving towards reliance upon grocery stores and more processed foods, all of which goes against how they eat, but I’ve learned so much from the traditional conceptions still practiced in the culture today. Kale was my way of interacting with this culture, and so it became much larger, and I’m glad it did, because it shifted my perspective to something else.”
Kristen is returning to New York in September. She’s established a life in Paris, learning the language, the culture, and how to cultivate a life in a city that was foreign to her only five years before. It’s bittersweet, a transition that’s divided her between the knowledge that she’s accomplished so much, for both herself and for the future of food in France, but also the realisation that she has an opportunity back in the States. She has the ability to apply what she’s learned from this temporary home, and though France was her base for only five years, it’s evident that the country’s effects will endure, forever having an impact on her love of food and the community it creates.
Photos by Kristen Beddard