January 9, 2015


The radio announced that the flu and -- worse -- la gastro had reached "epidemic" levels in France this season. 

Now, no one should downplay the flu. It's evil business. People die. 

But la gastro, or gastrointestinal distress in all of its forms, is an assault on all that the French hold dear. When your insides turn to liquid, when nothing stays down, when it comes out both ends, it is, in simplest terms, la catastrophe. ONE CANNOT EAT!

La Gastro is ubiquitous. Everyone I know has had it in the year since I have been here. It is so common that everyone talks about it. Openly. 

Me: Bonjour, ça va?

Interlocutor: Better now that my gastro has passed. I had a horrible two days! But, (big smile) my wife has it now!

Me: (to myself) I was just being polite. I have never seen you before and I have no idea what your name is.

Could the prevalence of la gastro be linked to the waiters who hold the tines of the forks when placing them on your table? Might there be a slight chance that the man who cuts cured meats with the same knife all day long and proffers them to passersby in between his two ungloved fingers hasn't washed since he last urinated? Is it possible that the French, who never throw anything away, sometimes let their kitchen sponges flower before using them to wipe down a plate with cold water? (I recently witnessed a host collect eight forks from the table only to realize that we still needed them. She quickly scrubbed 'em down and redistributed them around the table. The French are such geniuses. How could she have possibly remembered whose fork was whose? Wait a minute...) Any chance the butcher who uses the same knife to cut poultry, beef, lamb, and charcuterie would be the cause? Certainly the lack of hand driers or paper towels in café bathrooms has nothing to do with it.

Regardless, it is everywhere. Like a rising hurricane tide, it jumps sand bags. The wildfires in your guts snicker at backfiring or retardants. No matter how much seismic vibration control you employ, that skyscraper in your belly is coming down and out. Schools are tornadoes of malaise, with kids leaving school in different pants than those in which they arrived, surely a sign of either clumsy footing (our son's case...damn puddles) or la gastro.

Pork Fair
Another possibility occurred when I read an advertising flier from the supermarket today. This week is the "Pork Fair" at ATAC, and the French are ready to celebrate the pig. Every last inch of it. This is of course not uncommon. 

But the vividness of their commitment to nose-to-tail eating does continue to impress. Whereas stores at home tend to make you whisper across the butcher counter for some of the nasty bits ("Psst. Over here. Do you have any veal bones? What about chicken backs? You're not hiding any sweetbreads back there, are you?"), here they are front and center. Poor former President Jacques Chirac commented once that he really liked tête de veau, or veal's head, and found himself staring at a plate of the gelatinous meat on every official visit from that point on. Pig brains are packed in plastic tubs in groups of four right next to the pork tenderloin. Little old ladies who look like they probably eat birdseed can frequently be overheard ordering two pounds of liver, thick slices of head cheese, blood sausages, some tripe, and breaded pig's feet, the same way an American woman might order half a pound of low-fat Cheddar cheese, thinly sliced.

Head (no tongue), heart (2), whole liver, tail, foot, and kidneys...for under 75 cents a pound
While there is no scientific proof that I have to offer, one does wonder if pictures of pig's heads, hearts, feet, kidneys, liver, and tails might play some small role in the current national epidemic. It's just a risk we'll have to take...

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