Sausage race! Photo: Michael Newman/Flickr
When I travel distant lands, I like learning phrases that are as useful as an eight-track player: “Where may I find your daughters,” “My stomach is exploding like a volcano” and other turns of the tongue.
“Please don’t say anything embarrassing,” my girlfriend begged last week, as we flew to France to visit our Parisian pals Bati and Emily.
I patted my pocket, which contained crumpled brown paper bearing a French phrase: I have your wine in my pants. “Mwahahahahaha,” I laughed in my rumbling, manic manner. My girlfriend shook her head. Was she more disgusted by me, or her airplane dinner of gray vegetables and clumpy rice?
Sadly, my knowledge of the French language is limited to words like bonjour, baguette and pampelmousse learned from the Flight of the Conchords’ song “Foux Da Fa Fa.” Somehow, this pleased Emily and Bati, whom I knew in Brooklyn. Despite their departure to Paris several years ago, we’ve remained steadfast friends. Last summer, we road-tripped across Morocco, feasting on lamb udder and utterly horrible wine.
“You should come to Paris next year,” Bati offered. “Stay with us.”
“That means free?” The prospect of forking over wheelbarrows of euros for a hotel room sent a cold, sharp knife down my spine. “But of course, Joshua,” Bati replied. He’s one of the few folks I let call me Joshua, if only because Bati pronounces my name as if he just French-kissed a jar of peanut butter: Josh-eww-aaa.
Upon arriving in Paris, my girlfriend and I were met by our friends and a nice, sunny 75-degree stretch. Like mosquitoes to bare wrists, we were drawn to sites that make guidebooks writers spew florid adjectives. Look at the magisterial Louvre! There’s the towering Notre Dame! Wow, the Luxembourg Gardens sure are lush and verdant!
Church. This sort of check mark tourism (“There’s the Eiffel Tower! Check mark!”) ain’t my cup of Lonely Planet tea. Instead, I find pleasure in back-alley kebab stands, sailor dive bars and dumpling stalls where $10 buys the entire menu twice over.
“You’re in the wrong country,” Bati said. My cholesterol-ridden heart deflated, like a balloon blasted with a BB gun. “Don’t get so sad, Joshua,” Bati said. “Saucisson is always cheap.”
Saucisson is sausage, and in France that ain’t a greasy slab of Jimmy Dean. Sausage here is serious business, with pork mixed with red wine, gorgonzola, walnuts, mushrooms and dried until it resembles gnarled, moldy tree branches. Mmm! But pesky pasteurization laws mean that, in America, this sausage is as illicit as street drugs. That’s a low-down shame; no matter how stellar the charcuterie at Dean & Deluca or Zabar’s, it lacks a certain je nais sais quoi—the threat of acquiring a food-borne illness.
Merrily, I avoided intestinal duress as Bati stuffed me silly with thinly sliced wheels of Parisian charcuterie. Wild boar. Cayenne-encrusted pig. Something that smelled reassuringly, and terrifyingly, like my dirty underwear. More, more, more! “Mon petit saucisson,” I’d say lovingly, staring at a pile of cured flesh. My little sausage.
“Want some of the best saucisson in France?” Bati asked one night. I nodded slowly, my movements dulled by pig fat. “Then let’s go to my hometown, Clermont-Ferrand.” Located in the rural, southern-central section of France known as Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand is renowned for its Michelin headquarters and mighty fine meat. One morning, we went to a clamorous local market and bought enough sausage logs to, if we were freezing in Siberia and desperate, start a fire.
“Are you going to take all that home?” my girlfriend asked, aghast. She held a couple jars of honey and a grimace.
“Hell, yes,” I said, my judgment clouded by saucisson lust. I bought Ziploc bags. I bought more Ziploc bags to wrap around the Ziploc-encased sausage. Then I shoved the double-bagged meat into another, bigger bag and boarded a flight to New York. We breezed through immigration. Not customs. “Is that your bag?” the customs agent asked. I glanced at my travel backpack—my soiled clothes hopefully cloaking the charcuterie with an even more indecent scent—and at my customs form. An X marked the spot where I denied bringing in meat. I nodded. A sweat glob slid down my brow.
“Welcome home,” the guard said. He gestured to the exit like a sullen, federally employed game-show host.
“Mon petit saucisson,” I whispered, grabbing my girlfriend and hustling to a cab before the guard wondered what smelled like moldy pig.