Yesterday I guest posted over at Culture Keeper to talk about one of my very favorite things, macarons. Ok, so really I am blogging about globalization and the indefinable qualities of culture inherent in regional foods, but the macaron is impetus for these reflections. I promise that there are pictures! Head over here and check it out. (Update: I am reposting the article below.)If you look at a macaron, you don’t see much. It’s a tiny cookie, unassuming in its size and structure. Just two wafers with a slight layer of filling. Little adornment, save the occasional dusting of cocoa powder or the dash of something shimmery. The color and flavor alone distinguishes it. Crimson, silver, canary, chartreuse, pale pink, cobalt black, and pure white cookies bear the names of rose blossom, plum, mimosa, lavender, and raspberry. The experience of the macaron is thus twofold, something you savor with your eyes before you taste it with your lips.
It was March 20th, 2010 and I had waited for this day since I had learned about it several months before.
March 20th is a special day in Paris, le jour du macaron – the day of the macaron. On this day, Pierre Hermé gives out three free macarons to every person who visits one of their Parisian boutiques. For me, a macaron lover who unfortunately existed on a rather small budget, this day was bliss. There are several makers of macarons in Paris, each claiming to have the best. Of them all, Pierre Hermé is reputed to have the most exotic flavors and also charges the most for each perfect cookie, around 4 Euros for one small cookie finished in only several bites.
In 2010, Pierre Hermé also did something special that has (to my knowledge) not been repeated since. Each boutique gave out maps of Paris with all the other boutiques on them and if you made it to all of them, you were eligible for a free box of 40 Pierre Hermé macarons, a box that usually costs 81 Euros. The catch was that there were limited gift boxes and these boutiques are scattered all across Paris.
But I was an American in Paris, and Americans are nothing if not fiercely competitive, especially if food is involved. With several of my Parisian friends, we spent the morning dashing around Paris, eating our free macarons, and racing through metros. We ran in public (something extremely un-Parisian), charted out the quickest routes between boutiques, and successfully arrived at the last boutique where we were told that we were the first people they had seen finish. Giddily, we carried our 120+ macarons onto the roof of my building where we savored them against the Parisian skyline knowing that we had won far more than a bunch of cookies.
In the last several years, macarons have become the latest culinary craze here in the States. Despite our inability to spell or pronounce it correctly (a macaroon is that sticky coconut cookie and rhymes with moon), we are macaron obsessed. The have shown up at weddings, galas, farmer’s markets, gourmet food stores, DIY websites, and alongside ice cream at fancy restaurants.
And they are usually disgusting and disappointing, little more than fudge between two weirdly dyed wafers. I know this because I excitedly try them all. Now, I am not a food snob. I will happily take Taco Bell over fancy Mexican and I unashamedly love hotdogs and microwave popcorn. My aversion isn’t about snobbishness or some false sense my own superior taste buds. It’s because I have tasted the real thing and the imitation misses something essential to what constitutes macaronness.
It is the subtlety of the macaron that I love. If it says that it is flavored like orange blossoms, then what you taste isn’t orange extract, but the very essence of the flower, transformed into a light cookie that dissolves as it releases it’s flavor. It is like the French themselves, refusing to be showy or flashy about their beauty. A bacon-maple macaron just should not exist. It is too ostentations and predictable, too bold and easy to taste. You have to eat a macaron slowly to enjoy it, savoring each bite and reflecting on the unique blend of tastes. Americans don’t make macarons like that because we don’t eat like that.
At long last, I did discover a macaron shop that tastes every bit as good as the ones in France, and it happened to be three blocks from my home in DC. The baker spent a long time eating French macarons before she tempted to make her own and the difference is in every bite.
Yet even as I frequent the Sweet Lobby to get my fix, I can’t help but feel that something’s been lost. I feel the same way I did when I found my beloved Speculoos spread in Safeway, or when Nutella became commonplace stateside. We no longer live in a world where cuisine is part of the regional landscape. Globalization means you can have the flavors of the world in your diet without ever leaving your home. On one hand, this is great. I love that I can indulge in mu love for British candy or Italian cookies in-between trips overseas that are few and far between.
But on the other hand, I wonder if we haven’t loss the wonder of tasting something for the first time in a new land, if we have removed taste from the frontlines of exploration, or at least dulled its power and importance. We are increasingly divorcing food from where it comes from and the people who make it, and the result will always be just a little bland. It is a simulacrum for the real thing that will always fall short, even if we can’t figure out why. A macaron made in the states might objectively taste as good as a French one, but it can never be as good. Maybe all food isn’t a little more like champagne or bourbon that we want to admit, owing part of their very identity and taste to the location from which they come.
So what is in a macaron? Technically, not much. Some eggs, almond powder, sugar, whatever flavoring is called for. But what is contained in a macaron is a different story. There is history, tradition, and culture. There is an entire society governed by rules and protocols foreign to us, exotic and enticing. There is a conception of food that escapes us, a quality of taste that eludes us. There is a place, alive and real in every morsel.
In several bites, you consume a world.