Soul Food In France:
By Grant Rosenberg

In the Washington Post critique of Monique Wells’ book Food for the Soul—A Texas Expatriate Nurtures Her Culinary Roots In Paris, writer Charles Trueheart teasingly observes that, "it takes a certain nerve for an American to tell the French anything about cooking." This is particularly true, he goes on to write, when the American in question isn’t even a professional cook. Wells is not a chef by trade—she is a veterinary pathologist for L'Oréal and also runs a personalized itinerary travel service with her husband called Discover Paris. But with Food for the Soul, Wells isn’t so much trying to tell the French how to cook as she is humbly documenting her family’s culinary past.

If leaving home makes us appreciate it, than this is surely magnified when one chooses to live an ocean away. The sounds and smells of home become larger than life and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that some of us find ourselves swooning at the taste of something as unromantic as an Oreo—hardly Proust with his madeleines, but there you have it. At its most convenient and cynical, this is the motivating factor of what must lead Americans to dine at McDonalds in other countries. But it also creates a desire to seek out and make for ourselves the tastes of hearth and home. Food for the Soul captures this spirit.

Monique Wells

It was intended just to be a collection of soul food recipes for the Paris-based African American womens group called SISTERS to which Wells belongs. But it grew beyond that. Though its manuscript was written in English, the book actually was first published in French in 1999, under the title, La Cuisine Noire Americaine. Wells had presented it to several publishers and after a series of ups and downs, the manuscript was shown to famed French chef Alain Ducasse, who supported it and wrote the forward. Because it was going to first appear for the French, Wells expanded the manuscript, beyond the recipes and family anecdotes to include a small history of food preparations in African American homes, and how the cuisine developed by making the most from the scraps of food given to slaves by their masters.

Of course there are hundreds of recipe books out there, and even those are becoming outmoded due to the number of cooking websites. What gives value to Wells’ book is the balance that is struck between the familiar formula of recipe parlance on each page and conversationally written anecdotes about the importance of a certain dish in her family and what it means to her now. This brings more meaning and insight into the meals and their ingredients, knowing a particular food was the favorite of her aunt or her cousin. "It was the second of the three publishers who suggested I add more information," Wells explains. "He felt that to sell it to the French, they would really like to know more about Louisiana cooking and culture. So that got me started on a historical kick. I also came across information about the various ingredients and where they came from and dispelled some myths that I had held."

This is revealed in the book, with a look at the differences, for example, between sweet potatoes and yams (sweet potatoes are orangier and have more of a naturally moist taste) and even etymology (the word "yam" comes from the West African word nyami).

The book is comprised of almost a hundred recipes, along with folksy, attractive food illustrations by Christiann Anderson and photos by Daniel Czap. Rather than a small book that fits easily in a kitchen drawer, Food for the Soul is a coffee table book, designed to be part of a series sponsored by Ducasse. The size of the book allows for the illustrations to be appreciated, and though it is a bit cumbersome, it gives the proper scope to culinary reveries that we all have in the retrospect of years, compounded and sweetened when separated by an ocean and perhaps even a different culture and language—part of the swirl of a new life in a new land.

Of course preparing soul food isn’t as easy in France as it is in Louisiana or New York. Even a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bacon and grits with cheddar cheese is a bit more challenging when certain ingredients are either not available or only available at a few select stores around Paris. One of the more amusing ironies of France is that despite having at least several dozen kinds of cheese available at even the smallest corner marts, cheddar is not easy to come by. Though Wells lists the different shops which sell American food products, she also provides the helpful aid of ingredient substitutions. Such as mimollette in place of cheddar. There is also the amusing note about French meat in the recipe for pan sausage that no matter how long she cooked it—even to the point of burning the top and bottom—the inside of the sausage remained pink. "Apparently there is something in the meat deliberately. At a Southern food symposium [I attended], a man stood up and said that it's a preservative of some kind to give it an appetizing appearance." This is another one of the many cultural divides between the two nations. Whereas many in the U.S. won’t eat meat cooked less than medium-well anymore, here even well-done looks rare. Very rare—and still there is a coloring used. Why such the panic in the U.S.? Are people really getting sick that much, or is it just fear engendered from living in a hyper-litigious society? Are we just too cautious? Wells thinks so. "In the U.S., we are a little too concerned with being clean, with things that are perceived to be a danger to our health. I don’t know if that leads us to being sue-crazy, or vice versa. And when it does happen, the media gets ahold of it and plays it up for all it is worth. A self-fullfilling prophecy, perhaps."

The general sense that one gets from Food for the Soul is a dialogue between food cultures. True, conventional French wisdom about American food is a non-verbal smirk at best. But Wells’ book is about what is born out of the diversity of the U.S., a testament to both sides of her family which is half from Texas, half from Louisiana. The diversity of coming from a Lousiana mother and a Texas father and the culinary differences, and the African American community within them. If the term "American cuisine" unfairly conjures up images of hamburgers and spaghetti in a can, soul food and the dishes that are Creole and Cajun in origin are of great interest in Europe, particularly in France which is a root of Creole.

Wells, along with her husband, has been living in Paris for over a decade. There are so many reasons that Americans find themselves living abroad, and for Wells, it was one of simple practicality. "I loved the language. I studied French since I was in preschool, all my life. But even after a French minor in college, I still couldn’t speak it. I knew that the only way I could become fluent was to immerse myself—and I just wanted to experience another culture."


Josephine Baker

France is indeed another culture, for Americans of any stripe. It has drawn us for many years as visitors and permanent residents. Part of the appeal of Paris is the mythology surrounding it that has been propagated by Americans since our own country began. And beyond white America’s fascination with France, there have been a great number of African Americans who have been drawn to Paris. Their relocation here began at the end of the first World War, when black American soldiers found greater acceptance in France than in their own nation. Just as the lore of Hemingway through Jim Morrison is central to the status of Paris in the collective American imagination, the blooming of black American culture here is just as key. Artists and writers made their own pilgrimages, and names like Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and others through the century carry the same kind of value to the French. This continues through today; the cultural contributions from African Americans in the arts, particularly music and literature are highly revered. It is a strange relationship; as non-Americans they don’t have the sense of collective culpability for our history of slavery. And yet this fascination and respect is almost truly colorblind, evidenced by large scale prejudices against Jews, Arabs and native Africans throughout the century. It is wholly complicated, as race relations always are. I remember hearing an NPR reporter a couple of years ago interview an African American woman living in Paris who mentioned how she would go into shops here and the owners were cold and not particularly helpful. Yet as soon as she opened her mouth and spoke French with an American accent, the shop owners would open up and be friendly and inviting. This was of course because she suddenly was revealed not to be—presumably—a poor, possibly uneducated immigrant who some would view as taking advantage of the French system. Instead, she was an American who was part of the black American mythology of a culture of great art created from centuries of struggle.

It seems these complications extend to the relationships between African Americans and African French as well, and those amongst the Africans of different regions that have settled into France. When asked about it, Wells is quite frank on the subject. "I know that most black Americans would like to believe that all black people on earth are one big happy family. That the fact that you are black and you go to Africa that you are going to be welcome… that’s the way they would like for it to be and a lot of people do believe that because they don’t go anywhere. I have a lot of friends who have traveled and tell me that is not the case. Certainly here there are divisions between the African peoples, Caribbeans, and African Americans. When I say divisions, I don’t mean there is hostility. There are so many cultural differences that cannot be bridged simply because we are all black. I think it’s actually normal [in all cultures], but for African Americans it is dismaying that it exists. And the fact of the matter is that we are more American than we are African."


It is Wells’ desire for cultural exchange that brought about her travel business, Discover Paris. She and her husband create specific itineraries for travelers based on their specific interests, a response to all the prepackaged and impersonal tours offered by so many agencies. "In essence, you get your own personal guidebook written for you based on your preferences. We wanted to bring Paris to people in their own personal way," she explains. Within this, they have a focus on African American travel with walking tours that highlight the notable locations of African American history in Paris. From this came a book, soon to be released, called Paris Reflections, which was the idea of Christiann Anderson, the illustrator of Food for the Soul and fellow African American living in Paris. It is a series of six walks through different areas of Paris. "Four are in more touristy areas, two are off the beaten path," explains Wells. "The book was inspired by the Discover Paris walks. My intention was to expose where black people have been in Paris and what they have done, but not outside of the context of France. It would be a shame to isolate them and not talk about some of the things that have happened that are important in French culture. Hopefully what has been accomplished is to have a lively, not very heavy, but still very informative walk that one could enjoy even without coming to Paris."

With these books, Wells is demonstrating another facet of expatriate life for Americans. Many would agree that the story of Paris is just as much the story of its foreigners—some celebrated, most not. It is a strange thing to live outside one’s country, and if I can say it, the act of doing so has a different, heightened dynamic when you are of a people that has been historically disenfranchised in your native land. To take on and adopt a new culture by choice is exhilarating. Monique Wells has written one book about keeping one’s old world alive in the new, and another book that celebrates the place of the new world for those of the old. Somewhere in between is every story.