That's the word that comes to my mind when I see a tray of macarons. Cloying. Not delicious or elegant or French. Why do so many Americans and Japanese think "le macaron" is the Parisian dessert? I'm not sure about the Japanese, but I know where Americans — especially American women — get that idea: from "Sex and the City." From the pages of American Vogue andGourmet and just about every other magazine I thumb through whenever I'm back in the U.S. If the editors have decided to do a piece on Paris, or on French desserts, we are bound to read about the virtues of les macarons.
We are also bound to read about Ladurée. Now I confess, about once a year, when my sister or mother is in town or when it's particularly cold and drizzly, I get a craving to go to the original Ladurée, that jewel box of a pâtisserie on the corner of Rue Royale and Rue Saint-Honoré. Once we get through the doorway, which is inevitably blocked by a mob of tourists and aging Parisians, we will be served either by a charming waiter in a heavily used suit or by a grumpy middle-aged waitress who, via her perma-grimace and rough movements (she drops, rather than sets, everything on the table) lets us know that she would rather be home with her family than serving us.
As we wait for our turn to order, we will check out the room. If we're sitting downstairs, there is a lot to look at: gilded moldings, marble tables, cherubs cavorting on painted ceilings. Upstairs, it's more informal and clubby: your grandparent's den, maybe. If your grandparents happen to live in a rambling old apartment in Manhattan or London. It doesn't look particularly Parisian here, and it doesn't feel very Parisian, either. Save for the pair of women in mink, who are gossiping wildly in French, oblivious to everyone else, the customers sitting upstairs at Ladurée were not born on French soil. Across from us is a preppy Japanese family looking slightly confused — or is it displeased? — by the food and the service. To our right is a jolly American couple who seems to have ordered one of everything. To our left is a haughty young English woman with her frayed-looking but clearly wealthy fiancé. They are shopping for engagement rings. As she thumbs through a Cartier catalog, she expresses her displeasure at being seated next to a common American (that common American, by the way, is me. This really did happen.)
Mais bon. It is our time to order. If we get one of the waitresses and if we order in French, they will begrudgingly answer us in the language of Molière — begrudgingly. If we get the waiter, he will treat us with respect and good humor, even if we can't speak French and even if we are those terribly rude types who bark orders, demanding, "I want!" and "Give me!" If we are like that, he will nod and say "thank you" and he will bring us what we desire. He'll be polite about it, on the surface. But listen to what he says under his breath. If we hear him utter the word "cons," pronounced "cone," we will know: he has just called us assholes. But he will do it with such style.
So what does someone who doesn't like macarons order at Ladurée? Chocolat chaud — a thick brew of bittersweet hot chocolate that is like drinking liquid cake. Or maybe a lemon tart. No macarons, please. Not the raspberry or cassis or white chocolate or orange. They all hurt my teeth. I detest them all, except — except for one, and they don't make it at Ladurée.
Truffe. I would like the truffle macaron, s'il vous plaît. I had this "cookie" just once, at an elegant lunch event at the Hôtel Meurice. The sucré-salé (sugary-salty) appetizer was flecked with shavings of the world's most delicious and expensive mushroom, and it was absolutely divine, especially when accompanied by a glass of dry champagne.
Last weekend, inspired by some very good points and questions from readers, I went down the tax rabbit hole and into the very confusing world of French impôts, where everything is topsy-turvy — about as upside down, or right-side up, as things are in the American tax world. In some aspects, the two systems are quite similar; in other aspects, they are completely different. But it all boils down to this: one system is more expensive for taxpayers yet offers generous health, education, retirement, and welfare benefits. The other system is less expensive but offers its taxpayers little sécurité.
The question today, though, is: how much more expensive?
I attempted to find the answer in Part Two of Getting Sick, but I lacked some very important information: one, that both American and French income taxes are calculated on graduated scales so that portions of income fall into different tax brackets. Two, that the French are also subject to a host of social taxes that are taken directly from their gross (brut) earnings; they pay their income taxes on their net earnings. Three, that Americans also pay social taxes — the U.S. government takes a portion of gross earnings for Social Security and Medicare.
Both systems allow for myriad deductions — everything from credit back for taxes paid to credits for purchasing clean-energy cars and employing domestic workers. Taxpayers in both countries try to claim as many deductions as they can (and even some that they can't) in order to reduce their taxation.
So, without further ado, let's look at what the French pay, and what Americans pay. (Okay, a few more "ados" — my calculations are based on the most recent tax tables from both countries, plus the most recent tax tables for California. I have applied the graduated scales, and also Social Security and Medicare for Americans and all of "les charges sociales" for the French. No extra deductions, such as dependents or union fees, were applied. For those who would like to double-check my numbers, my sources are listed at the bottom of this post.)
And now, finally, voilà:
A single American earning $25,000 a year and living in California pays:
$3,332.50 in Federal taxes
+ $588 in State taxes
+ $1912.50 to Social Security and Medicare
for a total of $5,833 or just over 23% of his income in taxes.
A single French citizen earning €25,000 pays:
€5,250 in "charges sociales" (social charges)
+ €1,174 in income taxes
for a total of €6,424 or nearly 26% of his income in taxes.
(Note: French social charges are about 21% of the gross income. A 10% credit is then deducted from the net earnings to arrive at the amount owed in income taxes.)
A single American earning $90,000 a year and living in California pays:
$18,920 in Federal taxes
+ $6,066 in State taxes
+ $6,885 to Social Security and Medicare
for a total of $31,871 or just over 35% of her income in taxes.
A single Française earning €90,000 pays:
€18,900 in "charges sociales" (social charges)
+ €13,168 in income taxes
for a total of €32,068 or nearly 36% of her income in taxes.
An American couple earning $50,000 each, filing jointly, and living in California will pay:
$17,375 in Federal taxes
+ $4,689 in State taxes
+ $7,650 to Social Security and Medicare
for a total of $29,714 or nearly 30% of their combined annual incomes in taxes.
A French couple earning €50,000 each and filing together will pay:
€21,000 in "charges sociales" (€10,500 each in social charges)
+ €10,406 in income taxes
for a total of €31,406 or over 31% of their combined annual income in taxes.
So,the French system is only slightly more expensive for its taxpayers, and they get more out of it. What exactly do they get out of it, compared to what Americans get? Stay tuned for Part Four . . .
Do all junkies come to detest the thing to which they're addicted? I wonder, because I have begun to hate la confiture de châtaigne — chestnut spread — even as I spoon it greedily into my mouth. Yes, spoon it. I forgo the bread that a French person would use as a vehicle for this delicious, healthy, and highly caloric treat and instead just eat it by la cuillière.
It is not a pretty sight, but the sugar and protein rush does give me the necessary energy to meet deadlines (I have not quit my day job) while I am simultaneously researching how much French citizens really pay for their national health care system (part three of the Getting Sick series will be posted by Monday, I promise). On the downside, it promotes rapid weight gain. Cavities, too.
Another problem with confiture de châtaigne is its availability. You can find it everywhere in France, at all of the grocery stores and most crêpe stands. The organic supermarket chain Naturalia carries my favorite brand, Jean-Paul Vincensini et fis, which is made in Corsica and is quickly replacing my addiction to organic, sugar-free peanut butter.
Which brings me to an unsolved mystery: why do the French hate peanut butter when they love confiture de châtaigne and its identical twin, confiture de marrons? I have polled all of my French friends and acquaintances and received the same responses, all of which I deem unacceptable (except for the response from the friend who said that he actually likes peanut butter):
"Confiture de châtaigne and peanut butter are not the same thing at all!" (They may not be the same, but both are made from nuts, both are eaten with toast for breakfast or as a snack, and both are available with or without sugar.)
"Peanut butter is disgusting!" (Highly subjective.)
"Peanut butter looks like caca!" (True, but so does confiture de châtaigne.)
"Peanut butter is too fattening!" (And so is confiture de châtaigne).
So, if any of you readers — French, Americain, or "Other" — have any clues that might help us solve this most important mystery, please respond. While I wait, I'll just dip into that jar for one more spoonful of . . .