Whenever American visitors come to Paris, they always ask me two things: what I love about living in France, and what I miss about the United States. I have my pat answers — on the French side, the overall lifestyle, the healthcare and the cut of women's and men's clothing, and on the American side, the customer service, the strong work ethic and the year-round sales.
I must now remember to add pumpkin pie to the list of things that I miss. Pumpkin pie, I have discovered, is a uniquely American dessert. The very idea of it makes some French men and women turn green — and not with envy. I once hosted a Thanksgiving dinner just for French friends, who were all eager to try la dinde farcie (literally, stuffed turkey), la purée de pommes de terre (which one friend mispronounced in English as "smashed potatoes," a malapropism that I have since adopted) and le pumpkin pie.
In France, le potiron (small pumpkin with a squash-like flavor) is typically served salé — savory. Mostly it is eaten as puréed soup, seasoned with salt, pepper, a tiny bit of garlic and crème fraîche. So everyone at my French Thanksgiving was eager to try this new form of pumpkin-eating made from the large citrouille that is grown all over the United States, with the exception of one friend who looked, well . . . afraid.
Understanding his malaise, as I had a similar reaction the first time I tried pumpkin salé, I briefed everyone on what to expect. "This pie is légèrement sucré," I told them. Lightly sweetened. "And spiced with cannelle (cinnamon), gingembre (ginger) and clou de girofle (clove)." I saw a few raised eyebrows, and I knew instantly what it was about: the French do not generally like spiced foods, and they are definitely unused to the heavy doses of cinnamon that Americans adore.
I sliced the pie, making sure that each guest also got a handsome dollop of whipped cream because it is a treat that almost everyone in France likes. They took up their dessert forks. The room went silent. The pie was tasted. Then came the first responses. I heard a surprised, "Mmmm!" from one corner of the table and something that sounded like a choke from the other. I glanced at the guest who had looked so afraid and saw that he was in grave danger of vomiting. "You don't have to finish it!" I told him. He looked at me sheepishly, gratefully. "Sorry," he said before pushing the pie as far away from himself as possible.
No one else had such a strong negative reaction, but the guests definitely fell into two camps: those who loved it, and those who thought it was an interesting experience, but not something they would ever want to repeat.
I understand the second camp completely because I feel the same way about foie gras. But I can't help being annoyed that, because of the pumpkin pie haters, I and every other American must pay exorbitant sums for low-grade cans of pumpkin in Paris — if, that is, we can manage to track them down.