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Why I feed my French guests Canadian food

Hospitality felt daunting the first few years I lived in the land of haute cuisine. My culinary discoveries ranged from the bizarre (Parisians often munch on potato chips and cheese puffs before sitting down to their wonderfully set tables) to the intimidating (the menu regularly features five courses, with a different alcohol for each).

My first time in France about 15 years ago, fresh out of university, I had so little experience with wine that, having followed a connoisseur friend's advice to open his expensive bottle one hour before serving, I promptly placed it in the fridge to chill. I learned some colourful new French words that day when he realized the fate of his Château de quelque part.

After a few months of wide-eyed admiration, I thought I might attempt a feast of my own. What do they say about hell and good intentions? In trying to juggle all those dishes at once, nothing came out right. My first course burned and my second course was thrown out after the accidental addition of my fingertip as the umpteenth ingredient.

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Thank goodness the French like lettuce-only salad; that I managed to prepare just fine. But the cheese should have been served room temperature and I hadn't yet learned how to pick the right camembert (the centre should be soft in its package, so it is appropriately stinky and runny). And I hadn't remembered to buy enough baguette for both the main course and the cheese. The list went on and on.

At the end of the meal, my guests were serving up the polite compliments friends use to disguise a disaster. "Well, what a great conversation!" "You certainly put a lot of effort into this meal, didn't you?" Brutal honesty would have been easier to swallow: "My dear, c'était la catastrophe. Come over next week and we'll show you how it's done."

Inspiration dawned one night when I was serving a selection of bakery-bought pastries (a quickly learned survival tactic). One friend teasingly said, "What? No maple syrup?" There was laughter all around, but when my guests left, realization struck. Why was I bending over backward to serve badly prepared French food? My Canadian cooking would be exotic to them.

So the next time I was asked what was on the menu, my reply came readily enough: "Hamburgers."

I was quick to clarify that this would be nothing like steak haché, the French hamburger lookalike that is 100-per-cent meat with no spices or binding and always served, shall we say, "ultra rare."

They ended up being cheeseburgers, actually, since I happened across some British cheddar in a specialty cheese shop. Then I was mystified when my plans to make coleslaw were almost quashed by the utter absence of celery seed in almost every spice shop in Paris. In the entire capital of cooking I finally tracked down celery seed in only two spice shops, one specializing in Jewish and the other in Russian food.

The hamburger and coleslaw meal was a huge hit. My next dinner featured a hearty pea soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, followed by apple crisp. While my French friends loved the grilled cheese sandwiches, it was amusing to hear them ask what exactly they were for. Does one dip them in the soup? Wipe up the last drops with them? Eat them first or last?

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It felt foreign to them to eat the sandwich at the same time as the soup because they typically use bread to mop the plate clean at the end of a course. So for subsequent meals I bent to their palates and started to serve the sandwiches after the soup.

Yet another meal featured wild rice with salmon (albeit Norwegian) and apple pie. With a little imagination, I was able to adapt many Canadian favourites to local ingredients, to the delight of my guests. And I learned a few tricks about serving home cooking to gourmands. For starters, you have to use the right terms. In the land of five-course meals, if you don't want to serve an appetizer and main dish, just say you are serving "a single dish" - "un plat unique."

But other traditions will never be successfully broken. For example, steamed veggies with butter pale in comparison to a creamy gratin. And the French will never get used to drinking our watered-down coffee at any time of day, let alone drinking it during a meal; here, coffee is drunk solo after dessert.

Contrary to popular belief, however, wine is not drunk daily, and my French friends are just as happy to quaff juice, pop or sparkling water. They are less enthusiastic, on the other hand, about the idea of beer with pizza.

My attempts at hospitality received a major boost from a recent brunch fad sweeping across Paris. Maple syrup has been making a huge splash served on flapjacks as an alternative to the ubiquitous crêpe. I almost jumped for joy when I finally discovered Canadian-style bacon, and have been serving it to enthusiastic oohs and aahs at my brunches ever since.

Slowly but surely, my other meals have been evolving one course at a time into a new species of cuisine, which I can only describe as various Canadian preparations of starches, proteins and leafy greens, served in the French order. The salad may be Caesar but it comes before the cheese. The cheese may be cheddar but it is served last, with baguette.

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One thing hasn't changed, though. When people ask what they can bring, I describe the menu and am more than happy to add, "You bring the wine."

Sameena Black lives in Le Petit Quevilly, France.

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