Imagine yourself in the baking aisle of your local grocery store. Say you’re making cookies. You search high and low, eyes grazing over the candles, the muffin wrappers, the flour. No brown sugar. Anyone with even minimal experience baking knows that brown sugar is a critical ingredient in so many American dessert recipes. A grocery store not selling brown sugar in its baking aisle would be like a pharmacy not selling toothbrushes in its oral hygiene section. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I wanted to make a pumpkin pie and discovered that brown sugar, as we know it, does not exist in France. A French person reading this would likely say, “Of course we have brown sugar.” Which is true… partially. In most French grocery stores and more commonly in organic épiceries, cassonade and vergeoise are sold on the same shelves as the other sugar products. Amber in color, the French are apt to call this product “sucre brun.” However, as a Baltimorean who grew up with at least two packages of Domino’s Light Brown Sugar in the pantry at all times, I knew that something had gotten lost in translation. If anything, these products resembled Sugar in the Raw. To ensure that I wasn’t missing something, I did some internet research and found that there were many other confused Americans in my shoes. Alas, off I went on my search for the best dupe.
Three grocery stores later, I happened upon an organic store that looked promising. There it was. Between the cassonade and coconut sugar, I found muscovado. A little darker than American brown sugar, muscovado is a sugar with a strong molasses content and had the most similar consistency to brown sugar that I could find. Nora: one, France: zero. Well, except for the fact that Libby is not a name spoken in any French household when it comes to pumpkin puree. To give you an idea of how nonexistent it is, my host brother thought that I was making a savory entrée when I told him I was making pumpkin pie. Why had I thought that this seasonal treat was internationally known and adored? Maybe because it should be *cough cough.* Thus began another journey through the supermarkets of Nantes, France in which my worthy competitor evened the playing field: Nora: 1, France: 1. That was until I remembered the American goods shop my French friend had told me about. After class one day, I walked over to “Manhattan Corner” and, as I walked in, was greeted by a stack of Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin.
I gleefully strolled home and, when I arrived, began to lay out my ingredients. There I was on Facetime with my mom, begging her to reveal all her pie secrets, when I realized that my host mom didn’t own a pie dish. One 11-inch tart dish, three cake tins, five mini tart dishes, but no pie dish. Not only were pumpkin pies distinctly American, but apparently so were pies in general. At this point it looked like I was doing a dishware tradeshow in my host mom’s kitchen with my real mom as a perspective buyer. One was too big, the next didn’t flare out enough at the edges, and at a certain point, with my customer’s approval of course, I decided to make five mini pumpkin tarts. When all was said and done and my host mom and brother gave me a big grin of approval, I knew that all my trials and tribulations were well worth it.
With so much access to the same information, media, and consumer products, it’s easy to forget that every country has traditions that are distinctly theirs. While I found it a little frustrating that I couldn’t readily find all the ingredients I needed, it was extremely gratifying to introduce a dessert to my host family that holds so much nostalgia for me. Some ingredients and dishes may not always translate, but I’ve found that, if you add enough butter and sugar, everyone’s mouths are too full to care.