Language notwithstanding, there is nothing that signals you are in a foreign country more than a grocery store. Even with globalization, food culture still manages to cling to its traditions. If you want to better understand how the natives live, spend some time in a supermarket.
When my husband and I moved to Brussels as expats in 2005 I thought it would be easy to assimilate. After all, we were hardcore New Yorkers by then, had traveled the world, had years of corporate experience between us and I spoke French. (I had also spent a year abroad as a student in France and had also worked for a year in London.) How hard could it be?
Let’s just say that setting up a home abroad is a humbling experience. It is the ultimate zone of discomfort for the first twelve months even (and maybe especially) for those who thought they had the sophistication, language skills and experience to manage it without breaking a sweat. Everything you do from registering with the local authorities to operating the washing machine to discussing a broken toilet with the handyman is a first-time experience. For me, it was doubly humbling as the trailing spouse. I was used to having a corporate infrastructure to pave the way and do tasks for me. Now I was on my own, swimming upstream every day.
But for all the firsts you experience as an expat, there is no greater series of firsts than navigating the grocery store. It is a universal truth that cuts across national boundaries. (I recently met a French woman who writes a blog about how to get around American grocery stores for the French expat community in the U.S.)
Less wedded to American food brands like cereal and peanut butter, I still felt finding a new brand of washing detergent, olive oil, butter or bath soap to be ridiculously time consuming. (And what the heck is the word for ‘bleach’ in French?) In the early days of our life in Brussels, coming home with the correct cleaning supplies and a few days-worth of food for meals made me feel as accomplished as negotiating a multimillion-dollar bond trade back in my banking days. It’s all relative.
When I wasn’t shopping at one of the outdoor markets I would shop at the supermarket chain, Delhaize—a Belgian company whose roots go back to 1867 that has since grown into a global food behemoth that operates in seven countries including the U.S., where it is known as Food Lion. Having been in a Food Lion, I can tell you that Delhaize in Brussels was a different store altogether.
I love roaming the aisles in a European supermarket. In Brussels, I was especially taken with things like the pre-cooked little shrimp that were terrific in salads or the packaged lardons (essentially thick-cut, diced bacon) that are so useful in beef stews, quiches and salads, or the beautiful fresh cod filets that were packaged without the belly attached so you were cooking a uniformly thick piece of fish. To me, this was convenience at a gourmet level.
There were a couple of things I noticed about shopping customs at my local Delhaize: First, Belgian women were smartly dressed and in full make-up (yoga pants were only for the gym and only donned at the gym), you had to bag your own groceries, and finally, no matter how long it took, when you are being served—whether by the butcher or the cashier—you are the only customer that matters. You really begin to look at yourself with fresh eyes when living in a foreign culture.
The first time I was behind an elderly woman who (understandably) took longer than most to bag her groceries I found myself playing out a scene in my mind in which we were back in New York and the people in line behind her would be sighing and grumbling and generally expressing their impatience. I realized then, as I watched my fellow shoppers calmly wait for her to finish up, that the rest of the world has cultivated considerably more patience than New Yorkers. I was more than a little ashamed of myself.
Of course, as a cook, what I was most interested in was not only what food was on offer, but what people were putting in their shopping carts. Call it food voyeurism. (I tried to be discreet.)
Among the items that were routinely purchased underscored the Belgian food culture perfectly: beer, frozen French fries, prepared waffles, Belgian endives (I’m not kidding—I wondered sometimes how the store managed to keep them in stock), chocolate and, in the fall, pumpkin. With the exception of pumpkin, these were all food items I would have expected to see a Belgian consume. (You cannot overstate how much nationality plays into food preferences.)
Over time I bought a lot of what the Belgians bought and learned to make Chicon Gratiné (braised endives that are then wrapped with ham and baked in the oven with a cheese sauce), chocolate sauce poured over ice cream and mini-waffles and plenty of Belgian trappist-style dark beer. (The French fries we bought as take-out at our nearest frîterie—think of them as food trucks that sell fries; they are everywhere in Brussels which is both a blessing and a curse.)
Pumpkin, however, remained a mystery to me. Come the fall, week after week I would see pumpkin in people’s shopping carts. They were beautiful deep orange pumpkins more like the color of Hubbard squash than our paler pumpkins. In retrospect I’m not sure why I never bought any. Other forms of winter squash were not to be found, and since I knew how to cut up a squash and roast it, doing the same for pumpkin would have seemed logical. For whatever reason, I avoided them. Still, those pumpkins made an impression on me.
A few years after we returned from Brussels I heard Dorie Greenspan on NPR talking about a recipe for stuffed pumpkin that was featured in her new cookbook, Around My French Table. I had just written a review of the book for New York Journal of Books and loved it. (The book came out in 2010 and it has become one of my most reliable go-to cookbooks.) Huh, I thought, is that what you’re supposed to do with pumpkins?
Leave it to the French. Dorrie Greenspan calls the recipe Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. She’s right about that: dried, cubed bread, garlic, Gruyère cheese, bacon, cream, thyme—what’s not to like? Make it as a main dish and serve it with a leafy green salad or use it as a side for chicken, pork or turkey. I’m crazy about it (as apparently are many food bloggers). I buy a good half dozen small pumpkins every fall and make it right up until December (or as long as my little pumpkins stay firm in my basement). Stuffed pumpkin is also now a permanent fixture at my Thanksgiving table. It has replaced traditional stuffing and obviated the need for a sweet potato dish (one more thing to be thankful for).
Stuffed pumpkin is one of those revelatory dishes. I wish I had known about it when we were living in Brussels. Then I would have truly gone native in my Delhaize (and been smartly dressed doing it). No one would have guessed from the contents of my shopping cart that I wasn’t Belgian.
Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan
This is one of those recipes that is easy to adapt to your liking. Using rice instead of bread, sausage instead of bacon and Cheddar cheese instead of Gruyère are just some of the suggestions Dorie Greenspan offers up. You might have a few ideas of your own. (I’ve tried it with a mix of cooked spinach and brown rice instead of the bread but it wasn’t as satisfying to me.)
Serves 4 – 6 as a side dish
1 small pumpkin, about 3 – 4 pounds
4 – 5 oz. dried, cubed bread (about ½” cubes). (I use sourdough bread.)
4 oz. Gruyère cheese cut into ½” dice.
3 – 4 strips good quality bacon, cooked and crumbled.
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, minced.
Either ¼ Cup chopped scallions or a couple tablespoons of chopped, fresh chives.
A few sprigs of fresh thyme. Remove leaves from stem and roughly chop.
1/3 Cup heavy cream.
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg.
Salt and freshly ground pepper.
Place rack in lower third of oven and heat to 350°.
Prepping the Pumpkin
I have found that using a pumpkin carving knife that you can buy in a kit as a seasonal item at many different stores that have Halloween accoutrements makes carving the lid easier. And for scooping out the seeds and stringy bits I highly recommend a culinary scoop made my Messermeister that can be purchased online. Finally, if anyone who enjoys your cooking happens to be in the kitchen when you set out to make your stuffed pumpkin and asks if there is anything they can do to help, don’t hesitate to hand them the carving knife and scooper to get the pumpkin ready. It will make the process go a lot faster.
Carve a wide opening in the pumpkin and set the lid aside. (Trim the stem to about two inches.) Scoop out the seeds and stringy bits and discard.
Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper and place the pumpkin on a baking sheet lined with a silicon mat.
In a bowl, combine the bread cubes, minced garlic, scallions or chives, herbs, cheese and bacon and mix with your hands.
Fill the cavity of the pumpkin leaving enough room so that the lid will fit snugly on top.
Measure out the 1/3 Cup of cream and add the nutmeg. Stir to combine and then pour over the dried stuffing in the cavity. You are aiming for just enough liquid to moisten the stuffing. The flesh of the pumpkin has moisture as well so you want to avoid getting the mixture too soupy.
Replace the lid on the pumpkin and bake in the oven for 90 minutes. Remove the lid and bake a further 30 minutes until the top of the stuffing is golden.
To serve, either cut the pumpkin into wedges using a serrated knife or scoop out the insides along with the pumpkin flesh and fill a bowel. Don’t overmix the stuffing and pumpkin flesh. It’s nice to have the stuffing and pumpkin a bit separate in the bowl.