Sweet Potatoes in the Woods

This past Saturday I spent a good part of the day with a friend at Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in Paris. We began by stretching out on the not-quite-green grass next to the lake and basking in the sun.

After heating up, we took a long walk that turned into what we dubbed a “tour du monde” (a trip around the world). In looking for the Buddhist temple located in the park, we stumbled upon a Tibetan festival. We didn’t pay to enter but peeked through the fence at the colorful flags and many stands.

Further on, we came upon a clearing and experienced a moment that I soon after pronounced several times as magical. A wooden structure rose up before us with people milling inside and around. Most of them were of African descent, and about half of them were in colorful printed loose clothing. Some of the men wore light blue button-down shirts and black pants. Women stood behind tables and served food. People stood under trees, lounged on the ground, or sat on the grass and talked and ate. The best word I can find to describe the atmosphere is peaceful.

We stood a close distance to look at the sign on the structure, and a French man in a fishing hat approached us and told us they were an association that recently built water-providing structures in Mali. It is a partnership between people there and French engineers who contribute their skills. They have been around for 20 years, and this was their 15th annual picnic. He explained that since Ramadan is next weekend, there were less attendees at the picnic because there were other events happening pre-Ramadan. He invited us to partake in their bounty.

My friend declined, but as food and I prefer to live in the same sentence, I climbed the several steps into the wooden house and approached the tables. Before taking a plastic plate, asked a woman behind the tables if I could contribute something. She said no, no.

I filled up my plate with a little of everything, not exactly knowing what the dishes were but eager to try them. As I descended with my full plate, a woman looked at it and said to me, “C’est tout ?” (That’s all?) She was serious, and I thought, That’s hospitality.

My friend and I sat in a shady spot on the ground, and I ate and marveled at this oasis that appeared right as my stomach needed filling. We agreed that with the landscape and African dress, it felt like we were far from Paris.

117.vincennes.2015a117.vincennes.2015b 117.vincennes.2015c 117.vincennes.2015d 117.vincennes.2015eMy favorite dish was composed of a kind of white sweet potato, carrots, and cabbage. I inquired about it, and a woman told me it was a Senegalese dish called “tcheb.” I wrote it down to ensure it would not be the last time I had it.

The man who had approached us at the beginning came back and asked me if I had tried the ginger juice yet. When I answered in the negative, he beckoned me back to the tables and asked one of the women for a bag of ginger juice—the other option was hibiscus. The juice was packaged in clear plastic bags for exactly one portion. To set it free, he held it over a plastic cup, pierced it, and handed the bag and cup to me so I could wait for the cup to fill up. I was surprised by the taste—at first, the juice was clearly sweet, then moments later became spicy with ginger. It was good.

Sated, we got up and continued on our way.

We later passed through a woodsy area with lines of tables with food and Latin American music resounding. Why not?

Our afternoon was punctuated by iced coffee outside at a café in the twelfth arrondissement—I have only recently discovered that some French cafes serve it—and watching people walk by. I find watching people’s summer fashions a wholly entertaining activity.

With hours of daylight still ahead of us, we walked to my friend’s suburb and stopped along the way to buy groceries for dinner at the kind of massive supermarket you will never find in the city.

At his apartment, we found his friend who is staying with him taking advantage of his large balcony. The three of us had the pleasure of dining en plein air as night slowly fell.

The night finished with my friend pulling out his guitar and singing songs by Georges Brassens, a classic French singer. It is not the first time I’ve kicked back in a French man’s apartment while he performed Georges Brassens on his guitar, and I have to say it is a rather pleasant experience.

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8 thoughts on “Sweet Potatoes in the Woods

  1. Neat! I think I would have been tempted by the food too, especially considering I know almost nothing about African food–yes, the entire continent, and yes, I’m aware that I’m including hundreds of cuisine!

    I’m more familiar with Northern Africa specialties, which are, as you know, popular in France (couscous, pastries, etc.).

    • Well, that kind of event is the perfect time to try a bit of this and a bit of that… as I told my friend, we wouldn’t have tried a Senegalese restaurant we didn’t know, but now I would. And actually the food wasn’t anything too crazy! Beef, vegetables… with their own special flavor.

  2. We went to a Senegalese restaurant in Aix-en-Provence! I hold that as one of my favorite traveling-with-Lisa memories, which is saying something.

    Is there anything better than dining with friends in plein air? If there is, I can’t think of it.

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