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May 11th, 2015

Kebabophobia, Potatophilia and the Big House

BY Christian Ford

It was long enough ago that I can blame my ignorance of French history on youth, but I clearly recall wondering, “what are all these Arabs doing in the middle of the capitol of France?”

On the left bank, a ten minute walk from the portals of Notre-Dame de Paris, I’d stumbled into an Arab quarter.  It wasn’t really the Paris I’d imagined, mostly composed of Gothic wonders tended by hunchbacks, Resistance fighters skulking through sewer mazes and the Eiffel Tower (as I mentioned, youth was involved.)  But this quickly became one of my favorite corners of the city, and the reason was that this was a place to get good things to eat.

Aside from a window in the tip of a triangular building where they served a gargantuan ring of dough fried to order and flopped both sides in cinnamon and sugar before it was handed to you scorching hot, my go-to street food was a doner kebab.  It was made of meat shaved from a mysteriously vertical spit and collected in a thing like a dust pan, before it was rolled into a piece of flatbread with various onions and sauces.  It was utterly delicious and is now ubiquitous in the States, having adopted a new name as immigrants sometimes do — the gyros.

But all this was unknown territory to me at the time.  All I knew was that French cuisine was proving to be daunting, (like ordering “lamb” and being served three tiny and intact brains) but that here, in the Arab quarter, lay salvation.  Judging from the crowds, I wasn’t alone.  And judging from the noise emanating from present-day France, I’m still not.  The problem is, not everyone is happy about that.

The New York Times reports that the humble and juicy kebab has become a political battleground in France.  “Kebabophobia” has emerged as kebab shops have become a symbol of the “Islamization” of France and there’s a none-too-polite debate about how many kebab shops are appropriate to the streets below royal chateaux which once hosted generations of French kings and queens.  The increasing number of National Front politicians winning at the polls (the National Front being a reactionary France-for-the-French party) means that some towns are trying to restrict or eliminate kebab stands, citing their threat to public order.

There are voices of sanity of course, but I do wish that the National Front would get its priorities right.  You see, the kebab wasn’t my first street food of choice.  I’d only wound up there because my anticipated street food of first resort — the crêpe — had failed utterly.  Where Paris was once littered with stands serving angelic crêpes, what I found were very few and the fare at those few were bloated saucers that would be more at home on the menu of an IHOP.

Now, I must confess that I, too have a nostalgia for a bygone France, one without the Golden Arches and big box hypermarchés.  But I can’t help thinking that the solution doesn’t sound like turning back the clock to a time before kebabs, but rather in moving forward, to the return of a decent crêpe stand.


In Peru, at 10,000 feet above sea level, on home turf of the Incas, you’ll find the wonderfully named Parque de la Papa, which translates as “Potato Park.”  The Andes are, of course, the point of origin for the potato in all its bewildering forms.  The Parque de la Papa, however, is a site of particular diversity that Peru has set aside to protect the 1,000+ varieties that have been developed and preserved over the ages by the indigenous Quechua people.

Delightful!  And unlike the American conception of parks as bubbles of glassed-in wilderness carefully scrubbed of the people who originally lived there, the Parque de la Papa’s original indigenous residents still make their home within its boundaries.

It’s a very different notion of preservation, this understanding that people are embedded within nature, and not somehow outside it.  That was always a risible idea, but now more than ever.  Science has been working hard to tell us that we’re all in the same boat under the same sky, but that’s a tough sell what with the denialist and disinformation machines modeled on the tobacco industry’s long defense of the indefensible.

That’s why it’s refreshing (even if dismaying) to hear the Parque de la Papa’s Quechuas announcing that the farming techniques that were sustainable for centuries are suddenly not working any more.  Al Jazeera America has an interesting piece on what they have to say, but the takeaway is that the sun, rain and frost aren’t what and when they’re supposed to be.

This isn’t unexpected, in the Andes or anywhere else, but it’s intriguing to see the Quechua reaching into their deep well of spuddish genetic diversity and finding solutions, or at least stopgaps.  It’s also intriguing to see that the emergency is beginning to bring together both the traditional knowledge of farmers like the Quechua (with their exquisite understanding of the subtleties of their local landscape) with the scientists (with their universal principles).

Peasants, like the Quechua, have been at the wrong end of the power/money/status stick for all time, never mind that without their foundation, none of those things could be.   But now that power/money/status has manufactured its own nemesis, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of our responses (I won’t call them solutions) will come from the arsenal of skills and smarts that have sustained the poorest for the longest.  I wonder how you spell schadenfreude in Quechuan?


Out where the plains meet the mountains in Colorado, you can find a variety of artisanal and natural food operations who deliver their products to the likes of Whole Foods, among others. But this isn’t quite the typical version of this story, because the guys milking the goats for Haystack Mountain Creamery are inmates.

Colorado Corrections Industries is a state run, $65-million company that employs 2,000 convicts to grow flowers, make canoes and raise tilapia, among other things, (things which do not include license plates).

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand, I’m relieved to discover that CCI belongs to the State of Colorado since America’s for-profit private prison industry has already proven that there’s nary a moral issue it can’t get on the wrong side of.  And learning to make cheese or wine or manage aquaculture is worlds better than some of the other things you can pick up in the Graybar Hotel.

What’s more, if you’re a country with 4.4% of the world population and 22% of the world’s prisoners, highest incarceration rate in the world, thank you very much (and handily defeating second place Rwanda and third place Russia) then it makes sense to starting thinking about what to do with all those idle hands.

But there’s another way of looking at it in this age of mass incarceration.  You can also slice the statistical pie to reveal that the US locks up a greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the apogee (or would that be nadir?) of apartheid.  You can notice that no one in the financial industry whose overtly criminal activities triggered the cataclysmic financial crash of 2008 (and ruined untold bystanding lives in the process) actually did any time.  Or you could ponder the possible influence of the $5 billion-per-year private prison industry, heavily bankrolled by Wells Fargo, Ban of America, Fidelity Investments and others.  (You’d think the denizens of the banking industry wouldn’t be so shy about partaking in the hospitality of some of their holdings.)

All together, it can start to make you a little cynical about CCI’s work, even though they, rightly I’m sure, report that these are coveted jobs on the inside.  It isn’t so much that I think the inmates are being exploited.  It’s that from the point of view of management, they simply don’t care who’s doing the work as long as they’re easily controllable and don’t cost too much — and having room, board and benefits of your workers supplied by the taxpayers of Colorado certainly doesn’t hurt.

So am I being cynical?  I don’t know.  But it’s hard to feel like Candide when you find reportage on this particular industry gracing the pages of a magazine called Fortune.


Kebab Seller by Jonathan Adami
Potato Seller by Go!Pymes Fotos
Convict Steamroller by George Lane