Hand to Mouth: Questioning the Questionable Hygiene Practices of French Food Servers

October 3, 2011By David JaggardC'est Ironique!

Buying one of these pastries could turn out to be a hands-on experience.

Back in the 1950s, the French government undertook a large-scale campaign to improve the population’s general health. Under the impetus of prime minister Pierre Mendès-France, people were encouraged to bathe more often, milk was distributed in the public schools and, in one of the most far-reaching reforms since the revolution, a law was passed requiring bakeries to hand customers their baguettes wrapped in paper. Apparently the idea that it was unhygienic to be touching someone else’s food was rather novel in France at the time.

Today, nearly 60 years later, I think it’s safe to say that the concept is a little slow in catching on. In my own local bakery, the clerks assemble each customer’s order with their bare hands and wrap the items in paper only at the last second before handing them over. This has never bothered me, except on the morning during flu season when I saw an employee emerge from the back carrying a tray of croissants with one hand and coughing loudly, repeatedly and wetly into the other. Two seconds later she was arranging the pastries on the display rack using her phlegm-flecked hand. I decided to give the croissants a miss that morning.

Some of my other close encounters of the revolting kind were not so easy to elude. On one occasion several years ago I was, in a weak moment, talked into having dinner at a popular “American eatery” in Les Halles, an establishment that shall remain nameless here except to say that in Opposite World it would be a superb restaurant called “Perth Vegetable Unpackers.” Amazingly, it’s still in business. I say “amazingly” because the food was amazingly bad, amazingly overpriced and spectacularly slow in coming. One dish, when it finally did come, came cold. (Amazingly cold.) It was supposed to be a loaf-like mass of onion rings fresh from the deep fryer — an apparatus normally associated with a pretty fair amount of heat — but its odyssey from kitchen to table took long enough to cool it to a temperature at which you or I would put on a sweater. When I called the waiter over and explained, “The onion rings are cold,” his response was to thrust the full length of a finger into the middle of the dish. “Huh – you’re right,” he said. “Huh – you’re a moron,” I thought.

More recently, I went to a specialty food shop in my neighborhood to get some slices of ham. This was a fancy, upscale store, the kind where attention to niceties is expected. The woman waiting on me put on a pair of disposable plastic gloves to heft the ham onto the meat slicer and meticulously stacked the cut pieces on the counter using a fork. Then, to wrap them up, she needed to get a sheet off the stack of butcher paper squares next to the slicer. Well, we all know how sticky butcher paper can be! Or at least she sure does, because she took off the gloves, licked her right index finger and used it to take the top sheet off the pile. And yes, the spit side was the meat side of the paper. That was my last trip to that shop. I do like ham that’s finger-lickin’ good, but I prefer to choose whose fingers.

Case in point number four: just a couple of weeks ago I was in the Saint Germain neighborhood with a friend from the States who happens to be a pastry aficionado, and I decided to take him to a particular bakery on Rue de Seine that’s famous for its macaroons. The display of the flagship confections contained more than a dozen varieties but no labels to identify them. So when it was our turn to be served I asked the young guy behind the counter to tell us what the choices were. He reached into the display case and, with the flat of his bare palm (for maximum exposure, I guess) touched the top of each section, saying, “These are strawberry, these are coffee, these are caramel, these are cauliflower,” etc. When we had made our choice, he filled a box for us, using, with a fastidiousness that was by then purely ceremonial, a pair of tongs. I figured that if every customer asks him to name the flavors he must touch each macaroon several hundred times a day.

Actually, of the four experiences, this last one seemed the least offensive. After all, I routinely eat food in restaurants that gets pushed around by unknown numbers of unseen hands, and I am well aware that we are all exposed to bazillions of microbes per second through the air and every surface we touch, whether chefs or countermen manhandle our food or not. In fact, between all the fingerprints on my groceries and my occasional uneager use of a squat toilet, I am very likely more disease-resistant now thanks to years of exposure to so much Parisian pestilence.

Ever mindful of the welfare of others, I have decided to share the benefits of my accumulated antibodies by opening a lunch counter. The special every day will be a ham-filled croissant with a side of onion rings and a raspberry macaroon for dessert. All made by hand! With freshly sneezed juice.


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© 2011 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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