At the risk of flattering myself, I like to think I’m an enthusiastic cook, educated shopper, and informed eater with reasonably good, organic, local, seasonal, sustainable, minimally-processed intentions. Yet a mere mortal am I, and in the dark recesses of my soul there lies weakness.
For junk food.
Roll your eyes or cast aspersion if you must, but I know you know what I mean. We all have occasional—or maybe persistent, nagging, all-consuming—cravings for things filled with empty calories, be they sugary or salty, tender or crunchy. I’m talking Ring Dings. Hostess fruit pies. Chips of every stripe. Bugles. My own personal junk food paramour, my frailty, the chink in my gastronomic armor, is the Cheez Doodle.
(My definition of the Doodle is egalitarian. To me, the term covers all manner of crisp, orange, “cheese”-flavored sins against nutrition, whether puffed or crunchy, baked or fried, full- or low-fat, retina-searing or pallid, official Doodle or any manner of look-alike, whether Jax, Cheeto, or Utz. They’re all Cheez Doodles to me, and I hunger for each equally.)
My very first encounter with the Doodle is lost to the mists of time, although I’ll go out on a limb and say it was likely a glorious moment. My early life was spent in a house of dieters, where sugary cereals were verboten and snacks pretty much consisted of carrots, celery sticks, and fruit, which hold terribly limited allure for a six-year-old. Whenever I got my hands on the forbidden nectar, it was as if I’d won the lottery.
Fast forward through more than three decades of midnight runs to all-night convenience stores, clumsy attempts at removing greasy orange stains from off-white upholstery, and furtive glances in reflective surfaces after indulging at inappropriate hours and locations to see if I’d swiped all incriminating Doodle crumbs clinging to my lip. At an age when I ought to have been thinking more responsibly about my retirement, I took a leave from my job, rented my apartment, and liquidated my emergency fund to embrace a year of eating, shopping, and writing in Paris. Naturally, I had several practical to-do’s before relocating to France for a year — including learning a little of the language, navigating the twisty administrative path to a carte de sejour (a flimsy but priceless card that allows for temporary residence), and making heads or tails of the apartment lease in which I understood roughly every seventh word. Yet my mind kept reverting back to the one really important thing — my Doodle habit.
I know, I know.
Don’t get me wrong. The prospect of spending a year sampling French cheeses — Bonjour, Beaufort! Enchanté, Epoisses! Salut, Saint-Nectaire! — was spectacular beyond belief. But I couldn’t help wondering if the country had applied its considerable engineering ingenuity to the transformation of some of that fromage into anything puffy and crunchy and snack-like. I had high hopes.
I also had a Plan B. Midway through my sojourn in Paris, I was scheduled to return to Boston for a week of consulting work. If by that time I hadn’t found suitable Gallic Doodles, I’d buy a case or two stateside and ship them to my apartment overseas.
Day two in Paris, giddy but disoriented, I made my way to my local Monoprix supermarché on the Rue du Poteau, about four blocks from my apartment, which was situated on the back side of Montmarte along the hairy northern edge of the 18th arrondisement. This store would provide staples and whatever else couldn’t be bought at the outdoor markets. To say that I was eager to scope out the offerings is an understatement — and by “offerings,” I think we all know what I had in mind.
As I entered the store I almost stumbled into an enormous bin filled with girolles (chanterelles). Yogurt, to the left, filled a string of refrigerator cases as long as an American soda aisle. Pâté at the deli counter—nine different styles?!—and fromage de tête. Wine galore. And chocolate. Oh my, the chocolate. This was looking good.
Good enough, in fact, to distract me momentarily from my pilgrimage. After what felt like hours of ricocheting in different directions, lured by new and exotic riches, I refocused. I slowly, methodically worked my way up and down every aisle, combing the shelves centimeter by centimeter. It wasn’t until after I’d rounded the corner in the dark, shadowy recesses of the store, not far from the dish soaps and a mind-boggling assortment of bottled mineral water, that I finally happened upon le junque food. And there, stationed unassumingly, were the bags that gave my heart a joyful jolt: Belin brand Mais Souffle Croustilles au Fromage. (Rough translation: Cheez Doodles!)
In a flash I scooped up three different flavors—plain, Emmental, and fromage de chevre (goat cheese Doodles!)—paid the cashier, and trotted home. After huffing up six flights of stairs two by two, I barely made it through the apartment door before ripping open all three bags. The Croustilles—from croustillant (pronounced kroo-steey-AHN), which is French for “crust”—were of regulation length, with the standard knobby, extruded form factor, though they seemed understated in color, almost natural looking, with their creamy, cheesy beige hues that were nothing like their screaming neon American cousins.
I took a bite. And then another. And another. The Doodles with the Gallic accent were a bit lighter, not quite so crisp, and somewhat less greasy than my beloved, though they still delivered that hallmark crackle-in-your-mouth, dissolve-on-your-tongue, textural tour de force that I love so. Of the three, far and away my favorite was Emmental. As Doodles go, it had gravitas, with an umami undercurrent and a creamy, nutty top note that imparted an uncommon depth and complexity. This was a stand-up Doodle.
I wish I could say that mastering the language and obtaining the carte de sejour fell into place as gracefully as the snacking. At least I had croustilles to help see me through those lesser pursuits. Even now, years later and firmly back in the bosom of the American Doodle bonanza that has sustained me for most of my life, I pine for those beguiling French Doodles. And while my friends head straight to stand in line at Ladurée or for some Mont d’Or each time they visit Paris—and, to be honest, I do, too—at least I can grab a bag of my pedestrian pleasures before so much as stepping out of the airport terminal.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:
Illustration © 2012 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.