Springtime, or le printemps, as they say in French, is my favorite time of year. In spring, the birds returning from the south start chirping around 4:30 in the morning. Their chatter gently wakes me up allowing for a few extra minutes to quietly plan the day in my head before the official 5:00 AM iPhone alarm buzzes. Spring is also the time when I am acutely aware of the color of green. In many ways, green and spring are almost interchangeable. But not always. In fact, green can mean a lot of different things to different people.
The topic of green started to pre-occupy me on a recent May visit to France. It began with a food shopping excursion at Richard Lenoire’s outdoor food market in the Marais where I have a tiny apartment. Everywhere I looked, the stands were bursting with the first green vegetables of the season. After a long winter of boring root vegetables and cold storage fruits, the sight of fresh pea pods, plump fava beans, and asparagus would make any food lover heave a sigh of relief. At last, green was back!
Creating a menu as the French chefs do
I decided to plan my dinner menu based on what was available in the market that morning, just as French chefs do. Then it hit me. Why not also create a meal based on spring’s green vegetables with a few touches of white for contrast. Un dîner en vert et blanc.
Scurrying around the stands, I filled my filet (net shopping bag) with a mixture of delicate baby greens for a mixed salad, a ripe avocado, emerald green chives, and six Ratte potatoes loved by the French for their nutty flavor and smooth, buttery texture. Then, I added a handful each of fava beans, pea pods, haricots verts, and naturally, asparagus, three each of the green and the white.
Stopping by my favorite fish monger’s stand, some pre-cooked écrevisses caught my eye. My first course was set: crayfish lightly tossed in mayonnaise with a touch of fresh lemon zest, stuffed into a ripe, avocado half. The main course would be the rest of the vegetables, either boiled, steamed or roasted. Opting from cheese over a sweet dessert, the last course would be a crottin, a small, aged chèvre from the Loire Valley. For wine? On the way home I picked up an organic (or Biologique) Sancerre called Les Romains produced by Domaine Foussier, also from the Loire.
Eating and traveling with the color green
As I ate my dinner that evening, the concept of green kept popping into my head. The following day, I headed south to meet friends. As I sat on the TGV train making its way to Avignon, I saw a profusion of different shades of green through the window. Given the train’s dizzyingly high speed, the colors of nature whizzed by like blurred brush strokes from an abstract painting. Patchwork of fields planted in wheat, cereals, and potatoes—in varying shades of green from lime to hunter—appeared then disappeared hypnotically before my eyes. Stately poplar trees bending in the wind and rigid hedgerows divided the green fields. Randomly, farmhouses and barns surrounded by stuccoed stone walls doted the verdant countryside. Milk-white Charolais cattle in distant green pastures looked like plastic toys. Small, honey-colored villages with their ubiquitous church topped with a rooster appeared here and there. But for the most part, the passengers on the train were looking through a kaleidoscope of spring green.
As we sped southward from the plains around Paris through the rolling hills of Burgundy, vineyards with their pale green leaves started to appear. As the train made its way further south the terrain changed. Small mountains covered in Mediterranean dark green vegetation, spotted with buttercup-yellow from the flowering broom—and more vineyards—flew by the window. The TGV was literally racing through a mass of green at 200 miles-an-hour.
When I arrived in Avignon, my foodie pals (Marguerite Thomas, her friend Jeanne Milligan, Michael Apstein and his wife Dee) were still discussing their delicious lunch as they threw my suitcase into the trunk. Marguerite’s husband, professor/author/wine writer Paul Lukacs, was working on his computer back at the house the group had rented in Masanne les Alpilles.
Friends and their vision of green
After the usual “hellos,” I told them about my saturation of green experience on the train. For fun, I asked them to free associate with the color. What did green represent for them? Michael, a gastroenterologist, and wine writer piped up. “I associate green with the environment, ecology and sustainability. But I also think of money as in ‘greenbacks.’” Dee, a former lawyer and now animal photographer, said green always reminded her of colored folders. “When I was clerking during law school, I selected green folders for any case having to do with real estate.” The concepts of green representing revitalization, rebirth, and nature were also bantered around in the car.
On my flight back home a week later, I asked my seat mate what green meant to her. Another photographer, the woman enthusiastically declared the color was synonymous with trees for her. “I am mad for trees. Naturally, the best time of year for me is spring when the trees bud out and start showing their delicate, lime green leaves. My favorite are the plane trees which are planted everywhere in France.”
Why the French love green
And she was right. As we drove around the countryside in the Vaucluse, we passed through miles and miles of tree-lined, narrow roads. Michael shared with us some trivia about the trees. He asked if we knew that they were a legacy of Napoleon. According to him, Napoleon planted the trees to shade his soldiers as they were marching to and from battles. I had heard this before but wanted to further investigate. In fact, the roadside trees predated Napoleon. Their origin dates from the 16th century, when Henri IV ordered the building of straight roads flanked by arbres d'alignement on both sides.
Being surrounded by so many trees, I was reminded of how important greenery of all sorts is to French people. In Paris, my concierge was very pleased to announce the other day that the local city hall was distributing large plastic flowerpots to anyone who wanted to plant trees in front of their apartment building. The following day, I woke up to see two large green trees flanking either side of our front door. Plastered on the wall of the building’s entrance was an official notice from Le Mairie proudly touting their effort to make Paris “greener for the enjoyment of all citizens.”
Green as a way of life
Thinking “green” is an integral part of life in France. In many ways, they are years ahead of us. For example, plastic bags were outlawed three years ago in France. You can find a thin version of plastic bags, but by law they must be totally biodegradable and compostable. However, by and large, the French bring their own reusable carriers to the grocery store or outdoor food market so even these rather flimsy new bags are not often used.
Careers in “green technology” are also very popular with university students in France. Matthieu Fesneau, a 23-year-old “Green Engineer,” (and grandson of my friend Armand Cottin) told me it is “the” trend now in France. According to him, his generation is very concerned about our abuse of the earth and subsequently, believe that green jobs in conservation, ecology and renewal energy are the future of their (and ours too!) survival.
This is not to imply that we, as Americans, are indifferent to what is happening to the earth. Few informed individuals would deny the importance we give to the topic of climate change and planet-warming greenhouse gases. The real issue, however, is what we decide to do, or not to do, about it as a nation.
What we eat can make a difference
The New York Times recently wrote an intriguing feature article on how what you eat influences climate change. According to the article, “The World’s food system is responsible for about one quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year.” This staggering statistic includes not only the raising of the food but also its processing, packaging and shipping.
The biggest offender was beef—as you might suspect—but also cheese. This came as a surprise until I read it had to do with the volume of milk needed to make cheese. Looks like if we want to help reduce global warming, we should rethink our consumption of these two major culprits.
“Eating Green” also means being aware of where your food is produced. While eating organic raspberries may appear to be a healthy choice, you should also consider the amount of fossil fuel used to get them to your local grocery store, especially if from a long distance. It always more sense—and is certainly greener—to eat locally produced, seasonal foods.
A grandchild’s favorite crayon
When I returned home after two relaxing weeks in France, I was still obsessing about the topic of green. Peggy, a knitting buddy, told me green reminded her of a crayon. “My four-year-old granddaughter loves to color,” she explained. This endearing, grandmotherly image was replaced with a totally different take when I asked some of my male New York friends what green signified to them.
Some negative associations
“What about the wearing of the green?” my Irish American running pal George proposed. From my quizzical expression, he knew an explanation was needed. Then he briefly recounted the historical reference dating back to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when the Irish revolted against the British. At that time the British—who had taken possession of Ireland—banned the wearing of shamrocks or any green clothing as they considered it a rebellious act and even punishable by death.
Other negative associations followed such as “being green with envy;” “looking green around the gills” when someone is ill; and finally, “green” referring to a person who doesn’t know what they are doing.
Then George countered with yet another unexpected association. He gleefully replied, “What about green as in ‘green light’ meaning to go ahead?” Yet another puzzled look. “Don’t you remember the game we used to play as kids, “Red Light/Green light?”
Green as a political symbol
As the green discussion continued, another friend reminded me of the current success of the Green political parties with Europe having just completed its recent EU elections. This all started with the ecologically focused, progressive Green Peace movement in the ‘70s. Fast forward to Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who has taken center stage with her Green New Deal. While hardly practical in its recommended implementation, its concept of our country doing something quickly to save the earth is certainly valid. Thankfully, it has become a critical focus for many Americans including several of the current Democratic candidates.
Whatever green symbolizes for you, either nature’s lushness, a political party, or a color out of a Crayola box, by and large it reflects something positive. Perhaps because it is so often associated with the earth and rebirth, it has a calming and reassuring psychological effect on most of us. Simply stated, green is a feel-good color. So, enjoy shading yourself from the sun under a tree and eating those spring green vegetables. But also, don’t forget the freedom and joy of “Red light/Green light” from your youth. You’re free to move forward with the power of green!