Anything for root beer
Root beer is hard to come by in France. When a case of it arrived at a nearby shop, it was a must-have.
It also has a large selection of used books in English with a wonderful pricing policy: one book free for every two you drop off. You can pay for books, too, of course, but the owner, Nichola Throup, who's called Nicci, clearly prefers to trade. "Oh, just take them," she says cheerfully when I plop a stack of books on the counter and ask the price. "Just bring them back when you're done."
For the large English expatriate community in this part of Provence, Best of British is a blessing, its shelves lined with comfort foods such as Batchelors mushy peas and McVitie's Mini Chocolate Hob Nobs – at prices only slightly above normal.
For an American like me, the store seems almost as exotic as the French grocery was when I first arrived. Here, potato chips are called crisps, cookies are biscuits, sausages are bangers – and you can buy all the sauces and spices you need for dishes such as chicken tikka masala, thanks to the huge popularity of Indian food throughout Britain.
It was a few days before Christmas when I ducked in to pick up something for a friend. I was chatting with Nicci near the scone mix when a man approached. "I hear an American accent," he said. It turns out that he was Nicci's husband, Graham, and he had just received a shipment of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Mountain Dew, Marshmallow Fluff, and other brand-name foods from the United States.
"Come in the back and have a look," he invited, and so I followed. Near the loading dock, at the bottom of a stack of minicases of soda was a 12-pack of Diet A&W root beer. I could taste the root beer floats I'd be serving in my garden come summer and blurted out, "A&W! I'll take the A&W!" like I was totally barking mad. (That's something the English like to say, by the way.)
Speaking of cultural differences, most French people haven't heard of root beer because it doesn't exist in France.
A quick survey of other Europeans I knew revealed no Italians, English, or Irish among root beer's fans, either. "Oh no, no one here likes it," says my friend Margaret in Galway, Ireland. "Awful stuff."
"It's gross," chimed in Jenny by e-mail from London.
Meanwhile, back in the back at Best of British, Graham was trying to tempt me further – Tootsie Rolls? Heinz Ketchup? Aunt Jemima Pancake and Waffle Mix? Hershey bars? But I only had eyes for root beer. He carried it to the register for me.
There I was, boring Nicci with tales of childhood car trips "up north" and stops at the A&W drive-in, when she smiled sweetly and gave me my total: 20 euros, plus tax. I was so stunned at the price that I just kept on talking: Oh, the splendid greasy crispness of the onion rings! The chilly frost on the heavy glass mugs! That wonderful sandy feeling you have after a long day at the lake!
Proust with his madeleines had nothing on me. The way I was carrying on, you'd never know that every grocery store and most gas stations in America sold A&W, often on a two-for-one special. My mother bought it by the case whenever I came home for a visit – and I was heading for Wisconsin in just two weeks.
But after making such a fuss, I could hardly say "no thanks" to Nicci, especially when she had politely let me drone on about the charms of the A&W drive-in: the tray that clipped onto the driver's window; the mugs, one of which I still have.
I can only imagine how bored Nicci gets listening to all her customers' "when I was a kid" anecdotes about this or that favorite food.
As she handed me my change, she and I beamed at each other as though she were presenting me with a wondrous gift, instead of a product I could easily live without at a markup of something like 700 percent.
I tucked the little box under my arm and left. C'est la vie, I thought. I decided that the root beer was a Christmas gift to myself, took it home, put it in the pantry, and forgot about it.
And then summer hit, and I remembered the booty. I pulled it out, popped open a can and settled into the garden to savor it. And that's when I saw things more clearly.
Cost of 12 cans, with the unfavorable exchange rate? $28.89.
The realization that a motherly British shopkeeper in a small French town had sold, to a nostalgic American, an overpriced product packaged in New Jersey for a Texas-based soft-drink company that's now owned by an enormous British conglomerate – because it reminded her of long-ago Wisconsin summers? Priceless.
Root Beer Float
2 cans or bottles root beer, chilled
1 pint vanilla ice cream
Whipped cream (optional)
4 maraschino cherries (optional)
Pour 1/2 cup root beer into a large chilled glass. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Slowly and carefully pour 1/3 cup root beer over ice cream. Add another scoop of ice cream. Fill glass carefully to top with root beer and serve. Or leave space for a dollop of whipped cream topped by a maraschino cherry. Repeat three times. Makes 4 servings.
Note: Putting together a root beer float is a messy business! Do it on a kitchen counter where any overflow can be wiped up.