Le Petit Café: French Food for American Palates

By: Sarah Ostaszewski

Creolization, the distinct processes of creating a global cultural mixture of sorts, is occurring right in downtown Bloomington at one of the earliest, if not the first, ethnic restaurants to introduce international flavors to local residents: Le Petit Café.  Owner Marina Ballor, while preparing the evening’s baked dessert, shared a conversation with me about her food, daily menu, and “mission” to bring French foods to Bloomington residents.  So how exactly does Ballor bring together French and American flavors?  I am certainly no expert on traditional French foods – foods beyond the fancy desserts, perhaps – but my conversation with Ballor expanded my understandings of both American and French food and culture.

Ballor claims that it was her mission to bring French food to Bloomington.  Le Petit Café opened in 1977, and back then Bloomington did not host the many ethnic cuisines locals, students, professors and parents will see on 4th Street today.  Introducing French cuisine to the residents of Bloomington seemed necessary, states Ballor.  In America, the first ethnic restaurants were generally French and were placed in outrageously expensive areas of town.   Le Petit Café, however, juxtaposes the stereotype that French restaurants are upper-scale, expensive places only for connoisseurs.  Although Ballor does not attempt to attract students, she aims to keep locals happy with a low price range, hearty food, and good company.  She does not serve the fanciest of desserts nor does she expect only those diners of “expert” opinion on taste.

Since opening her restaurant with husband Patrick Fiore, Ballor has preserved and revisited traditional French recipes.  Italian-born, Ballor admitted to the occasional use of one or two Italian recipes at Le Petit Café, but she predominantly sticks to what she calls traditional French cooking.  Luckily for the locals, Ballor stands by her “mission” to bring French cuisine and culture to Bloomington.  Before Le Petit Café first opened, locals had no opportunity to taste good French food.  Ballor, though, now provides locals with a tatse of France through her cooking.  She claims no interest in trends so she primarily cooks foods for which customers have “a need.”  Following her own personal tastes for recipes, she creates unique additions, such as sauces, to meat dishes.

In “doing things no one else has tried,” Ballor’s goal is to provide locals with new tastes, something different.  Dinner at the café is accompanied by soup and salad, similarly to many American eateries.  However, the sauces incorporated into Ballor’s dishes signify French cuisine.  It is difficult to distinguish “authentic” foods or recipes when a nation maintains regional cuisines, as does France.  French food is creolized by regional sauces, and a dish may “become French” by the addition of a new or renamed sauce.  To be “French,” for instance, a meat dish requires sauce.  Ballor’s sauces include herbs, like tarragon, and spices that are used often in France.  She emphasizes that, yes, one can order a steak at any standard steakhouse, but her sauce is certainly no mass-produced A1.

Dinner at Le Petit Café is served every evening Tuesday through Sunday, and brunch or a buffet lunch is served on Thursday and Saturday.  On Saturdays, the café joins vendors at the farmer’s market by selling from its shop window along the B-Line Trail.  The café has no set menu; options are decided daily based on what foods are fresh or available at the market or groceries.  Dinner will always include a poultry, steak, fish or alternate seafood option.  Another special might be pork, lamb, or rabbit.  Ballor says that she does not attempt to attract hungry college students by any means, but she nevertheless tries to keep prices affordable for her customers.  Prices of dinner range from $14 to $20, but items at the shop window are much cheaper.  The foods sold during the farmer’s market have certainly attracted more students, says Ballor.  A curious passersby will see someone holding a hot crêpe or slice of chocolate sour cream cake, for instance, and will then visit the window for a bite.  The window is certainly convenient for farmer’s market shoppers and exercisers alike.

Since opening her own restaurant, Ballor has learned “a lot.”  Although she has revisited recipes and added new ones to her culinary repertoire, her process of cooking in terms of appliances and tools has remained the same.  She uses the same tools that are used in France.  The tools of the cooking process have not changed, but the dishes have incorporated local, American ingredients.  Local ingredients are hallmarks of French cuisine. Although local ingredients or meats are not always readily available in Bloomington, Ballor strives to use them as often as possible.  However, organic products and grass-fed meats are oftentimes more expensive.  Rather than always offering organic, local meats, Ballor keeps within her price range.  During our conversation, she brought up the Slow Food movement.  She reports seeing an interest in slow food, but the movement’s presence is still small.  The commentary reveals Ballor’s interest in local food as a chef as well as her loyalty to customers’ needs.

Desserts play a large role in Ballor’s cooking, too.  Rather than fancy French pastry or other treats most might expect of a charming French café, Ballor is attracted to more traditional American desserts.  She states that people have “shunned” the great American desserts like lemon meringue and fruit cobblers.  Kwan (2005) likewise describes how the importation of French cuisine and the growth of upscale eateries serving mousses and tortes signified “the beginning of the end” for American classics like apple pie and layered cake.  While acknowledging that, yes, one can find these treats at restaurants, Ballor says that in most cases these American desserts are manufactured for fast food chains or groceries.  The desserts lose historical, traditional meanings and preparation methods by joining mass-produced foods filled with chemical fruit flavors.  The homemade quality is necessary, says Ballor, so she bakes her own.  I should have asked what she had baking in the oven concurrently with our conversation.

Although some specific foods or cooking methods that combine French and Amercian cuisine were described, creolization occurs at Le Petit Café in specific patterns.  Patterns include substitution, compression, topping, and wrapping or stuffing.  The use of American dessert is an example of substitution.  Wilk (2006) describes substitution as replacing one of the normal ingredients with a new ingredient, but Ballor replaces entire French recipes with American ones at her café.  Instead of croquembouche, marron glacé, and macarons, Ballor offers bread puddings with custard, fruit tarts, and chocolate sour cream cakes.  At the window she still sells French crêpes and the occasional crème brûlée, but she also offers various smoothies.  Because Ballor claims to maintain a disinterest in trends, smoothies are questionable but nevertheless delicious treats.  Kale-pumpkin or grape-banana are still unique combinations not often sold at smoothie joints like Jamba Juice.  Treats, like the smoothies and small desserts sold at the shop window, may be a form of alternation, as they are introduced as foods eaten outside of established mealtime rhythms.

Topping is another example of creolization apparent with Ballo’s sauces.  Just as adding canned American tomato sauce to Italian noodles creates a creolized spaghetti, adding French sauce to a standard steakhouse cut of meat creates steak aromates or poulet à l’estragon.  Adding tarragon to a modified sauce recipe may constitute as blending, too.  Compression, the merging of national cuisines into generalized or simplified categories may be occurring as well.  While food is categorized regionally in France, any French food in America is simply called French food.  Few know what makes certain French dishes of a particular region.

Yet another form of creolization, known as wrapping or stuffing, may be exemplified by Ballor’s crêpes.  Traditionally, French crêpes are filled with Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread first created by an Italian chocolate confectionaries company called Ferrero.  By stuffing a homemade crêpe with a “French” spread, the food becomes a local, creolized treat at the Bloomington farmers’ market.  The food may have originated in France as a creolized food as well, because the Nutella was originally an Italian product.  The Nutella brand itself holds significance for crêpes, too.  If the brand is substituted, a type of creole dish may be created.  An informative classmate revealed that Ballor has indeed used the local Kroger’s brand hazelnut spread for her crêpes.  Here, a locally branded food item is wrapped in a homemade French crêpe.  Incorporating local brands or ingredients into French dishes questions the idea of a national cuisine, but as Wilk (2006) states, recipes are always in flux and ingredients move freely across cultural boundaries.  Although the mixing of ingredients is constant, notions of “tradition” still persist and flourish.

As dinnertime at Le Petit Café approached, our conversation came to an end.  I left Ballor to her cooking and baking, thanking her for teaching me a bit about French cuisine and for informing my perceptions of creolized foods.  She wished me well, promising to see me at the window come next farmers’ market outing.

References:

Kwan, Samantha.  2005.  “Why the US Can’t Have Its (Layered) Cake and Eat It Too.”  Food, Culture & Society 8(1): 31-44.

Wilk, Richard.  2006.  “From Wild Weeds to Artisanal Cheese.”  Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System.  AltaMira Press.

Wilk, Richard.  2006.  Home Cooking in the Global Village.  Berg.

 

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