I just can’t work under these conditions.

It’s a little known fact that Julia Child and I are long lost soulmates. She liked food, and hey, I like food! She moved to Paris as a newlywed, and look at that, so did I! I am practically re-living her life, just a foot shorter and fifty years later. Plus I watch A LOT of Food Network.

So obviously I arrived in Paris ready to cook. I planned to learn from the masters at the Cordon Bleu. I dreamed of roaming the open markets. I vowed to sample cheeses and wines and cuts of meat that you could only find in France. I’d spend every day singing in the kitchen, whipping together rich creamy sauces and all kinds of buttery goodness.

But here’s what really happened: I set one pan of brownies on fire, made one inedible attempt at escargot and nearly smoked us out the the apartment on Thanksgiving. I bought cheese that smelled like a dead animal and boxes of rice with instructions like: “add some water and boil for a while.” Out of sheer desperate hunger I’ve made spaghetti (with sauce from a jar) approximately 30 times in two months.

Now some of that we could blame on jet lag, getting settled in a new country, learning the metric system and such. But I’m going to go ahead and blame it all on my godforsaken oven. First of all, it’s small (see above). Really small. Like my new Staub cocotte will not even consider going in there small.

But the part that fills me with inconsolable rage every time I have to boil a pot of water is the pictograms. That’s right, in addition to computing advanced Celsius/Fahrenheit conversions while following cooking directions in a foreign language, I have to decipher what the hell this knob means:


Because why would they give me a simple mechanism for choosing the oven temperature when they could provide 10 cute little pictures of ambiguous food-like objects! Oh, would you like to make a hollow muffin? How about a steak with lightning bolts shooting at it? Or a bird on a spear? No? Ok, then what about a pizza/pie/other disk-shaped food item?

Seriously. The pictogram oven is apparently fairly common in France, and I’m beginning to think it’s a genius government ploy to bolster the local economy by forcing people to eat out more often.

I’ve tried oven thermometers, I’ve asked everyone I know here how it works, I’ve even tried to steal a user-manual for a similar model from the French Home Depot. But I’ve found that when my oven is really testing my patience, it’s best just to slow down, take a deep breath and refer back to that time-tested mantra, “WWJD?”

She wouldn’t freak out or cry or bash the oven door in with a sledgehammer. She’d pour another drink and laugh it off. And maybe make a quick reservation for 2 at the bistro down the street.


Add Yours
  1. Victoria

    The fact that this mystery cannot be solved by using Google or Howstuffworks.com makes me tend to side with your theory of this all being part of a government ploy to make people eat out more often……..I guess stick to boiling stuff?

  2. d.riley

    there’s a large immigrant population in France, many of them from the older generations being barely literate. That’s why you have pictograms and not numbers.

    Seriously, you need the instructions on the box to be able to cook rice? You don’t know, ah, that you can just put 1 part rice in your saucepan, add 1 part water, a bit of salt, let it boil, when it boils reduce to low heat and cover until the water has completely evaporated?
    You don’t need cups to do that, any glass/bowl/container can be use as measurement. And, there are a gazillion websites for conversions, no need to compute.

  3. elle

    Enjoyed your post! That is totally insane! What about that thing that looks like a thermometer to the right of the knob? Does it just tell you that it has reached the pictogram temperature or is it a little more informative?

    • jfwillson

      It tells you the pictogram temperature – and then you can adjust. It took me a couple days to figure that out though! And we still laugh every time we set the oven to lightning steaks (which I think means broil).

  4. Katy

    Oh this made me laugh…. And reminded me of my disastrous attempts to cook the first time I visited a boyfriend in Italy. Next trip I smuggled in American cheese slices and hamburger buns and we had “American Hamburger Night.” Everyone loved it.

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