Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Another French Exception. You are how you eat.

November 23, 2010

Tuesday November 16, Unesco added the French gastronomic meal to its world heritage roster of intangible cultural treasures. Wednesday, Le published a potpourri of reader responses to the announcement.  There was general consensus that the honor recognizes France’s devotion to the convivial meal shared around a table, as much as its rich, varied culinary heritage.

Le readers readily acknowledged that France doesn’t have a monopoly on gourmet cuisine.  Most Mediterranean countries take pride in the quality of their native cooking and the importance of making time to sit down twice a day for a meal shared with family or friends, but as an international symbol of culinary arts and l’art du table, France is unrivaled.

When the subject came up at a dinner we attended Saturday night, guests chimed in.  One felt Italian cuisine deserved to be included.  The idea was quickly dismissed.  “They eat virtually the same thing every day.  It’s delicious but they don’t have as much variety as we do”.  Italy couldn’t compete in the cheese stakes.  Pasta shapes and gelato flavors don’t count and besides, you can sample hundreds of macaroon flavors in Paris.   One woman, a psychologist, claimed Unesco was citing the ritual progression of a French meal,  “entrée, plat, salade, fromage et dessert”. Infinite variety within the context of a codified set of courses – which was precisely what our meal had been – fish soup, served with croutons and grated cheese followed by filet de boeuf en croute with glazed onions and roast potatoes, green salad, three impeccably ripe cheeses and spiced apple compote with crème anglaise.  Coffee naturally served in the salon.

Twenty years living in France has substantially altered what I eat, but more significantly, it’s changed how I eat.   It comes down to respect – for the quality and provenance of ingredients, artistry and savoir-faire of producers and everyone involved in bringing food to the table.  The French eat with discernment and don’t like to dilute the pleasure by doing something else simultaneously – walking along the sidewalk, driving a car, talking on the phone, watching television or working on a computer.  Conversation is the exception and the preferred topic is of course, food.

French prefer that eating be a distinct event, preferably in the company of others, even if it’s sitting alone at a café table.   This explains why people traveling on holiday by car carry a collapsible folding table and chairs that are pulled out and set up at lunch hour (frequently along the side of the road for added conviviality).  Tailgating picnics are also conducted differently.  Participants park their cars, assemble in a cabin or around picnic or trestle tables, and make a communal spread with everyone proposing some delicacy or wine brought along with the intent of sharing it with pride.

The way certain foods are consumed is also quite different from how Americans ingest them.  Take cheese.  It’s neither snack, nor cocktail munchie.   Cheese is the component of a recipe, sandwich or a course typically served after salad.   In restaurants it can be an alternative to dessert.  At dinner parties, one is expected to serve themself a small portion of up to three varieties.  Women of a certain milieu limit themselves to one.  Forget a second helping.

When Americans visit us in the country, the most remarked upon aspect of our lifestyle is the midday meal.  “Do you sit down for lunch like this every day?”   Well, yes.  The menu might be more improvised than one planned around guests, but we take the time to prepare and sit down to a simple meal every day, and Sunday, when one or more of the children are with us, it’s the focus of the day.  Throughout France, Sunday lunch is sacred.  If you can’t get together with family members, you try to share it with friends or a combination of both.  It’s often an intergenerational affair and a way for grand children to spend regularly scheduled time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Two anecdotes relating to teenagers are revelatory.  Our daughter’s friend spent a month last spring with an American family as part of a high school exchange.   She had a wonderful experience, but regretted never eating a meal at her host’s home.   The explanation: they didn’t have a dining table.  The father was divorced and when he bought his new house, didn’t furnish a dining space because he planned to eat out.  His children were delighted.  Breakfast, if had, was on the run.  Last summer our youngest visited my mother with a friend from Lycée.   After they left, my mother told me the funniest moment of the visit was Emma asking the first day, “should I set the table for lunch?”   Lunch when I was a teenager involved fixing your own sandwich if and when you pleased.

Eating in France remains primarily a seated social experience.   Even fast food restaurants like McDonalds have been refitted with more aesthetic décor because people spend more time eating than they do in the US and care about the ambiance.  If obesity is becoming a problem, it’s because the French are picking up some of our bad habits, and by that I mean how we eat.  Alone – standing up, walking, driving, at the kitchen counter and generally in a rush.    Food as an also ran, bereft of its potential to provide emotional and sensual satisfaction.

(A post script confession… since freedom to break with convention is a compensatory privilege of life as a foreigner,  I  still get perverse pleasure being the only pedestrian eating a morning croissant au beurre heading toward the metro.)

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