Together again. Jean-Aelia Desparmet-Hart in New York and moi in Paris.
Every Monday, as those of you familiar with our partnership and our series Transatlantic Parallel know, we tell you about our experiences — the good, the bad and the unfortunate — coping with the cultural challenges of living on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Each week we choose our topic for discussion (and sometimes debate) and then set to it. We never communicate with each other from that moment forward. We share our points of view with you at the same moment we reveal our positions on the subjects to each other — in our posts.
You will find hers at the divinely stylish and sophisticated blog Through the French Eye of Design.
Today we shall delve into dining.
The Fine Art of Eating Well
Eating well isn’t solely about the food or the wine or even the company one keeps. It is all of these ingredients of course, but it’s much more. Certainly in France.
The recipe also includes eating properly which translates into a varied, balanced, healthy diet consumed in reasonable amounts, eaten while seated at a table and enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
These are the golden rules of fine dining in France. They apply to the simplest and the most elaborate repasts. As my dietician likes to point out: “We are not animals, food is more than fuel. It’s nutrition to make us healthy, conversation to keep us connected and the time to enjoy both.” (Claire also likes to emphasize, any excess of food is abnormal and too much of a good thing is too much. We lose the pleasure.)
A lunch hour in France is usually two hours. The habit begins in pre-school where children have four to five course meals with everything from lentils and endive to boeuf Bourguinon and cheese. Sometimes the lucky petits enfants have a mousse au chocolat for dessert. Water is the beverage in the cantine and a la maison.
There are no bottles of soda on lunch and dinner tables in French homes — at least none that I have ever seen. Why add these empty calories to a meal? Sugary drinks also destroy the subtly of foods’ flavors. Children are encouraged to try new foods, eat slowly and appreciate what is on their plates.
Heated debates ensue in the town halls of villages and cities throughout the country on proper menus for each new school year.
Snacking is discouraged except for the little ones who have a petit goûter when they come home from a hard day at school. Goûter literally translated as “a small snack for children, typically consisting of bread, butter, chocolate and a drink.”
Adults who feel hunger pangs around 4 p.m. are encouraged by magazine articles and their doctors to eat an apple or perhaps a plain yogurt.
Note the example here of a few weeks of school luncheon menus. Makes you want to regress doesn’t it?
Eating is an extension of a French child’s education. A culture which prides itself on its well-deserved reputation for gastronomy wants its children to understand the importance of eating well from the earliest age.
Lunch, a meal I as an American feel can be ignored (thus often leading to a too big dinner), eaten standing in the kitchen or at my desk, has been nothing but an annoyance for me.
Not for the French, not for My Reason For Living In France. No indeed. Lunch is a meal. It is not a snack, it is not to be ignored and it is to be consumed at table.
Dejeuner is one of the hardest cultural adjustments I’ve ever made. Lunch has always seemed like a waste of precious time unless I was meeting a friend in a restaurant where it became a sort of celebration, an exception. Now I eat lunch, not four or five courses, but a salad of some sort, a protein and perhaps a fruit.
Dinner remains the most important meal in this household, but I have many friends who turn it around: lunch the major meal, and dinner in the winter consisting of soup, yogurt and perhaps a homemade fruit compote. In the summer the soup is replaced by a mixed salad and fresh fruit.
If there is one thing I’ve observed, the French really do eat their fruits and vegetables.
Every spring and summer as Edith bites into a fresh fruit or vegetable she hasn’t eaten since the previous year, she makes a wish. I love this idea. You get lots of wishes and lots of vitamins and minerals.
I’m surely repeating myself, but bear with me lest you think I’m being remiss in not mentioning the subject: portions. At a French dinner, for example, one normally serves oneself. It is exceedingly bad manners to heap a plate. Seconds will usually be offered. But here is the key: It is you who controls your portion, not the hostess, not the restaurant, not someone in the kitchen. In a French restaurant the portions are small compared to other countries, but the idea of several courses gives the brain time to catch up with one’s hunger and the pacing of a meal should make us appreciate each detail. Eat, pause, eat, pause, eat, etc. — one of life’s greatest pleasures even if we, like children, have to learn how to savor the moment.
I’ve mentioned too, that foods we Anglo-Saxons might not even consider in the snack category like a yogurt for example are advertised with a warning label about the dangers of eating between meals. The line is similar to those on alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. The message: Overeating is dangerous to one’s health.
Many of you know most of this because the subject of how the French eat and don’t gain weight has been a hot topic for magazine articles and bestselling books over the last few years. Nevertheless the French government, schools and parents are concerned about the rampant spread of mindless snacking, colas and fattening fast foods.
I’ve translated a few sentences from the “Second Programme National Nutrition Santé 2006-2010: Actions et Mesures” below:
“For a country proud of its gastronomy, food is synonymous with taste, conviviality and the pleasure [it evokes] to be together.
This second national program does not negate the notions of the pleasure and attachment to the French alimentary culture.”
Imagine a government white paper beginning with these precepts. Further it notes a concern regarding the dangers of excess calorie consumption and sedentary lifestyles which the government wishes to highlight and remedy where possible.
When it comes to lunch, I still have my rebellious moments, but I do understand and it’s rare when a snack passes my lips. Except for chocolate, which culturally speaking, I have permission as long as I eat it in the way a French woman would with pleasure and prudence.