Bread, butter, jam and espresso in the morning. Tartes, tea, green salad and fresh cakes in the afternoon. If a snack is necessary, a croissant with nutella or a chocolate bar. For dinner, there are always 3 courses: a main plate with grains, meat and vegetables, followed by green salad and a light dessert like apple sauce. And there is always bread, wine and cheese.
While this might describe my day in food, it doesn’t capture the essence of my eating–which is a very French way of looking at my consumption, as something with a hidden heart.
But it’s true; food is no longer fuel for me, as it was in the U.S. It’s an energy of a different kind, one that feeds the heart, the mind, and, dare I get too French, the soul. Nothing compares to an afternoon in a cozy salon du thé with new friends, hot christmas tea and a raspberry tarte with sweet pistachio and lemon crust–or an evening with the apartment windows splayed open, a bouquet of red wine, a smattering of cheeses, my hostess and I hovering over them, red-cheeked and happy. Notice how food is an accompaniment to ambiance. People and mood matter more than what’s on the plate.
Let me explain eating in France. There is Food, but then there is also Taste, and then there is the Meal. All three are separate and important elements in french cuisine. Food may seem like the easiest thing to understand as an American–a tomato is a tomato, no matter where you go, right? In France, however, every element has a specific name and origin. My hostess will point across my plate and explain, “This sausage, boudin blanc, came from this region, the Pyrénées” or “This is a Bordeaux merlot made a few hours away.” In the U.S., I feel that food is simpler. One would say, “This is sausage” or “This is red wine.”
All the food must taste good, too. No French person or restaurant would ever purposefully serve mediocre fare. “Un bon goût” is a descriptor that always accompanies my hostess’ tour du plat; it is always a good sausage or a good wine. It’s important that each bite be pleasing–because why would you eat something unpleasant when you are in France?
Finally, you have the meal. A meal is more than just a drink and a plate. A real meal has a minimum of three courses. Wine is usually paired. And you must dine. A real dining experience includes friends, a soothing ambiance and lively discussion. In order to dine, you have to stop working, sit down and enjoy. A kebab on the way to class isn’t a meal–neither is a salad while watching Netflix. A real meal transcends whatever is on your plate and becomes an entire experience.
My first few weeks in France, the food rocked my world. I was determined to try the entire shelf at the grocery store devoted to chocolate mousse; I gorged myself on tartes salées et sucres at various salon de thés; and I simply could not get over the 3-course dinners my hostess considered “normal.” I was eating like an American in France: too much, too often and never slowly enough.
I don’t think I need to explain the famous “French Paradox” too much–Americans are always taunted by the fact that the French eat seemingly fattier, richer foods with wine and chocolate, while they remain thinner than the American tourists ogling the macaroons served at Mac Do in Paris. The French, we are told, eat more slowly, never snack and have home cooked meals more often. They eat until they are “well,” and not full. When they do go out, they make up for cleaning their plates by walking everywhere they go. Good food is good for the health, and Americans don’t eat good food.
But “quick” food is becoming more popular, and I have a few questions about the health benefits of coffee and cigarettes for 2 out of 3 “meals” per day. I wonder how it is possible to always clean your plate with bread at a restaurant and not feel full afterwards, even if you haven’t eaten all day. I don’t understand how a sandwich made out of an entire baguette is a snack. I want someone to explain to me, for the love of god, how the sum of no water fountains, few public bathrooms and what must be constant dehydration does not lead to a heat stroke epidemic every summer in France.
I have learned to adjust to eating here–it was, perhaps, the greatest part of culture shock for me, something I was not expecting. I know now that “Un bon repas doit commencer par la faim,” or a that a good meal must begin with hunger. I eat small in the morning, like they do, and never buy snacks. I block off hours for meal times, or rather, the rest of my schedule revolves around my three “pauses” during the day. I have acquiesced to wine with dinner and have learned that it is bliss. I don’t count calories. I don’t care.
None of this is to say that I will keep these habits upon returning to the U.S. Food, I now realize, is a part of the lifestyle everywhere. The way I eat in France matches the way I live: leisurely, slow and for myself. In America, my life is different. I consider myself a busy person. Busy people don’t eat for hours. Busy people need coffee, and damn you if they can’t get it in a cup larger than a thimble. But it is nice to care about my food–it is nice to be here, in France, and recognize what food is and the way it fits into my life. Whether this realization comes from my abundance of free time or the French culture itself, I’m not sure. We talk about food just as much in my Italian-American family, but I’ve never seen food as such a strong cultural device before.
Good taste is worth importing. I don’t know how many bottles of wine I can reasonably fit into one suitcase, and I’m fairly certain that a 7-hour flight would ruin a batch of mousse, but I will bring my new and improved palate home. As well as my knowledge of how to make a decent Kir, which wine glass goes with what and the joy of a good pastry crust.