Sunday, February 13, 2005

Food glorious food

The Bush budget battle is raging enough already, so I won’t add to it ... except to say that we may yet get to see whose side the Bush administration is really on and what I meant by “hoodwinked” (see January 5 post). If you’re patient, I think you’ll see them get their comeuppance.

Also, Riverbend is back with a personal report on the Iraqi elections, another fascinating post. I don’t know how representative of Iraqi opinion her point of view is, but it’s so eloquently written that it’s hard to resist its pull (unless of course you think the whole blog is a hoax).

But this time I want to write about something entirely unconnected to Iraq, budget deficits, Social Security (back to them in future posts), something quintessentially French.

The Book Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times contained a review of French Women Don’t Get Fat, written by a French woman living in the US. The article stayed at the top of the “Most E-mailed Articles” list on the NYT website for a couple of days, so maybe my ramblings on the subject will interest a few people. Apparently the author thinks Americans don’t have the right attitude towards food and should exercise more rather than try to eat less.

Do books like this one, with all their sensible advice about how to enjoy food, about the importance of quality over quantity and balanced diets, make it over the horizon of mainstream American consciousness? I would tend to say no, but I’ve been out of the country for 15 years. A book inspired by a culture viewed as disdainful of everything American and convinced of how right it is about the way society should be would seem to have little chance for success in America. It might also fall into the not-invented-here category, too foreign, too worn-out, too inadaptable to today’s fast-paced, helter-skelter lifestyle.

It so happened I was already thinking about this topic when I read the article, because this week I signed up to attend my 25th college reunion. The class is conducting a survey about our careers and lifestyles, our beliefs and aspirations, in short, our lives since graduation. One of the questions asks us to provide a detailed breakdown of a typical week in our current lives, indicating the number of hours spent on each activity for a total of 168. Here are the possible categories:

Volunteer/Community service
Family care and activities
Time with spouse/partner/date
Exercise/sports/physical activity
Other time for self (hobbies, leisure)
Social with friends and colleagues
In the nation’s service

French classmates will probably be making heavy use of the “Other” category. There’s nowhere else to put “mealtimes”.

In France eating is a ritual, an important activity that cannot be circumvented. Eating takes place at set times, almost always at a table. The day is neatly compartmentalized in France: breakfast, morning activity, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner. (OK, so sometimes I also sneak pretzels into the office late at night for blogging inspiration after my wife and kids are asleep.) Activities rarely obliterate meal times. Meals rarely overlap with other activities. They’re an activity unto themselves.

French people snack at designated times, too. Four o’clock in the afternoon is snack time throughout France. This applies primarily to kids, but it is so ingrained, it applies to adults as well. Have you ever been to Chamonix? Aside from Mont Blanc, there are a few other notable mountain peaks. One is called “L’aiguille du Midi” (literally, “the noon peak”), because the sun is over it at noon. Another is called “L’aiguille du Goûter”, because the sun is over it at 4PM. “Goûter” means “snack”.

Pan back to North America, where my (French) wife remembers a summer morning on a beach in Cape Cod a few years ago. It was around 10:30 AM. The sky was overcast, and not many people were swimming or sunbathing. But people were sitting in beach chairs, enjoying the warmth and the sound of the waves. My wife noticed that of the dozen or so people seated in a row, facing the water, every single one of them had something to eat or drink in his or her hands. In France at 10:30 AM, breakfast is long over and lunch is still an hour and a half away.

People don't eat in French movie theaters. French high school students don’t eat in class (if they do they might be asked to leave). French people don’t like eating contests or all-you-can-eat specials. Vendors don't prowl the aisles at French sporting events. Strollers for children in France don't have cup holders.

Now, I like to snack, I’ve actually been laughed at for eating, say, French fries at 5 PM, and this goes against my grain. But when I do manage to forget about food and not eat anything all afternoon, dinner is so much more enjoyable. It’s easier to forget about food all afternoon in France, though, because it isn’t so omnipresent.

For me, French Women Don’t Get Fat seems right on target about a lot of things I’ve noticed in France and that my wife has noticed in the US, regarding the two countries’ respective attitudes towards food. Problem is, it’s hard to change it all by yourself; it’s a lot easier when society helps. Alcoholics on the wagon don’t go into bars. Similarly, an American who wants to follow French eating habits amid America’s constant opportunities to pig out, is fighting an uphill battle. (My wife has cousins in America who could tell you all about it!)

Notwithstanding all this, believe it or not, French people, discerning epicures that they are, actually like American foods once they try them. They adore our breakfasts, for example. My wife has her own list of favorites: pancakes, bagels, Caesar salads, thick juicy hamburgers, clam chowder soup, New York deli sandwiches and my aunt’s sweet and savory chicken (recipe available on request!).

Finally, lest you think that France is some immutable, timeless ideal in this realm, France is changing. Fast food restaurants are proliferating, not only American chains, but French snack foods too. Doctors and school officials are bemoaning the increasing rate of child obesity, which a recent study found was correlated with TV-watching. Parents want soft drink machines banned from schools.

In Paris and other big cities, the 2-hour lunch break is only a distant memory. It still exists in rural areas and in French schools, where it seems safely entrenched, but I sometimes wonder if even there its days aren’t numbered. Because of it, primary school doesn’t end until 4:30 PM, seriously limiting time for homework and extracurricular activities, which are expanding.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each country could just take the best from the other’s food culture and leave over the rest?

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At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this common sense piece. I am an American (Besotted's wife) and on my first trip to Europe, the one thing that immediately got my attention was that you could always spot the Americans by they would walk aimlessly while shoving some kind of street food in their mouth. I couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking: it was as if they were so uncomfortable with themselves that they had to facify their soul with food. It was such a gross site that I vowed at that point to never eat while 'out and about'. If I don't have time to sit and enjoy my meal, its my own damn fault. Flash forward to the streets of Chicago - walk Michigan Avenue and you'll see people drinking super-sized whip cream covered drinks while window shopping and the line (of adults)for candy covered pop-corn wraps the block... its a good thing the sidewalks are so wide there! And don't even get me started about the environmental impact from the waste from to-go containers...

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Buddy said...

Thanks for the tip. We're travelling to Paris in a couple of weeks, and it's nice to know something of the culture. As you may have noticed from my blog, food is very important to us, so it's nice to know how meals, snacks, and such work.

I think it's wonderful that people don't snack in theatres in France. I hate when I can't hear the dialog of a film over the noise of someone crunching popcorn.

Any French cuisine or snacks we should try while we're there?

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Steve said...


What I've described is probably less true of Paris than the rest of the country. In Paris you can get most anything at most times of the day. The differences become more noticeable when you leave the big cities. During our week in Villard de Lans (see subsequent post), we wanted to get lunch quickly on our last day, and found it particularly difficult to do so.

About French snacks, try crêpes. I don't have a special crêperie in mind, but I'm sure Time Out Paris does. If you want to splurge a bit, one of our favourites when we lived in Paris, especially when we had English-speaking visitors, was "La Fontaine de Mars". It specialises in southwestern (French) cuisine. The (French) owner could describe the dishes, in charming English, much better than I ever could.

Enjoy your visit!

At 1:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Steve,
Thanks for your views on the book, "French Women Don't Get Fat". I too am married to one and she shares all of the views expressed in the book and by you. However, she has gotten plump after living here for 23 years! To my observation, she eats a balanced diet, avoids processed foods and avoids snacking. True, she does not exercise much at all and her choices for lunch at the office are severely limited to a few bad restaurants. She has 4 sisters and none of them are what I would call fat. Is there something in the air?


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