When it comes to food I think I can learn a lot from the French. And I am not just talking about French cuisine. Their whole approach to food is quite different than ours here in America, and I first became intrigued when I read “Eat more like the French” in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. And what better way to learn more than to hear from the French themselves? So without further ado, following is a “100 Days of Real Food” guest post by one of our very own readers who grew up in France, but now lives in North Carolina and blogs in both French and English on http://frenchyncarolina.blogspot.com/.
The French approach to food
By Cécile Delmas
I don’t pretend to know how every French person eats. I can only share the experience I had with my family. I grew up in France but I’ve had the chance to visit the US since I was 13 and now live here.
The first time I came to the U.S. I remember being shocked when lunchtime arrived and the kids in my family went to the fridge and helped themselves to sandwiches and snacks. They did not eat together, nor did they eat the same thing. Some didn’t even sit down.
My next cultural shock would be a few years later when I spent a year at a Texan high school. I don’t think I lasted two weeks in the school cafeteria. All the meals were what I call fast food: fries, burgers, pizza, chili, tacos. Sodas were free but they charged for bottled water. What planet had I landed in? I started bringing my own lunch but sometimes sat down by a girl whose lunch was a pint of ice cream. How different from my upbringing!
I grew up eating what you call family style meals. We don’t even have a name for it because that’s how 99% of the meals are eaten. In fact when it’s time to eat in France we say “A table!” which means “to the table”. Dinners in front of the T.V., “plateau télé”, were a rare occurrence, a treat in fact.
Dinner is a family affair. This is when you connect with others and catch up on what everyone is doing. We take the time to converse. And I think that’s where the big difference lies. We take our time. Most meals are an hour long. We eat one course at a time, socialize in between, clean up the plates and move on to the next. In fact when I studied tourism in France, I was told to plan one hour for lunches and two hours for a gourmet (gastronomical) meal. And forget your afternoon if you come to my family reunion at Christmas. We sit around the table for four hours not counting appetizers. Are we full? A little, but rarely stuffed because we eat small portions and take our time between the courses.
Both of my parents worked, but still took the time to make us homemade from scratch meals. Sandwiches were for picnics. Most meals would have three to four courses. L’entrée, the first course, would be a salad of vegetables, a soup, a plate of cured meat, half a grapefruit or a cantaloupe during summer. Then comes le plat principal, usually a vegetable or a starch with a side of meat or fish, the latter no bigger than 3 oz. If the meal didn’t start with a salad we would have one then, followed by cheese and/or dessert. Dessert to me as a kid was not cake. For example dessert was a yogurt, applesauce or another dairy product like flan. I was lucky that my mom was a trained dietician, so I probably ate better than most. But even when I ate in school, fries were only on Fridays and not the only option. All meals also came with fresh bread from the bakery. Bread is used to clean plate and eat with cheese, but also as filler.
We do tend to eat a little later. Normal dinnertime was around 7 to 8:30 P.M. It’s about the only way that a slow cooked meal can be put on the table every night. It does mean that we had a small snack when we came home from school.
We ate little processed food. Sure there were exceptions like Nutella, cookies, or some pastries. But the great majority of the food came from fresh vegetables, and we did not own a microwave. A lot of people in fact go to the farmer’s market (tailgate) to get their produce. Most towns have at least one market. When I was a student I was lucky to have one right under my window on Saturdays so I would get my fill of fresh produce, dairy and eggs without having to drive to the supermarket. In the U.S. I think farmers markets are on the rise, but still not as common as what I grew up with.
I haven’t brought over all my French habits, but in our house I cook the meals and yes we do tend to eat later, too late maybe sometimes but my husband still enjoys what I put on the table. It’s taken a few years for us to eat most of our meals at the table. I can proudly say that he now eats some French cheeses and leaves the Kraft singles away from my grocery list.
As for me I’m learning to find the good tailgate farmer’s market and to cook in season. It’s a process to educate yourself, but so rewarding when you take the time to cook and enjoy a flavorful tartlet with in-season squash and herbs from your garden.