Food is at the very heart of French culture. I have always been enamored of the French because they are artisans in the market, in the kitchen and at the table. Elevating even the simplest meal to a special occasion surrounded by friends or loved ones and finding satisfaction in the same shared food is de rigueur.
For the French, food must entice the palate and captivate the imagination. Eating is a passionate interlude, not a fueling session. While North Americans are obsessively counting calories, scrutinizing their protein, fat and carb intake and feeling anxious around food in general, the French are finding hearty and sensual pleasure by embracing all the tasty food at the table. They dine leisurely, enjoying lively conversation as much as the delicacies laid before them. When it comes to mealtime, there is little, if any, thought about weight loss, nutrition or health, and this is the crux of the “French paradox.” How is it that the French eat cheese, chocolate, butter and pork with gusto and are less overweight and suffer from less coronary heart disease than Americans?
I’d like to approach this conundrum by taking a journey back through time. In April 2014 my family and I traveled to Paris with an itinerary deeply enmeshed in the pursuit of fine food. Oh, there were many museums and gardens packed into each day but I made sure they were within close proximity to the most tempting chocolat chaud the city had to offer. I met with a Parisian friend prior to our trip who was delighted to tell me that the apartment we had chosen for our stay in Paris was one block from a dazzling marketplace…a gastronomic masterpiece known as Le Grande Epicerie…located on the ground floor of the famed Le Bon Marché. Immediately this foodie playground occupied center stage on my itinerary.
Our plane landed in Paris on a Sunday, the one day of the week when the market is closed, but we passed by anyway, just to peer longingly through the window. The French way of saying what we Americans mundanely refer to as “window shopping” is a whole lot sexier. Their expression, “faire du lèche vitrines” literally translates to “licking the windows.” Never once in my life had I felt the urge to lick a window, but that day I wanted to lick all the windows and maybe even the door. Come to think of it, the sidewalk out front looked pretty tantalizing to me as well. There was no getting around the fact that I had been seduced by a supermarket. Realizing that it would be hours before my shopping spree could begin only intensified my exquisite longing.
So what happened the moment I entered the store the next day? My husband literally had to hold me back from skipping through the aisles like a giddy schoolgirl. To call Le Grande Epicerie a supermarket is like calling the Statue of Liberty a sculpture. It’s a bit of an understatement. Rather it is a sensual feast…a point in space and time where food and art converge in perfect harmony. This establishment has an allure all its own and reserves no spot for the restrictive or hesitant eater. It is not an accident that this food paradise is located in Paris, where people approach food with unbridled enthusiasm. The French are in no way gluttonous, though. A rendezvous at the table is an exercise in regulation and restraint. Routines around food are taught to French children starting in infancy when very young (and very content) babies are fed at scheduled mealtimes rather than on demand.
I recently read an interesting book entitled French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. This Canadian author married a Frenchman from Brittany and together, with their two young girls, they left Canada to live in the husband’s hometown for a year. The author’s fascination with the differences between North American and French eating styles inspired her to write her memoir. She focuses on the beauty, care, reverence and restraint that is characteristic of the French approach to food and dining. Take the outdoor markets, where the French mingle while they purchase much of what they consume. According to Ms. Le Billon, fruit and vegetable vendors hand pick all the produce for their customers themselves, inquiring when they plan to eat it before a selection is made. The customers wouldn’t dream of taking undue liberties with the prized produce by handling, squeezing, and sniffing it, as is customary in markets across the U.S. In fact, it would be a faux pas of epic proportions for a customer to lay a single finger on the produce at an outdoor market.
This self-control and respect for food and fellow dining companions is obvious when three-year-old French children at maternelle (preschool) are expected to wait patiently at the table, hands on their knees, while dessert is served to all who are partaking in the meal. Only when a dessert is set before each child and the maitresse gives permission is it appropriate to eat. Of course the children know better than to touch their dessert too soon, but if a child were to indulge prematurely, the dessert would promptly be removed, never to be returned.
Karen Le Billon includes information about the preeminent food sociologist, Claude Fischler, who conducted a study intended to identify the contrast in food attitudes between Americans and the French. He divided the study participants into two groups based on nationality and introduced a word association game. Fischler showed each participant a picture of a chocolate cake and asked for the first word that came to mind. For Americans, the most common word was “guilt” but for the French, “celebration” was the word most frequently associated with the cake.
There it is, folks. Right there, in that one little experiment lies the key that unlocks the secret of the French paradox. Guilt has no place at the French table, though it looms large in the North American mindset. Guilt cannot breed positive eating habits, and conversely, a celebratory frame of mind likely enhances the body’s ability to nourish and repair itself. Imagine how digestion is impacted when two people eat the same exact food and one person feels great pleasure before, during and after the meal, while the other experiences unremitting angst. Stress hormones impede the digestive process and create systemic inflammation, so forget the impulsive, compulsive gobbling. Grant yourself permission to slow down, take a break, and enjoy fresh, exceptional food.
The French outlook on food can be a source of enlightenment and healing for those of us who could benefit from a gentle reminder to savor what’s good. With the luminous magic of Le Grande Epicerie as my muse and the epicurean mentality that is typical of the French as additional inspiration, I’d like to suggest four practical tips to enhance and rekindle your relationship with food:
1) Plan For Gratification
Schedule an indulgence involving food on your calendar. Anticipate it with zeal and when the moment arrives, be present, linger and delight in every mouthful. When it’s over, schedule the next indulgence right away. Delay the gratification, but don’t deny yourself.
2) Sit Down and Eat Food That You Enjoy With People You Enjoy
If you hate kale, don’t eat it. If your co-worker, Nancy, stresses you out, don’t eat with her. Find a great variety of healthful, delicious food that you appreciate and share it at a table or on a picnic blanket with friends or family you also appreciate. Rejoice in the experience. Avoid eating while walking, driving, watching TV, sitting in your stroller or standing in front of your fridge.
3) Become a Connoisseur
Find a food you are passionate about and learn everything you can about it. Share your knowledge with your tablemates.
4) Dress The Table And Eat By Candlelight
At least once a week, make your table resplendent with lovely linens, beautiful dishes, cutlery and stemware. Dim the lights and use candles to set the mood. It’s hard to gobble your meal when you’ve invested time and energy into creating a special table-scape.
Warning: when you dine with grace and civility your brilliant aura may attract the attention of curious, envious neighbors who find themselves peering through your windows, overcome by the strange desire to give them a lick. Simply draw the curtains, or better yet, invite them in to share your feast. Bon Appetit!