Today is Bastille Day, which means I'll be joining the French and francophile community in New York for outdoor picnics and pétanque (bocce) tournaments, reflecting on my time living abroad in France.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of living in Paris while pursuing graduate studies in food culture. As you might imagine, my education outside of the classroom was just as important (if not more so) than my formal academic pursuits.
Not least of all was my observation of the relationship between food and family in France. Every Sunday, all my born-and-raised Parisian friends would hurry home to their parents’ or grandparents’ apartments for a communal family feast. In fact, most of the city shut down after about 1pm, as if to signal that anyone not participating in the ritual was committing a sin far greater than missing mass.
This reverence for shared time at the table also extended to weeknight meals, which consisted of at least three courses – a lighter appetizer or salad, a main dish involving protein, and a light dessert (such as fruit or yogurt). In fact, once I began to throw my own dinner parties, I didn’t dare deviate from the three course norm. Serving a single plate of food, no matter how delicious, did not honor the notion of spending time at the table.
Babysitting for French children provided further insight. The notion of a “picky eater” or “children’s food” did not seem to exist. The seven-year-old I most often supervised named sushi and octopus as her favorite foods. Bitter ingredients were also widely accepted by childrens’ palates – such as endives or asparagus - and I’m not the only ex-pat to have noted this trend.
During a year abroad in her French husband’s hometown, Canadian writer Karen le Billon discovered the secrets behind French children’s exemplary table manners:
"The French eat four meals a day - breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner - and have no snacks between. Lunch and dinner have three to four courses and are eaten at the table with the whole family…French children do not eat in the car or in front of the television and definitely not standing. They eat, seated, at the table, with their families.” (New Zealand Herald)
Pamela Druckerman, an American expat mother living in Paris, also caused quite the media splash with her theories on French parenting in French Children Don’t Throw Food and Bringing up Bebe:
"The French don't do indulgence…Their children are trained to eat everything. No pandering to picky eaters. No children's menus in restaurants, and here is one four-course crèche (nursery school) menu: heart of palm and tomato salad, followed by turkey au basilica and rice in a provençal cream sauce, St Nectaire cheese with baguette, kiwi fruit." (The Guardian
The insistence on communal eating also applies to adults. A recent New York Times article followed the introduction of the Jenny Craig weight-loss system in France, and how the program has adapted to the country’s cultural dining model. Nestlé France representative Valerie Bignon’s comments were particularly insightful, citing the “individualistic approach” of Americans as a clear-cut path to obesity and self-service cafeterias as the worst-case scenario.
Certainly, there is a growing number of young people in France who enjoy frequenting “MacDo” or to “manger sur le pouce” (“eat on the run/standing up” – literally, “to eat on the thumb/big toe”). Yet the sense of tradition surrounding meals remains, regardless of this encroaching American influence.
What are your thoughts on the French culinary education model? Do you have similar experiences with other food cultures?