Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Did I Mention How Much The French (And The British) Love Food?

In my training for things that dealt with interactions with people, whether it be in the context of Native Americans during my Archaeology schooling (just ask my classmates how much FCR—Fire-Cracked Rock—we dug up to prove how much folks used fire to cook and fire pots!), my classes in Psychology and Sociology, and even in my “Français des Affaires” (“Business French”) class, speaking about how to best interact with those from other countries and cultures in all matters, especially when it comes to eating together over discussions of business practices. The French have influenced people from all over the world in terms of food, whether it is from their language (Burger King's “Croissan'wich” had to come from somewhere), or their influence on food itself. Many great chefs travel from all over the world to learn from the best-of-the-best chefs at schools in Paris.

photo courtesy of demonchickenblog.blogspot.com

(Maybe the Cordon Bleu Culinary School can put a new spin on the Double Croissan'wich!)

Luckily for me, I got some good experiences with food right here in Angers.

Before I get into the drooling phase, thinking back at the awesome things I have eaten here in France (I mean, really McDonald's, you had to put a surprisingly awesome pastry shop in your restaurants???), let me make a few things clear about food, the French, and all over health.

Curse, you, MacDo!!!

I made a promise to myself that, for the only time in my life, I would eat anything that I would want to here in France. After losing 115 lbs, I felt that as a treat to myself, especially with my only opportunity to really immerse myself in French culture and language, I would eat what the French ate. Baguettes, buttery croissants, tarts for breakfast, cheese, wine, duck, sausages, jam, and pretty much anything else smeared with butter and grease meandered its way into my happy tummy—my happy tummy which grew! Don't get me wrong, I didn't eat like that every day, since sometimes I made my own meals. I walked everywhere—paying around $3 per ticket for the bus got to be too expensive for me to get from one end of town to the other, so my poor little red boots, and my poor legs, took the brunt of it. I am eating in “courses”, which are traditional in France. I even read French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, who explained the differences in eating styles between the French, who savor each bite and hardly ever eat processed, fast foods, and the Americans. But even though I am eating “healthy” food, save for the occasional macaroon and piece of licorice, I am still grossis.

Let me take the time to explain the difference between how Americans think the French eat everything made from cheese, butter, and wine, and still remain skinny. To show this example, I will use my host family, a pair of amazing cooks, to demonstrate.

Stereotype #1: The French Don't Exercise

This is the biggest stereotype I want to address. As I have said, I have walked all over Angers' green-and-concrete landscape, only to find that, contrary to what people have told me before leaving, my pants are just a little tighter than they were before I left. This has to do with two factors. One, the fact that I was already used to walking my legs off, working as a waitress part-time in the States. I wore a pedometer once, and measured walking between one and three miles for every weekday shift, and between five and seven miles every Friday, Saturday, or day-long Sunday shift. Doing all this, on top of running, biking, and weight lifting, all of which I gave up while here in France due to costly gym memberships, kept myself in check before I came to France.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the fact that the French do exercise, a BUNCH, but they don't think of it as exercise. Instead of hooking oneself onto a boring elliptical for hours on end, they play soccer, tennis, or, in my Language professor's case, extreme battles of Ping-Pong. Take, for example, my host mother, Marie-Anne. She “doesn't” exercise, but she gardens every day, swims three times a week, takes care of her grand kids once a week, where she plays with them all day long, and, for three hours every Friday, attends a rigorous Classical Line-Dancing class—in heels! I gotta say, for someone who hates to “exercise”, she sure does a lot of stuff!

Stereotype #2- The French Eat LOTS of Fatty, Buttery Food

This is partly true. Yes, the French eat their meals in courses. Yes, they eat baguettes daily. Yes, they drink wine at almost every meal. But they don't do this in excess. This was my mistake—I was not used to the “courses”, and so after eating the first round of potage, a pureed soup, with a bunch of bread, and the plat principal, or main dish, I would be full, with still more bread, a cheese dish, and a dessert dish to go! Pacing yourself is key. Also, the French tend not to eat much for breakfast, which is another reason why they splurge on lunch as their main meal, especially on Sundays, which often consists of oysters on the half-shell, comme ça:

Jean knows where to get the best food, and I profite bien!

Sunday Lunch is very important to the French, which is why all of the shopping places, as well as most grocery stores and restaurants, are closed this day. Eating with your family and spending time together is paramount to the French notion of family life, and so when big companies come in, such as Atoll, with ideas of huge shopping centers that could be open on Sundays, there is, of course, demonstrations arguing against them. 
Also noteworthy is the fact that oftentimes, the French will have just a little of each indulgence, such as a couple simple slices of cheese with some bread, one or two small glasses of wine, and if they have dessert (for many French have only the cheese or the dessert plate, not both), it is usually something simple, such as cooked apples with a bit of vanilla-flavored sugar—a favorite of mine in my host family's household. 

But most importantly, the French don't snack. Even though the word grignoter means “to snack”, many people traditionally don't do this. They have a bit of a breakfast, over a bowl of coffee (which I'm totally taking back in practice to the U.S.), and stick it out until they get good and hungry at lunch. They spend their sweet ol' time over rich meals, which they don't eat much of (I read somewhere that the average French woman only eats 1400 calories a day and French men only eat 1800 calories a day), and go on about their business until they have a light supper. My host family was kind enough to make their main meal of the day dinner, in order to fit in better with my school schedule. 
I mean, there really isn't any need to waste a good can of duck gizzards, right?
But, again, this all goes back to traditional ways of seeing food. Whereas in French restaurants, one doesn't usually have enough food to ask for a “doggie bag” at the end of one's multiple-course meal, we cram as much food as possible on one plate, and still have some left over. This is not to criticize the American way of serving food vs. the French way at all—this is just to note differences between the two. 
Luckily for me, French food was not all I have been able to experience here in France. Along with my host family's cuisine, I have also been kindly introduced to British fare, where I was served a traditional plate of Fish n' Chips, in a British restaurant, by a British chef, while visiting my host family's British friends. This consisted of a plate of a HUGE piece of fried cod, giant chips (aka “fries”), and even a side dish of “mushy peas”, which made me think of refried beans, but in pea form. 

Although I don't have a picture of this amazing British dish, when paired with the British atmosphere (there is an English-speaking, British “nook” of a town not far from Angers), along with our British friends Hilary and Peter, whose cooking I have also had the pleasure of eating when they invited my host family and me over for dinner one evening—including an amazing dessert (no matter what Hilary may say!), I felt even more embraced by other cultures, French and British alike. So even though I may be coming back to the States a little bigger than when I left, to me, the friendships and culture I have experienced while staying here in France, have all been worth it.
From left-Peter, Hilary, Marie-Anne, Jean, and moi.

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