Tell me how you eat and I’ll tell you where you come from

Editors: Alexander, Demetria, Elizabeth and Sara

Elizabeth’s first meal in France

My first introduction to French food habits was my first night in Toulouse. I didn’t get to my hosts’ house until about 9:30 at night so I wasn’t expecting anything more than a snack when I arrived, but little did I know my hosts had prepared a multi-course, hour and a half long meal for me. Before coming to France I knew that they had different eating habits than us Americans from taking a French food culture class at Dickinson. I was not prepared, however, for the structure and the style of meal I was about to receive. We sat down at the table in the little courtyard that separates the main house and what my hosts fondly refer to as the “chartreuse”, which is the house where my room is. It was a beautiful evening so although I was fatigued from my long day and a half of traveling, sitting outdoors in this beautiful courtyard soothed me in a way. I introduced myself to my host and we started chatting while her husband brought out the first course. The three of us shared sliced tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic, the flavor of which I still remember to this day. The tomatoes were so fresh, and when I asked about them my host told me she had picked them up from the market this morning. I remembered learning in class that the French often shop for their food the day they plan to prepare it to ensure its freshness and quality. Next my host brought out a cheese and ham tart that she had just pulled from the oven. I noticed how my hosts ate so that I could mimic their actions in order to show them that I could participate in this ritualistic way of eating as well. They ate very slowly, savoring each bite as if each was more incredible than the last. After the tart I assumed we would be finished and I could finally go to bed, but they had a different plan. My host disappeared into the house again and returned with a large plate of different cheeses and a basket of fresh bread. She explained to me what the different cheeses were and invited me to try as many as I liked. After we finished our cheese I discovered it was time for dessert, something I am not accustomed to eating after dinner because my parents hate sweets. Luckily for me their version of dessert is plain yogurt with a bit of sugar that you can add on top. I found this to be the perfect way to end the meal, it was sweet enough to cure the after-dinner sugar craving and light enough that I didn’t feel completely stuffed after having just consumed four courses. And finally, once the yogurts were finished and the plates and dishes were cleared, my hosts proposed a “tisane”, a medley of herbal tea leaves my host grows in her garden and dries for us to enjoy after dinner. This specific blend is meant to help digestion which was much needed after the amount of food we ate. This first meal came as quite a surprise to me but I quickly grew accustomed to the late, multi-course dinners and have truly grown to love and appreciate them.

A comparison of French and American food practices

The French have many eating habits and traditions that differ from those of Americans. In France, meals are most often shared with family. This applies even when family members’ schedules become busy. In the United States, family members commonly eat at times that are convenient for them as individuals instead of waiting for the whole family to be available at one specific time. Keeping the French tradition of eating as a family in mind, it makes sense that Elizabeth’s hosts wanted to welcome her into their home by inviting her to eat with the whole family even at a late hour, another tradition that is also very common in France. The time at which the French eat their meals, notably dinner, differs greatly from what Americans are used to. Whereas American families often eat dinner around 6pm, French families eat much later, frequently around 8pm or even 9pm. However, even though the meals may start later in France, that does not prevent them from lasting for hours at a time. A person’s participation in a meal in the United States ends after they personally have finished eating, so the meals often do not take very long. In France, dinners may go on for hours as French people discuss all types of topics, ranging from the food prepared to politics. The fact that French meals usually consist of multiple specific courses also adds to the length of the meal. In France, there is often an “aperitif” even before the dinner itself starts, which usually includes a drink and small portions of food, such as nuts, savory pastries, and spreads. During the dinner, there is often an entrée course, similar to an appetizer, and then the main course. Dessert comes after the main course, along with a spread of cheeses and bread. On the other hand, in the United States, all of the food is usually just served at once. If it happens to be a more special occasion though, there may be an appetizer course before the meal, which often includes cheese. The extensive amount of courses in a meal in France and the fact that meals often last for hours also explains the fact that most French people do not snack throughout the day.

The value of food

In France, meals are seen as an important time of the day during which families gather to eat together and the French place a lot of value and importance in the action of sharing a meal. On the other hand, in the US there is generally a very different attitude towards food. In the US people are generally more comfortable eating alone or eating while doing something else in order to save time. For example, students will often bring work to breakfast or lunch or do work in their room as they are eating dinner in order to use time efficiently. This casual attitude towards food is very different from the attitude in France, where often more time is taken to prepare meals and more time is spent at the table. Even during the week, time is generally set aside so that a meal can be prepared. This difference could be explained by the more personal and emotional relationship that people have with food in France, as it is such an important and central part of the culture. This is also seen in the idea of “terroir”. “Terroir” refers to the relationship between where the food is grown and how it tastes. In fact, this idea of “terroir” is so important that there are specific measures taken to give special protection and recognition to these areas and the products produced there. Also, during a meal in France people will often discuss the meal and the food that they are eating, as well as spend more time eating in order to appreciate the meal and the experience of sharing a meal with company. In France a meal is seen as more of a social experience, rather than in the US where is it often seen as a more flexible part of the day, where shortcuts can be taken as necessary.

The relationship to food and waste in France

It is clear from the habits of the French that food is perceived as more than just an act of consumption. It is a treat, it is pleasure, it is conversation, it is a treasured and important element of one’s life. Meals are not an afterthought, they are planned for and valued. And while the extent of these observations might come as a surprise to a French reader, that is only because we are overstating the banal. The attachment to food is at the essence of French culture in a way that is most noticeable to those who do not hold that kind of relationship to food. But what are the implications of all of this? A pleasure mentality to food, eating, preparation, and all the like influences the way we treat food beyond what goes in our body. Throwing away what we have prepared or only using two thirds of the ingredients towards the meal becomes a far bigger deal if that meal was prepared from start to finish with our own hands in our own kitchen or the taste of that tomato actually means something to our day. Finishing our plates and using our ingredients in their entirety or before they go bad thus becomes the expected. The French care about their food and wasting it does not happen lightheartedly. Meanwhile, in the United States, the entire idea of a relationship to food can seem almost amusing. Consumption is at the core of the act of eating, and thus efficiency comes into play. The ingredients must be easy to get, the preparation has to be straightforward, and eating should happen so one can get back to the important things in life. In the US, frozen or ready-made food and ingredients fill in supermarket shelves and spending too much time preparing a meal would be marking a special occasion. With this in mind, not finishing one’s plate becomes far easier. If one cares about the process and product of food prep little beyond the fulfillment of a basic need, one is bound to care little about how that food is treated at any point of the process. Thus, food waste becomes easy. Culturally, there is little stigma around food waste in the United States and that is because of the lack of a meaningful relationship to food and eating. We now see how attachment to the act of eating in France not only contributes positively to the “joie de vivre” but also strengthens French people’s bond to what they eat in a way that reduces food waste.

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