The Art of the Gourmandise: eating (well) in France

The French are fabulously famous for food, as we all know, but I am convinced their flair doesn’t come from masterful recipes and time-tested dishes alone: it comes from their approach and attitude toward gastronomy and eating in general.

gourmandise gour·man·dise (grmn-dz) n. A taste and relish for good food “You could see the gourmandise shining on his rosy lips” (Glenway Wescott).

Thank goodness for this, because I am sick of this idea that you absolutely have to choose between tasty food and a healthy body.   I know people who are constantly dieting and constantly finding ways to cut calories in every possible circumstance.  In some cases, it works and they look great and at least they appear happy and fulfilled, but in the vast majority of cases I just end up avoiding mealtimes with them because I know they’ll be staring me down, half jealous, half angry, as I lift the ice cream spoon to my lips.  

However, the French approach is not a pig-out free-for-all.  Undoubtedly you’ve hear the stereotype that “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” popularized by the Mireille Guiliano book of the same name, but it is important to qualify this by defining where the boundaries lie for gourmandise à la française.  Here are a few of my observations of the differences between Americans and the French when it comes to food.

 Time: Sitting down to eat is favorable to taking it prêt à manger and on-the-go.  My landlady is an extreme example of this, but she goes for a three-hour lunch break every day.  Every single day.  She goes off, eats with her family, toodles around a bit and comes back around 3.  The American example of maximized productivity means multitasking is the norm and eating might become something mechanical–whatever you can throw together in 5 minutes is what you eat. An example: the company my Dad works for realized it would be more cost effective to serve their employees lunch rather than have them go out–thus spending extra time–to eat.  The food is good, but the point is that employees would optimally keep working, which is completely in opposition to the French model. While the ladies here might enjoy a pain au chocolat or any other evil BMI beastie (from the American “health” perspective), they won’t scarf it down, but have an espresso or infusion (tea) alongside instead, nibbling and chatting with a friend.  That way, they get the pleasure of having delectable things but can pay attention to the way they eat– and tell when their appetites are satisfied–making it less likely they’ll power through the crazy calories without taking the time to savor whatever it is they’re eating.  The French model also has multiple courses of different foods within one meal, making it a bit more likely that you’ll get your nutritional needs met between the salad course and the cheese plate.

Quality over Quantity: From the supermarket to the supper table, the emphasis is on good quality and fresh ingredients (more about this in Shop Til You…).  This contributes to flavor and texture, as well as nutritional value of the food itself.   In the supermarket, there is fresh pastry and bread at the front, still hot from the oven if you get your timing right, and a comprehensive selection of fruits and vegetables that includes staples (like carrots and apples) and a few in-season or specialty items that won’t necessarily be there the next week (like lychee nuts or plums).  Even the pre-sliced lunch meats at my local grocery stores normally come in 2-4 slice packs, making it easy to shop for the week and come back to stock up on fresh products the next week.  (I realize this may also be the fact that I am in picnic central as far as tourism goes, but I’m going to ignore that idea for now) Watching my housemates, as well, I realize that instead of the obligation to clear their plates, nobody feels weird about packing up the uneaten portion for later even if it’s relatively small.  Either way, the taste should be good and there is no shame in a little extra fat or sugar as long as it’s good quality and in moderation.

(The Guardian): “The figures – both physically and statistically – back this up. Mean portion size in Philadelphia was about 25 per cent greater than in Paris. Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants served 72 per cent more than the Parisian ones. A supermarket soft drink in the US was 52 per cent larger, a hotdog 63 per cent larger, a carton of yoghurt 82 per cent larger. ‘A croissant in Paris is one ounce,’ notes Chris Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, ‘while in Pittsburgh it’s two.’ America is indeed the land of giant pastries. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer girth of a muffin I once bought at a coffee shop in New York – but, like all of the dead-eyed cows in the joint – I worked my way through it under the wayward assumption that it constituted a ‘portion’ and therefore ought to be finished. ‘If food is moderately palatable,’ says Paul Rozin, one of the psychologists on the Pennsylvania study, ‘people tend to consume what is put in front of them, and generally consume more when offered more food.’ Interestingly, hamsters do much the same thing.”

Attention: I don’t see people snacking as they stroll (perhaps with the exception of ice cream).   Once in my first few weeks here, I tore off a piece of baguette to munch on after going grocery shopping and was actually stared at by people on my route back home.  By sitting down to have a meal of good quality ingredients, possibly with friends, and taking the time to do so makes it easier to pay attention to whatever you’re putting in your mouth.  Textures, flavors and the pleasure that can come from both are in sharper focus.  

With this comes the realization that a sweet or salt fix can come from many different sources.  Dessert, for example, can be a luscious orange  and not a slice of cake.  If you train your palate to appreciate the flavor, as it seems many French mothers do with their kids (Karen le Billon on this topic and the research behind it), you can value both as gastronomic experiences.

Real food: extra chemicals, fillers, and too much processing are not the most popular options and very rarely have I seen foods advertised as fortified with extra vitamins and minerals.  This has little to do with the organic movement, but with the idea that the majority of what you put into your body should come from somewhere natural at some point.  To me, it seems like a good idea.  Even if you’d be getting rid of a bit of bad (cholesterol, fat, sugar), you’re trading it for a whole lot worse (artificial additives and extra processing) and I can only imagine that your body would have an easier time dealing with the natural stuff than all that fake food blah.  Besides, I feel more full after eating something with a healthy amount of fat than I do eating five of those less-substance-than-air [insert processed food here].

Company:  I rarely see people here eating alone for lunch or dinner.  Take that however you will, but mealtimes become a way to strengthen social ties.  It also means you’re now opening yourself up to the culinary expertise of the group, sharing the work to prepare a meal from scratch, or just appreciating the know-how of one of your eating companions.  For everyone, this means you’re not stuck to a sandwich or whatever you can fit in a tupperware container to bring to school or work.
Overall, I believe Americans have a lot to learn from the French.  Whether that’s my inability to cut chocolate out of my diet speaking or not, I’ll leave up to you.


Filed under France

2 responses to “The Art of the Gourmandise: eating (well) in France

  1. The people in the Picasso don’t look that healthy . . .

  2. Pingback: French women eat what they want! | MyClub

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