From morning to night, my days in France revolve around one of the most sacred parts of French culture—la cuisine. Infusing airs of superiority into each plate, the French have devised a system that is equal parts psychology and nutrition. In my six weeks living with a French family, I’ve come to understand that there are two types of French people: those who are gourmand and those who are not.
A gourmand(e) is a person who eats for pleasure, relishing every morsel on their plate, the perpetual taker of second helpings. Being called a gourmand is the figurative stabbing of a double edge sword. French people will deny that it has a negative connotation, insisting that it is reserved for those who live for the saveurs of life. However, eating bread and cheese and butter and charcuterie will not obtain the glorified slender French form—au contraire! One must sacrifice, especially the gourmand, if they wish to avoid the cutting commentary of their comrades.
For those of you not familiar with the ritual of the French appetite here is what you can expect:
A typical petit déjeuner is a much lighter breakfast than its American counterpart. To my disappointment, it does not consist of eggs and sausages nor pancakes with syrup. It is, rather, a variety of spreads on toast. The tartine, a French breakfast staple, consists of butter, a consortium of jams, and perhaps a glob of Nutella (if you have cool parents) and takes the place of our protein packed meal. A pain au chocolate or croissant, a delectable treat, should be reserved for special occasions if you don’t want to pack on the pounds. Being a gourmande myself, le petit déj may be my least favorite meal of the day. On top of my gourmandise, the fact that I’m American and love pancakes and eggs has not helped my attempt at assimilation. Black coffee and a cigarette anyone? …Um, no thanks.
Lunch and dinner, respectively, are more enjoyable for my inner fat kid, and I’ve found that these two meals are infinitely more pleasant on the taste buds and much better balanced in terms of nutritional value.
Do not be fooled by the term lunch because it is in fact a dinner that takes place at one o’clock. A sandwich is by no means sufficient, and many French people turn their noses up at the mere idea of one. Time permitting; a sit down meals is highly preferred. If you can find yourself a doting French mother, or better, a grandmother, you can experience the delights of theses nouns and verbs – déjeuner and diner.
My lunchtime favorites were the hearty salads made either with pasta, rice, potatoes or lentils followed by a green salad and accompanied by a yogurt or a pungent French cheese and topped off with a painstakingly skinned fruit. Espressos all around et voilà quoi, lunch.
Preceding dinner is the apéro, a time of conviviality in order to prepare the pallet. This French version of cocktail hour may be one of the happiest moments of the day. Preparing to come together once again, a little alcoholic drink and some amuse-bouche (literally translated: fun for the mouth) are in order. Before sitting down to dinner at a splendidly set table, one must first open their appetite and enjoy the company of family and friends.
Alas, le diner is on the table and the family jumps at the chef’s holler “à table!” The wine is flowing now, just the way I like it, and a hearty meal is served. The chef of the family takes special care to make sure that this meal is in perfect union with lunch. If there was pasta at lunch, there will be meat and vegetables for dinner and vice versa. I took a particular liking to a well-braised roti du porc and the warmth of a ratatouille for dinner. Much like lunch, this meal is also followed by a cheese course before the desert. Yeah baby.
Some tips for foreigners invited to dine at a French table:
- Eat slowly, pose your fork and knife every now in order to avoid looking too gourmand. I know it’s hard…but trust me just do it.
- The fork goes in the left hand, the knife in the right. Don’t mess this up.
- Hands should never be placed in your lap, as this is exceptionally improper.
- … Elbows are rude in all cultures, duh.
- French people don’t snack. Try not to get caught. It’s embarrassing.
- Green salad is a very literal term. Don’t get too excited.
- There is no such thing as too much wine. Ever.
- Peeling the skin off of fruit is stupid, but it’s French….when in Rome…?
- It is apparently very improper to use the verb manger (to eat) to express the action that is taking place between your fork and your mouth. This verb is for commoners, if you want to sound bourgeois you must not forget to use the proper verbs for the proper meals.
- Last but not least, enjoy the conversation and a time out from our hectic lives (and the wine) and enjoy the lengthy spectacle that the French make of their meals.