French restaurants have a reputation of offering small portions of sophisticated food. But, French food is about so much more than overpriced meals. It’s about love, sharing, and connecting with others.
Last week, I attended a Washington Post podium discussion with chefs Alice Waters and José Andrés. Waters, owner of the famous Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse just published her memoir Coming to my Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook and invited Andrés to join the discussion. Andrés, a Spanish chef, owns 26 restaurants and runs the nonprofit World Center Kitchen. He had just returned from Puerto Rico where he prepared, distributed, and served over one million meals to those impacted by Hurricane Maria.
Both individuals seemed like genuine, humble people. During the presentation, Andrés felt noticeably uncomfortable when praised by the moderator and quickly brought the conversation back to Waters. They focused the talk on the importance of good food, and as a (possibly atypical) French woman, wife, and mother, I couldn’t agree more with their shared thoughts. If you have an hour to spare, I encourage you to watch the full coverage here: Food For Thoughts.
Are French chefs pretentious?
At one point, Andrés talked about his first dinner at Chez Panisse and made a joke about Spanish chefs being even more pretentious than their French colleagues. Yes, it’s true that the French are quite inflexible when it comes to food. They know what they’re talking about, and they have a sort of innate knowledge about the best places to find meat and fish and pass their recipes from generation to generation.
Unfortunately, French restaurants overseas are largely expensive venues that serve small, elaborate portions at exorbitant prices. If you use the FourSquare application to search for a French restaurant, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Washington, DC, Austin, TX, or Minneapolis, MN, the 10 first results will have price indicators ranging from $$ to $$$$.
French food is about sharing
In general, French cuisine is not as sophisticated as you may think. French eating rituals are indeed strange for Americans: we stick to three meals a day and gather together at a table to eat, courses follow a fixed order (appetizer, main course, cheese, and dessert), and we spend over 2 hours a day eating!
But, what the French prepare, serve, and eat actually can be viewed as high-level comfort food. French cuisine is not about nostalgia or a high caloric intake but is deeply rooted in the French culture: for the French, food is sharing. I can’t count the fights I’ve had with my husband that naturally ended during a good meal. Eating together has always brought us closer.
During the podium discussion, Waters expressed her regret for the impact of fast food on American eating habits:
I really believe that our senses have been closed down … by the fast food culture that we live in. Everything is meant to be fast. We are not touching, we are not tasting, and we are not gathering at the table anymore. When 85% of the kids in this country don’t have meals with their family, we are losing our humanity, our connection to each other, our sharing of food.
In France, according to the Crédoc Studies and Research Institute, 80% of the meals are taken with other people. In The Bonjour Effect, authors Barlow and Nadeau state that “To the French, dining is about expressing relationships to other. The idea applies to all French, regardless of their background, education, or social class.”
French food is authentic and connected to regional identity
In my home, we have dinner together every day of the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, we will sit together at the table and share breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I do not spend hours in the kitchen, but every other day I will invest some time and prepare a healthy meal for the family. For example, yesterday evening I prepared a lamb stew that we’ll have for dinner tonight while making that evening’s dinner: pommes de terre en robe des champs (which literally translates to “potatoes wearing a dress from the fields”), a simple dish made of small and hearty potatoes boiled with their skin. We eat them with salted butter or cream cheese seasoned with chives or scallions, salt, and pepper.
Do you notice my need to share what I made for dinner in profuse detail? That’s also a strong French habit—talking about the food itself, where we bought it, and how we prepared it. You can’t go wrong if you use food as an icebreaker with French people. It’s a great topic for small talk!
We French have a word that I find hard to translate into English: terroir. It has something to do with soil, authenticity, and regional identity—the feeling to belong somewhere. At least for the French who are living abroad, I feel that their cooking echoes this terroir feeling.
Why are the French so attached to food?
French social scientist Claude Fischler has spent his life researching food and nutrition. His current project involves why people eat together and how this may impact public health.
In his book L’Homnivore (French for “The Omnivorous Man”), which has not been translated into English yet, Fischler suggests that different eating styles determine the way each person thinks about what food is good or bad to eat. According to him:
In the US, the dominant conception of food is nutritional. Feeding oneself is above all a matter of making rational decisions to satisfy bodily needs. In contrast, the French have a culinary conception of food, putting the emphasis on flavor and pleasure. In surveys, we asked French and Americans to say what they associated with “chocolate cake.” The Americans thought of “guilt,” the French of “birthdays.”
When they talk about food, Americans tend to focus on fat, carbs, and calories. French people prioritize where the food comes from and how it’s prepared. According to Pascal Roy at the Sorbonne, quoted in The Guardian, “Catholicism, with its celebration of the Eucharist, helped develop a real culture of eating and drinking, with the emphasis on the collective, communal dimension of meals. This is not the case in countries with Anglo-Saxon roots, where Protestantism entertains a more Puritan relationship with food.”
Food also carries associations with history for many French people. For centuries, France has been politically and administratively centralized around Paris. While dialects have mostly disappeared from France, and accents are seen as indicative of lower educational levels, food is a way to keep regional origins alive. As the authors of The Bonjour Effect put it, “Talking about local cuisine allows the French to brag about their native regions without breaking Republican doctrine.”
More recently, the late industrialization of France was another major factor highlighting the importance of food in France. Jean-Pierre Corbeau, emeritus professor at the University of Tours reported that:
In peasant families, meals were often the only time they stopped working. It was a break for a moment of convivial exchange, sharing, and joking. When small French farmers left the land for the factory in the late 19th century, their entitlement to a proper break was a key issue in negotiations with employers: many workers refused to eat in the workshops, standing beside their machines.
What does French cuisine look like in daily life?
Of course, we French can talk for hours about food. Our au pairs would steer clear of the kitchen when my husband cooked, as they were too afraid to be stuck listening to a detailed monologue about this or that ingredient.
My grandmother passed me her recipe of galettes au beurre (which is like shortbread, only better!) but always refused to teach her daughter, my aunt, how to make them. She also gave me the special molds she used for these treats. The molds moved with me from France to Germany and now to the US. Talking about them makes me want to bake for my children and pass on the tradition!
The French spend more time eating than other groups—around two hours and 22 minutes a day, says The Guardian. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends only one hour and eight minutes eating and drinking every weekday. What a huge potential source of cultural misunderstanding!
During meal times, the French talk extensively about everything. They don’t follow special rules, and the same conversation can cover news, vacations, holidays, family concerns, gossip, and of course the food they share. The fixed order of courses naturally facilitates changes in the topics and paces the rhythm of the conversation. France is a high-context environment, which means that all information is relevant at some point.
Some final words
At the other end of the spectrum, fast food giant McDonald’s had to adapt to the French environment. When it opened its first restaurant in France in 1972, it was obvious that McDonald’s would have difficulty convincing the French to eat with their hands.
Corbeau explained some of these issues to The Guardian. First, “they were open all day, like in the US, assuming they would have a steady stream of customers. In practice, they were deserted at 9am but seething from noon to 2pm, because the French go on taking their meals at the customary times. Customers—particularly young people—made it a relatively social experience. Instead of eating on their own or taking a burger back to their car, they would turn up in groups, sit together at one table, and pass food around.”
Now, 45 years later, McDonald’s has 1,200 locations in the country, but the French locations have nothing in common with their American counterparts. They simply feel more like French food than fast food.
More about French food and talk: