French Attitudes to Food

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The French arrive hungry. When you invite friends over to dinner in France, they will generally eat what you serve. Special requests are rare and, apart from a Parisian aversion to certain foods that they consider to be too spicy (it doesn’t take much heat at all for French palates to feel an overwhelming peppery burn), your dinner guests consume pretty much anything you prepare for them.

This isn’t to say that food trends don’t exist here as elsewhere. At supermarkets and boulangeries you can find a range of gluten-free this and that – pasta, breads, crackers. At the same time gluten-rich bagels have become something of a culinary thing in Paris. One new bagel place on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the 8th arrondissement, is packed at lunch.

Overall, what distinguishes French dining from American eating is the French attitude not only toward being a guest at someone’s home for dinner, but the French relation to food itself. Many Americans expect you to cater to the whims of their palate or the demands of their diet, while the French only expect you to feed them, and assume you’ll do your best to prepare something that everyone will enjoy.

This isn’t a new observation, of course – the French have always been known for honoring food as something worthy of one’s time rather than as mere fuel or a sinful indulgence. But I notice, as someone who likes to entertain guests for dinner both in Paris and in New York, that the French are far less demanding of what they eat when they’re at your home than are Americans (or New Yorkers). The French are far more likely to clean their plates. And they are far less likely to worry about what their home says about them than about how they can best offer a gracious evening to the people they care about. I’ve had wonderful dinners in tiny, cramped Parisian apartments at which everyone was grateful to squeeze in around a rickety table – bit it’s rare to find that kind of accommodating spirit in Manhattan. Several of my French friends live in the sort of apartments you’d never be invited to in New York – out of that Manhattan fear that you’ll be judged by the limitations of your real estate rather than the expanse of your spirit.

Many Americans fear what food can do to them, as if nourishment is medicinal, or as if food itself is a toxin consumed only with extreme caution. The French aren’t afraid of food. They want to appreciate what food can offer, both in terms of taste and history, and they uphold diverse regional culinary traditions. I don’t want to generalize too much about French cuisine overall, however. Fast food thrives in France, and industrially prepared shelf-stable or frozen dishes are a part of many people’s daily diets, while foreign cuisine (Italian, Asian) is often more of a free-wheeling approximation of what you get elsewhere than a true representation of different culinary customs and tastes.

But my own attitude toward food has changed as a result of my splitting my time between France and the U.S. For one thing, I eat more bread in Paris than I do in New York – how could you not, when first-rate baguettes are available everywhere, are relatively inexpensive and are pretty much an essential component of a meal?

You think less of avoidance in Paris than of incorporating something into what you eat day to day. And you worry less about potential ill-effects of something as simple as a crusty baguette than of why you would deny yourself something that has such deep flavor. I remember one lunch with a visiting New Yorker friend who, after some gentle urging, reluctantly sampled the bread placed in a small basket between us on the table at the little local restaurant where we were eating. Her face lit up with joy at tasting something so good (and for her, so rare), although this didn’t entirely offset her guilt at indulging in the sort of carbohydrates that she forbids herself from eating back home in New York.

It’s a matter of what you want from your meals: mere sustenance or actual enjoyment (even though they’re not mutually exclusive). Or whether a dinner is a chance to show off or an opportunity to spend time with friends. (These aren’t mutually exclusive either.) I certainly have not adopted a more virtuous culinary attitude since spending more time in France, but I have come to realize how much easier it is to spend time with friends if you’re worried less about what they might or might not eat and more about what you really want to share with them. That being said, I don’t mind accommodating my friends who prefer not to eat certain things. But the difference is that in France, you generally don’t think about asking what people do or don’t eat, because people you invite to dine don’t generally demand special treatment.

I have also learned to be a little more French as a guest:  you arrive hungry, so that you can appreciate the importance of honoring the efforts of the host by eating what’s served. Even if it’s not very good (which happens). But you’re not there for the food as much as for the person who prepared it.

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