Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.
The infamous phrase (supposedly) declared by Marie Antoinette…
Let them eat cake.
While it is highly unlikely that she actually said that phrase, there is no question that basic necessities such as bread and water were extremely scarce for the common French people during the period leading up to the French Revolution.
Food literally caused the French to fight.
It is no wonder, then, that the French place such an emphasis on their cuisine and culinary traditions. Bread laws in place now regulate the price and ingredients of baguettes, ensuring that bread is never overpriced and always fresh. Meals are typically at a table shared between friends or family, very rarely in front of a TV.
Everyone knows that the French are hardly ever seen without a baguette in hand (Yes, yes this is a stereotype, but it also 100 percent true.) They’re also famous for their boeuf bourguignon, ratatouille and foie gras–dishes that many Americans enjoy with a reservation at a five-star restaurant. But surprisingly, these are nothing more than simple paysan meals from the French countryside. So, how did these staples of French cuisine become so well-known and loved across the world?
French cuisine is a testament to its history and culture. The French, in all their pride, have clung to a culinary art that has outlasted the storming of the Bastille and the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte. They refuse to change their eating habits despite changing their constitution five times.
Perhaps their way of eating is a testament to the stubbornness (and snobbiness) of the French culture itself.
So, how do the French eat?
For the French, food = social life. Like many other European cultures, the French take eating very seriously. Meals are served in three or four courses over the span of a few hours (I talk a little about this concept here).
Here’s the basic breakdown of a traditional French meal:
- Apéritif (Light alcoholic beverages + little snacks)
- Entrée (Starter)
- Plat (Entree)
- Fromage et salade (cheese and small salad)
- Dessert (…Dessert.)
- Café (Coffee)
Regions have their specialized meal traditions too. For example, in Normandy it is common to take a break in the middle of the meal (between the plat and fromage) to have what is called le trou normand–a shot of Calvados liquor served over ice cream.
That is why, my fellow Americans, it takes forever to eat in France.
Everything is closed from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. just so people can go home and eat. Of course every meal is not this extravagant or detailed, but this is just to give you an idea of how serious it is.
It goes something like this.
The entrée, small plate of carrots or cucumbers or tomatoes or something, is served. You get a few pieces of bread. Begin eating. Ten minutes later, you get the plat. A warm, steamy plate with heavy carbs and some sort of meat–usually ham. There’s normally a small side of vegetables. You begin eating. Again. Thirty minutes later, they bring you a cheese of choice, and you begin eating that.
But wait, there’s more! You get the dessert. A little pastry, tart, or fruit is set in front of you to finish off the meal.
All done? Good. Now it’s time for coffee. Get out the little mugs, people. An hour and 20 minutes have passed. You better not have made any plans after this. You’ll be here a while. Coffee time can take at least another 20.
At first, this routine was excruciatingly slow for me.
As someone who normally throws together a sandwich or a weird concoction of leftovers for lunch and is done in 20 minutes tops, I was stressed. Why are we still sitting here? This is taking forever. I could be doing something else.
But after a while, I learned to appreciate it. I now look forward to that pause. That time where I can indulge in delicious, fresh food and let go of my morning while preparing for the afternoon. I look forward to their small little portions, one after another. I always eat just enough–never too much. The dessert is my favorite. Not just because it’s delicious but because I’m perfectly satisfied afterwards.
I think this concept is fairly hard for Americans to grasp because our culinary culture is so far removed from this. We grab a meal on-the-go, eat in our cars, scarf our food down in a university cafeteria 15 minutes before our next class. It’s all about facility and ease in America. You can completely forgo that idea here.
Americanized Cuisine: France’s Worst Nightmare
The French are very adamant in their disapproval of American eating habits. And for many reasons, I cannot blame them. From the outside, it certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Obesity, poorly regulated restaurants, ingredients, etc. (I’m not even going to try and get into all the statistics about obesity in the United States, but if you want to check out the numbers, click here.)
I cannot count all the times I’ve heard the following phrases or questions:
“But why does your food have so many preservatives and chemicals?”
“You only have how long to eat in school?”
“What even is “traditional” American food? You don’t really have a food culture.”
“French food is so much better for you.” (Yeah, okay, say the people who eat solely bread, cheese and extremely fattening meat.)
Not going to lie, it still irks me every time they try to come for my American food. Maybe it’s a pride thing. BUT I WILL SAY America has great regional dishes and specialities (plus a lot more variety thanks to all the cultures/types of people in our country). In my hometown in Tennessee, I can drive 20 minutes and find authentic El Salvadorian, BBQ, Pakistani and Indian food. That is definitely what I miss most about American cuisine.
The French may be refined. But their food all looks and tastes the same for the most part. You can only go to so many French cities and eat so many French meals before it becomes boring (Oops… I’m probably not supposed to say that).
Plus, they cannot handle spicy food whatsoever, so I find a lot of their uses of heavy, creamy sauces too much. Of course I’m not complaining about the great quality of their ingredients. Their products normally taste much better/more fresh than their American equivalents (dairy, meat, flour, pastries, vegetables, etc).
And yet sometimes I get tired of French food.
Sometimes all I want is a juicy American hamburger that I can eat in five minutes with grease dripping down my face.
Yum. Bon appétit.
What is your favorite type of food? What types of food have you found during your travels? Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for all my latest posts!