Dossier haricots verts : # 20/20 FRENCH PARADOX FRICASSEE
Lunch was delicious. Still sitting around the dining room table, my parents and I are considering dessert options. Although we had a delightful three-course meal (entrée, plat principal, salad, fromage), we definitely could do with some sweet treat. The tomato salad with a garlic-laced vinaigrette was just right. So was the bread – crusty and chewy at the same time. The Lotte (a local fish unknown to the rest of the world, my mother’s favorite) was dense and firm, and its tomato sauce worthy of the best chefs. A simple boiled potato was the perfect accompaniment. Now, my mom starts an enumeration of tantalizing possibilities, which I scan through my mind’s stomach and taste buds: a square of chocolate? (a new crunchy dark chocolate filled with a truffle center), a little Danette à la vanille (a creamy vanilla dessert)? A scoop of nougat ice-cream? A pear and wild fig compote (the applesauce concept is declined here in every fruit combination)? Avec une petite madeleine (Proust’s legendary cookie)? Or a galette de Pont-Aven (a fine buttery golden crispy cookie, specialty of a local town)?
We also have quince yogurt, and crème de marron (a small can with a lift-up top), my mother remembers.
I suspect her to welcome her daughter with a special array of her favorite desserts, but I am not certain this is not the habitual situation. I settle for the compote de poires, and a few galettes on the side. Then, because I can’t resist, I’ll have a black cherry yogurt.
I have come back to my native France for a short vacation, as I do most years, to catch up with my family and my country’s developments. Every time I try to fill the short immersion with as many impressions, sights, information as possible, like a camel fills with water, because my supply will have to last me the whole year. I love my New England home of adoption, with its lovely season changes, its quaint villages, its good-natured inhabitants, but my roots are still deep in France. I also fill up with new and old flavors.
Five o’clock. The beach. A crowd of brown lean bodies moves back to the parking, loaded with umbrellas and folding chairs. This is not the fashionable beach where you can see and be seen from the boardwalk. This one is more remote, you reach it by car, bouncing on the dunes, and this is a sample of the local population. Men, women and their children are thin, some even bony.
I think of my adoptive North Shore beaches just on the other side of the Atlantic, its ubiquitous coolers next to inflated bodies sprawled on chairs and mats, its seagulls targeting half-empty bags of chips and cheese puffs, its ice-cream, slush and tacos stands.
Since my arrival back home, I noticed that I have not seen one single obese person on the train that took me to the far west of France, or at the station, or anywhere else. My parents are both skinny as well. So here is my own contribution to answering the perennial question: why French people don’t get fat, aka the French Paradox.
Many say that it is in the wine. This is probably true, but only a very tiny portion of the whole truth.
After dinner, sitting on my parents’ couch in the dining room, we watch the news. On the small screen, a retired couple in a summer rental at the beach sits on reclining chairs on their balcony. “We love being at the beach, Everything is a show.” They smile and nod to each other in agreement as a sailboat glides on the glittering ocean background. The camera shows them walking side by side in the sunset as the voice comments: “Ah… the pleasure of an ice-cream cone along the shore…”
Speaking of which, I think I’ll have a piece of chocolate during the movie that follows, a square of Lindt chocolate, “the dark chocolate with a hazelnut truffle filling.” I have never had that kind before. Dozens of new flavors of chocolate bars seem to pop up every year for me to check. I look at the back of the package for the calorie count (to get an estimate of the damage,) but can only find the list of ingredients in four languages. Also written is the following (my translation) “Let the pleasure of Excellence sweep over you again and again, as you discover the other recipes of our chocolate range.”
This is when it strikes me. Pleasure : chocolate experienced as sweeping waves of pleasure, and no Nutrition Facts, no mention of any Daily Values.
For the rest of my short week home, I silently keep tabs of the times I hear or read the word Pleasure. I get to 130.
Other French keywords now jump to my attention, because I have not heard them much the rest of the year: déguster (to taste, savor, sample) used on TV, magazines, marketing in general, implying small amounts of a food you are about to taste with discernment); douceur (small sweet treat, also softness); and séduction (used for chocolate, food in general, and everything else.)
No wonder that one of the French best-sellers book in the last decade is entitled : “The first sip of beer and other minuscule pleasures.” It is representative of the French order of values. No mention here of large bank accounts, six-digit salaries, SUVs or private pools. Instead, the author enumerates the personal and simple pleasures that make his life worthwhile. That’s French hedonism. And it was a big hit.
In the English language, the word pleasure is not commonly associated with food. For food, people use the word “enjoy,” or “fun” as “enjoy your coffee,” “fun, bite-size cookie dough cookies,” words that evoke somewhat gregarious and slightly superficial exchanges and behavior. They do not evoke deep sensual gratification, connection with the soul, a profound satisfaction of the senses.
Yet, this does not explain why French people don’t abuse these pleasures, since as everyone knows, the human quest for pleasure is insatiable. So why don’t French people get fat?
The answer lies here. People here live for pleasure, and French people know that pleasures are manifold. Pleasures compete with each other. One major competing concept is the pleasure of seduction. That word is almost as ubiquitous as the word pleasure. It is used on commercials, ads, and packages of Eskimo pies, make-up, clothes, wine, cars and cell phones.
Seduction refers to the relationship between men and women, but to so much more. In English, to seduce means to entice someone into sexual activity. In French, séduire evokes a common, natural and playful pull between people and things, not to be confused with notions of romance or dating. It evokes a lighthearted relationship, something spontaneous, impulsive. The game permeates everyone’s thinking “laissez-vous seduire” can be used as a slogan for a car, a pair of shoes, a fridge. It is used for casual relationships between people and of course, for food. Life is based on a never-ending dance of pleasures and seductions, played out continuously through aesthetic delights of all the senses. Becoming fat does not belong here, as to the pleasure of eating, seduction is an aggressive competitor.
There are many other deep-rooted cultural reasons that no-one ever mentioned in crash diet book. For instance, as a French person, you are born with a heavy heritage that channels centuries-old traditions in the fields of beauty, arts, fashion and style. You are yourself a representative.
You cannot let the pleasure of eating dominate.
I found the following concepts, when it comes to food and eating, integrated at birth, extremely hard-wired and that even globalization has a hard time undermining : Time, Quality, and Quantity.
Time: Meals are taken three times a day at regular times (plus a four o’clock goûter for kids,) and the concept of snacking all day long does not exist.
Quantity: if you look closely enough at the retired people walking on the beach, you notice that their sugar cones contain one, or maybe two golf-size scoops, not ten.
Quality: starting in pre-school, lunch is a hot, balanced meal and a restorative break that takes at least one hour.
Something annoying with my mother’s healthy, balanced, filling meals : I am not longer hungry enough to try the delicacies that compete to tempt me everywhere. Who gets to answer the call of the macaroons, the salt-butter caramels, the glossy crumbly tartes aux fraises and the crunchy brioches au sucre? Alas, not moi. How am I going to treat myself to those on such a limited period of time? I don’t know. I’d need a few years.
Finally, the ultimate secrets: a fricassee of personal theories, which I never saw mentioned in the media.
Agitation: French people don’t act cool. They become excited with they speak, the shake their hands, they raise their voice. When people run on adrenaline, they are not so hungry. And agitation does burn up more calories.
No extremes: something to be understood about the French psyche is a sense of proportions. When America is a land of extremes, France is a land of temperance, moderation, egalitarianism. The weather is temperate, so are the geographical dimensions (a thousand kilometers width and length,) and so is the repartition of wealth. And when it comes to bodies, extremes are not well represented either.
Nature abhors emptiness: because there is so much space in America, people fill it with huge houses, gigantic cars, and their bodies. Japan is small, so are Japanese cameras, cars, and, you guessed it, bodies. France is slightly bigger, but space is scarce between the medium size houses, the compact size cars, and consequently body sizes match.
Distances are short and gas is expensive: a direct consequence of space limitation combined with an oil crisis that dates back to the seventies, French people don’t sit in cars, they walk. They openly dislike exercise. One of the most popular books on the shelves is entitled Gymnasium pour les paresseuses (exercice for the lazy) but they are willing to trot all day long.
Doctors just won’t let you. When I asked my mom, a typically skinny lady, for her own reasons, she explained to me that doctors are severe, that they control your weight at each visit and scold you if you have put on weight. American doctors are indulgent, they chuckle at the idea of food indulgence, as there are so many more dangerous vices.
On the way back to New England, I am smuggling a few chocolate tablets and cookie packages in my suitcase for my family, and a jar of Herbes de Provence. That will have to do, with the memories, until next year. At home, my three-year old runs to me, coming back from her grand0parents’ home with a box of animal crackers in a new plastic package that brags: “You can now enjoy your animal crackers anywhere! Anytime! In the car, on the go! At school! In the park!” On the shelf in the kitchen cupboard is another box of snacks that turn its back to me: “Get your own box!” it snaps. I am home.
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This is a piece I wrote a long time ago –twelve years to be exact. But I don’t think it aged that much. And I thought it would be the perfect ending to my Food series. And now I am going to celebrate the completion of this endeavor! Thank you all for sharing.