Monday, January 14, 2008

The Enchantment of Food

My husband is on a business trip this week and le Petit and I are fending for ourselves. Not entirely fending for ourselves, of course, as my in-laws who live two blocks away are looking after us. When they found out I would be alone, my mother-in-law announced matter-of-factly, "Tu viens manger à la maison." You'll come over to eat. Not a question or an order, just a statement; an invitation they found natural to extend and that I was happy to accept. The cure for loneliness is a family meal.

As we gathered round the table on Sunday, my father-in-law mentioned an interview he'd heard on the radio that morning. The sociologist Claude Fischler talked about his new book, entitled Manger (to eat), which describes how eating habits and attitudes toward food differ within Europe and across the Atlantic. I was fascinated, so I dug up a recording of the interview on the web today.

Fischler's book is the result of a survey he conducted in France, Italy, Germany, the UK, and the United States. He began the interview with one of the questions he had posed: If you had the choice between an ice cream parlor that served fifty flavors and one that served ten, which would you choose? Americans overwhelmingly chose fifty. The French and other continental Europeans chose ten. That much was unsurprising to me, but the conclusion drawn from the survey was something I'd intuitively suspected but never been able to articulate. The French see eating as a collective activity, where conviviality and tradition trump variety. Americans see eating as a matter of individual freedom and choice, and the more choices there are, the better.

Once upon a time I would have gone for fifty flavors, but now I'd choose ten. Why? An ice cream maker who narrows down his selection is more likely to carefully craft his product. A limited menu speaks of tradition, of artisan quality, while too many choices means they necessarily can't all be done well.

When you go to a restaurant in France, more often than not the menu is limited. If you want a good deal, you gravitate to the prix fixe menu with no more than two or three options for each course. Even if you aren't worried about the price, you're instinctively inclined to trust the chef to have already selected his best dishes for you. If everyone at the table eats the same thing, no big deal; the choice was already made by the confidence you placed in the restaurant and the chef.

Fischler contends that the French trade choice for quality and conviviality. Eating is not something done alone, and sharing a meal is more than just sitting around a table and eating at the same time. This is why you will rarely find any option B for vegetarians at a dinner party, and why friends tend to all order -- or not -- a dessert when dining together at a restaurant. It is also why one rarely rocks the boat by tallying individually when splitting the bill.

Can it be inflexible and annoying? Sure. I imagine it isn't easy to be a vegetarian in France, and in fact, the survey revealed that 22% of French find it unacceptable for a vegetarian guest to expect a special meal. And sometimes you just want to have a snack at your desk in the middle of the afternoon without attracting quizzical looks and amused comments from your colleagues. But I do admire how meals are elevated to almost a form of conversation: an exchange between diner and chef, between chef and farmer, between those sitting around a table breaking bread together.

Fischler regards this collective approach to eating as the reason the French are so much leaner than Americans. There have been so many theories advanced on that subject, I'm afraid we'll keep speculating until the French become as obese as the rest of us. Yet there is something about this new theory that rings true, to me at least. If you eat purposefully, surrounded by friends and family, eating something that was meant to be shared and enjoyed and not just absorbed as nutrition, you're less likely to overeat than if you shovel down something quickly that you scavenged in the refrigerator. In France, you never eat in your car or in front of the television. The family table is sacred.

Fischler noted that Continental Europeans and Americans have very different views of GMOs and pesticide use. The European approach is to ban such technology as often as possible while Americans are generally more open, and Fischler believes that this is because Americans are already so overwhelmed with making individual choices about food that they have no energy left to worry about poisoning themselves. That doesn't make sense to me at all, since I know more Americans who are concerned about buying organic than French. I think that Americans trust the market to sort out good food from bad, and don't expect the government to make choices for them.

He ended the interview with a call for the "reenchantment" of food. Food shouldn't be boring or everyday, and it shouldn't be taken for granted. As eating in France becomes a question of optimizing cost and minimizing wasted time, he feared that the magic of food would be lost and the French would become overweight just like Americans.

I think it is a valid fear. And yet I've observed that in the US, on the contrary, more and more quality food is breaking through a culture of McDonalds-inspired indifference. If loving choice is our downfall, what of the Americans who are choosing to eat better and more purposefully? What of the spectacular selection of products from all over the world found in even most average supermarkets, of farmers markets and small, organic producers and all of the imaginative things that are coming out of our kitchens? I'm biased, sure. I still find it easier to eat well in France than in the US, and that is part of the reason I moved here. And yet, some of that food magic has traveled, and seems fresher, perhaps, upon reaching other side of the Atlantic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a subject very dear to me. I love to bring people together with a good meal and wish there was more of the French philosophy surrounding food here. I'd love nothing more than a big family to gather around the table every day. I couldn't deal with them the rest of the time but I'd be happy to feed them after they'd spent the day out in the world!

Actually this is a subject I feel I should be able to "wax eloquently" on but it's late and my head is still foggy with residual congestion. I'm totally with you on this subject. Grokking definitely occurs.