I believe the answer to the French paradox – the phenomenon of eating bread, butter, wine and other bits of heaven and not getting fat – lies largely in their relationship with food. Eating is more about experience than intake.
You will NOT find super-mega-all-you-can-eat-sized portions in France. Meals are eaten seated at a table – not in a whirlwind of multi-tasking. The French eat ample meals which they savor and would never regret, or bemoan all the calories they had eaten.
You will NOT see people walking down the street snacking, in fact snacking is not part of the French routine at all. Here in America, you see people walking down the street or driving their cars and munching away on take-away food or sucking whipped cream, chocolate and caramel laden “coffee” beverages in the middle of the day. In France you do not.
Here’s your anatomy lesson for the day – the size of your stomach is roughly the size of your fist. However, the stomach is capable of stretching up to 40 times its original size to accommodate a large meal. Do you want to stretch your stomach by 40 times? No, you do not. Think about it – how many times can you stretch elastic before it quits snapping back? Okay, I don’t know if that’s how it works but it makes sense to me!
The thought of French food often conjures pictures of souffles and complex sauces, and certainly the French do complicated better than anyone. But the French woman has an innate sense of balance. A large, indulgent meal would be followed by a day or two of broth and salads. Think of carb, and sugar (redundant, I know), as controlled substances. As long as you control them, you won’t be terribly adversely affected.
Most French meals are actually quite simple – fish or seafood prepared very simply, a nice vegetable or salad or soup, a little cheese, a little bread (little being the operative word). Because the French never deny themselves, they never have to over-indulge.
One of the rules I live by is “use the good dishes”. I apply this to all things – I don’t save nice things to maybe use sometime later, on “special occasions”. Life is too short for that, and why shouldn’t every day be a special occasion? And so I literally “use the good dishes” for every meal.
It takes a little extra effort to elevate meals from eating to dining, but it’s well worth it and, like anything else, becomes second nature.
I am a cook. I love experimenting with new foods and new recipes. I’m pretty fearless with food and always consider that, if things go wrong, I can always order pizza. I’ve never had to order the pizza.
If you’re not a cook, fear not. What we’re talking about now is the experience, not the grub (and I’ve got some advice for you in a future blog).
Here’s all it takes to create a dining experience:
Use ACTUAL dishes, not paper or plastic or anything disposable. In the very shallow end of the gene pool where I grew up, we always had “melamine” dishes (some sort of unbreakable compound made of resin and bones or something) because they were cheap and durable. As an adult I swore that, as God is my witness, I will never eat on plastic again (said like Scarlet O’Hara).
Use ACTUAL napkins, which must be cotton or linen. Not paper, and no poly-blend which doesn’t absorb anything and is absolutely pointless. I was fortunate to inherit beautiful, vintage embroidered napkins which I iron and use when the table is set more formally. But on a daily basis a prefer a more Provincial, casual look and feel of a simple cotton napkins folded straight out of the drier and slightly wrinkled. It feels much more grown up than using paper napkins and really, how hard is it to throw a few napkins in the wash?
Don’t just whack cartons down on the table. Cream goes in a pitcher. Condiments go in small bowls. Food is served on proper serving pieces and garnished with the appropriate fruit, herbs, etc.
Phones and TV are off. Music and candles are on.
Do I do this at home for every meal? Pretty much yeah – everything except maybe the candle bit. For me it’s a nice respite from a day that is otherwise filled with noise and demands and things that must be done. But if you’re easing yourself into Frenchness, maybe try an evening a week of “dining”, or a Sunday morning with music, a nice café au lait and pain au chocolat.
Yes, there are those occasional nights of having a mug of soup or slice of pizza on the couch, snuggled under a blanket watching movies. But having that be the exception rather than the rule makes it feel like a “snow day”.
La Façon de Manger le Français
Don’t eat bread (or anything else) that isn’t worth it. Develop a more refined pallet by really tasting your food and discovering the balance of flavors.
Put your fork down. Between. Every. Bite. You will eat less and enjoy more.
Stop eating when you are satisfied. You will know when you are satisfied because you’ve put down your fork between every bite. When you slow down and savor the food you’re eating, it’s almost shocking what a small amount of food you actually require.