As I reflect on my life in the United States, I don’t recall spending hours on the presentation of the food I served. I don’t think many of my friends, some who were excellent cooks, did either.
In comparison, the French pay a great deal of attention to the way food looks.
Eating in France could easily be declared a national obsession or religion. Or perhaps a national pastime, like baseball for Americans. Indeed, France's culinary heritage was included on UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2010.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that food is purchased whenever possible from its source. Bread, for instance, is purchased at a boulangerie, where it is baked. Meat is purchased from a butcher, who probably buys it directly from local farmers. Whenever possible, produce is purchased at a neighborhood farmer’s stand—not in a supermarket.
In fact, my sense is that only items that cannot be purchased directly from their source are purchased at a supermarket. Eating locally produced food and seasonal food is also de rigueur.
Food Education Is Taken Seriously
Training the palate takes time and focused attention. It begins in the French home with infants and toddlers. It continues at school.
The menus for my French elementary-school grandchildren are posted outside for the parents’ review. In addition, during lunchtime, the children are required to eat properly at a table.
Each table has an adult present to monitor manners and make sure that the eating behavior of the children is appropriate. No one can leave the table until everyone is finished.
The children are expected to eat what is served. If they don’t like the menu, they are discouraged from filling up on bread. Salt intake is monitored.
The school meal is an important one. The French government considers serving a healthy noon meal an important way to make sure that children’s nutritional needs are met at least once a day.
Commensality Is Essential
The French are also strong on commensality, a big word for “eating together.” According to Crédoc consumer studies and research, 80 percent of French meals are eaten with other people.
"In France meals are strongly associated with good company and sharing, which is undoubtedly less so in other countries," says Loïc Bienassis, a researcher at the European Institute of Food History and Culture.
With the exception of the blood sausage, I’ve come to enjoy most of the new dishes I’ve been introduced to, like lapin (rabbit), tomato pie, crêpes, cassoulet, chocolate souffle, ratatouille (vegetable casserole), and duck confit. (Expresso’s specialty is thinly sliced and quickly grilled duck.)
Regional Dishes Vary
I live in the south of France, and the dishes here are heavily influenced by Spain and Italy. In addition, because of the mild climate and proximity to the Mediterranean, here in the south we have fresh meat, fruits, vegetables, and seafood available year-round.
When I crave one of my favorite dishes from my childhood, like goulash, oatmeal cookies, bean soup, or chili, I buy the ingredients and make enough to share. I can’t say everything I cook is a hit with the family. But for sure the oatmeal cookies don’t last very long!
An occasional craving is more than offset by the adventure of learning new ways to prepare food and, even better, to eat regularly with family members. Maybe I’ll even learn how to improve my food presentation skills. Bon appétit!