When I arrived in France, my son assured me that eating the French way would help me lose weight. Since he had moved to France twenty years earlier and had lost that many pounds and more, he could make the claim with confidence.
The loss would happen, he told me, despite the fact that the French diet was high in fat compared to my American diet—hence the paradox.
To that end, I religiously adopted the eating habits of my family. I ate what everyone else was eating—wonderful bread, cheeses, salads, vegetables (including some I’d never heard of), fish, meat, poultry, and extraordinary desserts.
For example, one recent dinner included a casserole of steamed potatoes and cauliflower covered in a creamy cheese sauce, accompanied by a huge lettuce salad. Perhaps if I’d stopped there, I would have been fine.
However, I couldn’t resist the next course of bread and cheese with fruit—or the piece of dark chocolate dotted with hazelnut for dessert.
Another dinner consisted of crepes stuffed with ham and cheese and covered in a rich, creamy bechamel sauce; a green salad; and dessert crepes filled with chocolate, strawberry jam, or sugar.
Lest you think I am dining out, I assure you that this gourmet fare is routinely created and presented by Attenderella, my daughter-in-law (she takes care of my needs, sometimes before I even know I have them).
Apparently, the French paradox doesn’t work on my American body. Instead of losing weight, I’ve gained five pounds.
Making this generalization about French culture may not be fair, but people seem to be borderline obsessed with food here.
Have you heard about the American and the Frenchman who meet at a cocktail party? The American asks the Frenchman what he does for a living; the Frenchman asks what they’ll be eating. Vive la différence!
During my childhood in Iowa, my family’s dinner table featured ample amounts of food served family style in bowls or platters that were set on the table at the start of the meal. Not much, if any, thought was given to presentation. The one-course meals occasionally ended with a dessert, but that wasn’t a regular occurrence.
In contrast, the French gastronomic experience balances taste, color, smell, and texture through several courses. Foods are paired with each other and with the wine. Presentation is as important as the food itself. In 2010, UNESCO designated the French “gastronomic meal” an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
All-important French occasions, such as birthdays, weddings, graduations, or anniversaries, are celebrated with a festive meal of good food, wine, and amiable company. The more formal meal on these occasions has four or five courses, beginning with appetizers and ending with a liqueur.
Even on busy weeknights, my family and I enjoy at least three courses. We sit together as a family, review the events of the day, and sometimes make plans for the following day.
Does this extended mealtime cut into nightly leisure activities, like watching television or surfing the internet? Of course it does.
However, I’ve learned that the purpose of the meal is twofold: to sustain our bodies and to strengthen the ties between us. We need both kinds of nourishment for good health.
As for the five pounds, oh well! When I die, I doubt anyone will remember what I weighed—it sure won’t be etched on my gravestone. So, I’ll continue to enjoy my French gastronomic experience. Bon appétit!