A French friend and I were talking recently about eating habits. This is of course a common discussion when it comes to looking at the differences in American and French culture.
“It is unthinkable to not have a sit down dinner,” he said, referring to the fact that in the large majority of French households, families sit down, together, to eat dinner. Skipping it would be on the verge of sacrilegious.
Look at the average American household, however. Bobby has soccer practice, Molly has to finish up a school project at a friend’s and mom and dad are both pulling long days at the office. Dinner, is eating a bowl of microwaved Top Ramen, consumed while standing at the kitchen counter in the ten-minute window that each individual person has identified as their own time to eat.
Eating is something that we fit in between all of our other tasks, while for the French, the everyday tasks of life are what they do in between the times that they eat.
This is, of course, a sweeping generalization.
Go into any supermarket in France and you’ll see people buying the exact same processed foods as in the U.S. Fast food joints have now overtaken traditional restaurants in popularity. And yet, there is still a tradition that ties people to eating in a way that is rarely present in the U.S.–and it’s a tradition that values the holistic nature of a meal.
For many Americans, eating is about the nutritional value; it’s a scientific process, more than it’s a cultural one. We boil a meal down to carbohydrates, proteins and fats. How much of this and how much of that do I need to maintain my energy and function, but also not gain weight in the process? We’re diet obsessed, and whether it’s conscious or not, it’s a constant dance of thinking about calories and our intake and output. We’re running an ongoing mental calorie calculator.
That’s a depressing way to eat. And not only depressing, it’s unhealthy.
Sitting down to a meal with friends and family provides emotional sustenance as well as nutritional. It’s a joyful affair. You might get all the calories and fiber that you need from a bowl of brown rice, broccoli and black beans, but if it’s eaten on-the-go, in ten minutes, you miss out on all the other aspects that eating brings us.
Eating can be a meditative process. Sit down for an hour-long (or two, or three) dinner and that’s an hour where you’re not doing anything else. It’s time for brain to disengage with the outside world and focus on the food in front of you and the people around you.
My friend and I began talking about Thanksgiving. “It’s the one day of the year where people really are focused on family and food and nothing else,” I said.
He responded, “while for a French person that happens every night.”
It’s true in a way. Certainly not every single lunch and dinner in France is a grand affair, but there is a process to eating, one that puts an appreciation into the food but also the manner in which it’s consumed. You don’t eat an on-the-go snack in the middle of the afternoon, because a sit down dinner awaits you in only a few hours.
An American/British friend who recently came to Paris from London said that for her one of the main differences about the two cities is that in London you practically have to make an effort to avoid street food, while in France, popping into a shop for a snack is rare, and if you are hungry at 3 in the afternoon, you have to work a little harder to find something to eat because you just missed the lunch service.
The 24-hour access to food that is then consumed in a matter of minutes isn’t just bad for us because of the calories; it’s bad because it eliminates all the other beneficial aspects of eating a communal, sit down meal. And as fast food continues to permeate French culture – Burger King is coming back soon – it’s something that the French are going to have to take a long, hard look at, because ultimately, the infusion of fast food culture means the death of slow food.
Want to eat better? Put less time into thinking about calories and more time into thinking about the process. Slow down and enjoy the meal and the people around you.
Not just once in a while, or on a holiday, but everyday.
Image: Daniel Lee