Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stupid French People

The American vision of French people’s eating habits would stir up envy in anyone. A skinny man with a pencil-thin moustache smoking cigarettes at a bar next to a thin elegant woman in a form-fitting dress also smoking cigarettes with a baguette, cheese, a chunk of chocolate, and wine glasses full of Bordeaux laid out in front of them. And this is what the French do all day. Eat, drink, smoke. Life is good in France.

But no, that's not the case. I mean, life may very well be good in France, but the ones that eat and drink all the time (no one really smokes that much anymore) are the Americans. From my experience with French friends, real French people don't actually eat that much. It's something I like to make fun of them about. But after attempting my first "French" recipe last night, scallops a la provençal, in fact after starting to cook halfway thoughtout meals at night, it makes sense to me why the Gauls tend to wait for meal time rather than eat all the time and embrace the philosophy of small portions.

My friend Celine visited NY last summer and told me about going to a BBQ in Long Island and how horrified she was at the leniency with which chubby, spoiled children were given whatever they wanted whenever they wanted: chips, cookies, fries, hot dogs-- all before even having their proper meal. To her it was shocking that these kids were being allowed to eat between meals. To me it was shocking that to her it was shocking because eating between meals is pretty much what we do. The snack food industry in the States is huge. I'm not sure about Europe, where people are starting to get fatter, but at least I know I'm guilty of snacking every day as are my friends, of wanting a whole dessert, and we usually outdrink our friend Marc, a French guy who rarely picks at the appetizers we force on him when he comes over to our apartment. During a dinner party he went for seconds once and it was the highest compliment to my cooking I've gotten yet. But in all seriousness, snacking mindlessly or eating junk food is rather anti-French and if they do indulge, because I have seen them do that as well, it's only a few morsels. Those bastards.

But in all honesty, what good is snacking mindlessly on bland junk food when you can eat very rich, delicious food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For me that's what it boils down to: quality over quantity. If you eat brie and bread mindlessly you will get sick very quickly. If you eat chips mindlessly, you will get sick but after a good long time. Also, why tarnish a good meal with the guilt inducing impulse-eating that we find irresistible? I still haven't figured out how exactly to avoid that pitfall but I think the cure for poor eating habits is better food.

When I have a snack it's usually because I am a) bored, b) anxious, c) tired, d) hungry. What I snack on is usually a) nuts, b) dried fruit, c) real fruit, d) cookies, e) chocolate, f) granola bars. And you will say, well the first three are OK and even the last one is fine. That's another common misconception in the American view of eating. Just because it's "good for you" doesn't mean you can eat as much of it as you want. In fact, eating a ton of nuts and dried fruit creates the sensation of having a soft rock in your stomach and instantly brings up emotions like, Why did I do that? Oh God. As for granola bars, those are good for breakfast, a meal, not for a snack, unless you're one of those people (whoever you are) that eat several small meals a day. Personally, I can't do that. The only snack which I say is OK, and which I talk myself out of all the time, is fruit. Fresh fruit and fresh vegetables are good snacks, low-calorie, healthy, etc. but they also turn you off unless there's something else to them, like peanut butter or ranch dressing. So you opt for the other options that give you a fast high, a shock of flavor, and a nasty feeling afterwards. Because I don't think our meals are all that great either. Low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar, low-flavor affairs eaten as quickly as possible so you barely taste them anyway. I'm guilty of that. And even if I have something super tasty I usually want something else, because of habit or craving. So I end up overeating. We end up overeating.

If you look at French food-- and I'm going on what I've eaten while in Paris, French restaurants in NY, my Cordon Bleu cookbook, and Julia Child-- there is an emphasis on: strong flavors harmonizing together, variety of textures and ingredients, multiple small courses or at least one course that offers you a lot of variety inside one dish. The idea is satisfaction and that doesn't need to come in a large plate. Filet mignon is small. Crepes are thin. Soups are filling. It's the idea that you get a lot in a little. Instead of a little in a lot.

During college I lived in Madrid for a while as part of a study abroad program through NYU. One evening, a sampling of us students were taken out to dinner so that Study Abroad Ambassadors could ask us about what we thought about the program. Food was a big complaint. They said the food in Madrid was bland, few places offered to-go options, etc. I didn't agree that this was a limitation nor did I agree that the food was bland. It just wasn't American food and if you're serious about food, then you try different things and you go by the culture and the place you're at. I think expectations and pacing are another two things where Americans and the rest of the world are at odds. We expect convenience, speed, and sharp, intense flavors (which usually come with processed food). The advent of fast food and delis makes this a cultural habit. Starbucks only serves your coffee to go and it's always in a large cup. The times I've taken my family from Puerto Rico to Starbucks they are always so surprised that the cups are so big and can rarely finish them. In Spain, when you went to get coffee you would sit or stand at the bar, it was usually a small cup, and the coffee was strong. Lunchtime meals were large, three course affairs or giant sandwiches. Dinner was late and eating at home is common. 

Quality vs. Quantity. Slow vs. Fast. Enjoyment vs. Convenience. Expectations. If we changed the way we think and the way we enjoy things, then things become easier. If your meals are satisfying then there's no need to snack. If you've taken the time to enjoy them then you will feel satisfied. If you prepare it yourself or opt for good ingredients and food instead of processing and added flavors, then you won't feel guilty. It's not as easy at that, obviously, we're fighting our upbringing and a culture that bombards us with easy, instant-gratification that only leaves you wanting more. 

Start by cooking and setting higher standards. Gourmet means connoisseur of good food and drink. What's good? Keep in mind two things: some of the best food comes from the poorest countries and no one would say that McDonalds is good. But then there's the other psychological hurdle that we face: deprivation. So instead think of it this way, you can have McDonalds and you can have chips and  you can do whatever you want, but why would you want to?

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