When I studied abroad in Paris, France I lived with the stereotypical french couple. My temporary papa was a grouchy, mean old man who expected his wife to clean up after him, change the TV channel for him, and wipe his little mouth when he was done eating. He also hated me. And only partially because he hated President Bush and thought he needed to lecture me on what a horrible choice I made when I voted (I didn’t vote for him FYI, just a French thing).
My maman was the meaning of the phrase: c’est la vie. She was cheerful, loved strolling through parks, drinking wine, carrying baguettes under her arm, and wandering the markets. Most of all though, she loved food. Cooking was definitely her forte. We are talking 7 course meals every night. Come on people. That is ridiculous (and oh so good!). I was in paradise. (This was pre-discovering my food allergies thank heaven!) I never asked what was in the food, although I did receive hints from time to time (I once found an entire parrot perched in the fridge, and there was once a hoofed leg sticking out of the cupboard).
The first time I was called to dinner and saw the feast before me, I was in total heaven. Unfortunately, one bite in, cranky pops took this as his first opportunity to reprimand me. “You impolite American! What do you think this is? A hotel? How rude of you to come into my home and treat my kitchen as if it were feeding trough. You eat like a slob.”
Ouch. Ok, so papa is more than just a grouch. But could he also be a bit true? I mean, compared to them I did look like I was shoveling it in. I’ve never seen such impeccable eating before in my life. And it took hours! We sat at that table deep into the night testing my French, sipping wine, and slowly working our way through each course. I eventually taught myself to eat like them and by the end of my four months I was completely enamored by the ritual and pleasure they bestowed upon eating. We don’t do it like that here and our waistlines suffer as a result. Here’s how to eat like a Parisian (and also how to keep svelte, love life, and eat passionately):
- A French Table There was always a vase of flowers, cloth napkins, candlelight. We sat at a small table and ate off small plates. We were served beautiful flower sized portions one course at a time and drank wine that rested in a decanter. There were different utensils and rotating plates or bowls for each thing we were served. It was beautiful!
- Variety is Key We covered every color of the rainbow in one meal. The only thing that was constant was a salad for an appetizer and a fruit course for dessert.
- Savor Simply learning to eat with passion was the best thing I learned. My maman would close her eyes as she enjoyed each bite as if it were a delicacy. We would talk about food as we ate it. Sure we talked about roller skating too, but food was the most important thing as far as we were concerned. P.S. Roller skating is really hard to talk about in French.
- Never Talk While Eating Which means take small bites so your dinner guest doesn’t have to wait.
- Petit Courses Each course was small and beautiful and we were given ample time before the next course would arrive. It was more like a special occasion and less like trying to scarf down an entire plate of stroganoff before my body would realize it was full (as I so often did at home!)
- Impeccable Eating Manors They ate everything with a fork and knife. My papa slapped himself in the forehead the first time I tried to pick up a French fry with my hand. Admittedly that was one of his favorite ways of communicating with me, but it worked, I used a fork.
- DO NOT under any circumstances put another bite in your mouth before you’ve finished the first one This one is so key I can’t believe it isn’t common sense. Put a tiny little bite in your mouth, set down the fork and knife and enjoy what you are eating until you have swallowed it in its entirety. ONLY THEN can you pick up your fork and knife again and start preparing your next bite. Repeat.
- Eat, Talk, THAT’S IT No reading, driving, standing up, watching TV, or looking at a computer while eating. That is sacrilege! I don’t care what you are eating, if you are doing anything other than eating and enjoying your company, you aren’t enjoying it. If you aren’t enjoying what you are eating then WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?! A little over dramatic, but you get my point.
- The Half Rule Only ever eat half of what is on your plate. Then chat and sip on your wine. If still feel hungry after a good 5 minutes not eating and there isn’t more food coming, then eat half of the remaining food on your plate. Slowly.
- Never Water, Only Wine I was expected to have sufficiently hydrated myself throughout the day because I was only allowed to drink wine with dinner. Water isn’t good for the digestion, I was told. My first night at the table I got super drunk thanks to not knowing this rule. I was thirsty!! I also spoke way better French that night. Or so I thought.
- Digestion Comes First The French were super into digestion. I can’t tell you how many times I was told to do or not do something for the sake of digestion. In fact, there were many rumors buzzing about that if a French person didn’t have their morning bowel movement, a sick day from work would be required. Maybe always keeping yourself in check is a good thing. We almost always had prunes for dessert. Good for the digestion!
It’s amazing what these principles have done for me. Of course there are more, and they are all in my favorite book French Women Don’t Get Fat so you should totally read it. I’ve said it before, it will change your life.
Don’t worry, I did get my revenge on papa. My last week there I asked them to let me cook for them. I made them tacos. Ridiculously expensive tacos I might add since hard-shell tacos are really hard to find. Then I giggled inside as I watched my host dad try to eat a hard-shell taco with a fork and knife. They did it. But it was amusing nonetheless.