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Food Talk

No blog on France is complete without at least one post about food, and I'm surprised it's taken me so long to write one!

But as I started to think about all of the different things there are to say about food in France (and there are many) I realized that it's just as important to discuss how people talk about food as it is to describe the food itself.

So how do French people talk about food? Below I'll give a examples of language relating to food that I think are important to help understand the French mentality and experience of eating.

Food is an experience: je prends mon déjeuner
For starters, in France food isn't just something you consume, it's an experience. There is a certain time, place, and way that you eat. The language reflects this, as it's seen more appropriate and polite sounding in French to say 'I take my lunch' (Je prends mon déjeuner) rather than 'I eat my lunch', sounding a little more vulgar or just repetitive. 

I think this emphasizes the idea that eating is an event, with its own codes and traditions, which we'll see below. 

Food is a social act: bon appétit
Relating to the previous point, there is a certain time, place and way to eat in France. If you are with others, then there is an obligatory expression that should be said by all (to one another or in unison) before anyone starts eating:

Bon appétit!

There can sometimes be variations on this, like 'bon dessert' before diving into dessert, or 'bonne dégustation' in restaurants. But essentially, the important thing is to say the expression before the meal begins.

It's in a way a ritual, I suppose, as if you were announcing the start of a game.

And yet, there's another element to this bon appétit business that can surprise foreigners, which appears especially when people are eating in a 'public place'. Sometimes, if you are innocently eating a sandwich in the street or in a public place, a French person could say to you 'bon appétit'.

My sense is that some of this has to do with the public/private dichotomy in France. Normally, eating is something private, and done in the private space of your home. Taking it outside in public places will not offend anyone, but you've clearly changed the space of your act. And so (as my native-informant fiancé tells me) you could say 'bon appétit' to someone eating in the street in the same way you could say 'bless you' to someone who sneezes. You're  acknowledging the person's act and, I think, the change from private to public space.

Food is a pleasurable: Es-tu gourmand?
We can say the word 'gourmand' in English, but the fact that we don't have an English equivalent is telling. The closest translation is something like 'glutton' or 'greedy' but both words have a much more negative connotation than 'gourmand' in French. Gourmand also most of the time only and strictly refers to food and eating, unless you qualify it (I'm 'gourmand' for reading detective novels). Greedy we also especially associate with money or material things.
A gourmand dessert, complete with complicated sauces

In any case, the word gourmand more or less means someone who really enjoys eating. There can also be the connotation of someone who eats large quantities, but the word always has the meaning of deriving pleasure from eating. Maybe a better equivalent in English would be the word 'foodie'.

Being 'gourmand' is thus seen as a positive thing, or at least a sort of cute trait to have, rather than something to be ashamed of. It makes sense in a culture that highly prizes its cuisine to respect those that take pleasure in eating.  

This is a word that took me a while to come to terms with, as French people would sometimes call me gourmande and I took it as an insult (not knowing exactly how to understand the word). Now I know it just means someone who enjoys food.

What could be more gourmand than a giant meringue? (the rest is in the white bag, in the background)

Food is poetic: le céléri dans tous ces états
French food is known for being elegant, refined, and also sometimes pretentious. It's true that if a French restaurant opens in an American city, people would assume it is sophisticated and expensive, and maybe even a little intimidating.

But what can come off as pretention is also related to a real linguistic creativity that thrives in France. Any trip to a restaurant in France that serves traditional food can show this. The words I used in this subtitle, 'Le céléri dans tous ces états' (Celery in all of its states/celery in its full glory) I took from a menu from a nice restaurant near my apartment.

What does celery in all of its glory mean? I have no idea. I asked my fiancé (a Frenchman) and he had no idea either.

The point is the French get creative with menu and food descriptions. Already there are very specific words for certain cuts of meat, certain methods of cooking, and sometimes cooks just get creative and create their own description.

I can't count the number of times I've been to a restaurant with a French person and we had to ask for clarification on a menu item, because the description of the food was poetic but not necessarily telling about its preparation or presentation. And that's the point. Presenting food this way is about, once again, the experience. The way it sounds and is described in writing makes your imagination start working and brings in your other senses to the experience of eating.

Think about it: if the chef only wrote something 'celery sauce', would you spend any time thinking about it?

Food is an arena for debate and discussion: the 'Un dîner presque parfait' example
The French love the practice of debate, and the topic of food is no exception to this rule.

During my first year here I came across a television show, called ‘Un Dîner Presque parfait’ (an almost perfect dinner) which I think illustrates well the idea of discussing and debating about food.

Basically, the premise of the show is a group of five strangers from a random city in France, Belgium or Luxembourg have to throw a dinner party for one another. A different person hosts every night for five nights, and the other four people have to rate the host’s ambiance, food, and overall evening. What seems so ‘French’ to me about this show is its focus on the details of food. The dinner guests don’t just make comments like ‘The homemade sorbert was excellent’, but something more like:

‘The sorbet was excellent, there was a nice balance between the lavender and vanilla flavors, and the texture was creamy and light’ or ‘I was disappointed with the appetizer. Although the foie gras was good quality, I was expecting something more original, maybe served with fruit or poached vegetables’.

In other words, this show allows its participants to do what some French people do best: taste and reflect on food in all its glory. From the texture, to the presentation, to the mixture of flavors, the guests comment on everything.


Obviously the people who choose to participate in this show are also interested by food. Nevertheless, I think the show really illustrates French people’s ability to talk about food, rate its quality, and rate the overall experience of dining.

Food is part of French cultural heritage
If I haven't convinced you yet, food is a big deal in France and knowing how to talk about it is just as important as knowing the proper etiquette when you eat. 

Many French people consider food as an integral part of French culture, and they're not alone: Tourists worldwide associate France with a certain quality of sophisticated (and sometimes strange) food. And in 2010, UNESCO officially declared the typical French 'gastronomic meal' as part of the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 

For me, French food not surprisingly reflects many aspects of general French culture: it is complex, highly steeped in tradition and social codes, and there is a strong appreciation for the aesthetic quality and presentation of food.

Bon appétit! 

For information on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List:
http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/
and on the French gastronomic meal:
http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00011&RL=00437

Comments

  1. This was really interesting, thank you. You're quite right about food being an experience. If you take the most humble cheese sandwich along on a picnic, you must expect it to be critiqued. There is no notion of food as fuel here...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am ready to come taste test and debate macaron!

      Delete

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