The French Food Chronicles Part I: Being Present
In June, I spent 18 days in France with eight fellow NYU Food Studies graduate students and ten graduate students from the American University of Paris, to study the differences in gastronomic discourse between France and the United States. Our discussion started with generalities—French people enjoy their food more, take their time when they eat, eat in groups, and Americans rush through their food, eat simply to stay alive, eat alone, focus on nutrients rather than culture and tradition—and moved outwards, seeking to weave nuance into the discussion.
Food in France has always been elevated beyond merely being fuel for the body—it is a physical manifestation of the French identity, a sign of cultural power and influence, a holistic symbol. The field of gastronomy began in France in the 19th century and created a role for cultural commentators and writers to look at food in a context larger than just cooking and eating. Juxtaposed against this mission is the treatment of food in the U.S., which has exported certain ideas and practices (fast food, processed and industrialized food) that threaten traditional food cultures. For many people in France, Americanization cannot be differentiated from globalization and all its pernicious effects, such as the homogenization of food (the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy in 1986, was a reaction to this). America and France would therefore seem to be at opposite ends of the food culture spectrum.
Coming from that American food background, there were times during this course when I really did feel a sense of eating in an entirely new way, of being grounded, of feeling anchored. Whereas at home I often and habitually eat food whose origin I don’t know, and thus feel alienated from what I eat and from my own body and being, in France I was often able to draw a direct line between the food in my body, the energy in my spirit, and the genesis of it all in the land of the region. Whether it was eating artisanal chocolate in Paris that was crafted in the back of the shop, Comte cheese made down the road from the milk of cows that ate the grasses underneath my feet in the Jura region, or the goat cheese that the owner of our hostel in Arbois got from his next door neighbor, I frequently encountered the comfort of connection, the feeling that this sort of anchoring was the best antidote to the alienation of modern industrialized food. In this new context, the contrasts between my habitual orientation to food and the habitual orientation of the French, which I sought to adopt for 18 days, were starkly apparent.
These differences were especially clear in the area of taste, which refers to more than simply the sense of taste on the tongue. It extends to a general inclination, based mostly on cultural influence, toward a preference for eating local, artisanal products over industrialized, homogenized ones. It is a skill that can be taught and cultivated, an ability to appreciate subtlety, complexity and the cultural meaning behind a particular product. It is also a skill that relies on powerful emotional associations, such as memory, related to the act of eating (see: Proust’s Madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past.) There is the personal memory of eating Comte cheese as a young kid, and there is the collective memory of French production and consumption of Comte cheese over 1,000 years, all of which plays into the convergence of desires on the part of the French eater to pursue Comte cheese over its industrialized, homogenized, processed counterpart—namely, to cultivate a taste for Comte.
A large part of our course was in Taste Education, during which a Taste Educator (an actual job title) imparts a language with which to taste wine and cheese and to discuss them. Taste Education is often taught around France to kids as young as middle school age, training the next generation of eaters to appreciate good cheese, the pleasure inherent in the subtlety of food, and the value of French culinary culture.
Taste is, of course, inherently subjective, but with a common language, taste education can help bring those subjectivities into alignment, and can allow for a deeper taste sensation through discussion and common experience. This training, more than the actual eating, taught me how to Be Present, how to have a heightened awareness of what I was eating. If my experience as an American eater has taught me one thing, it is that we are not always present when we eat: with fast food, the goal is to consume a lot of calories quickly and cheaply and, as we say, keep it moving. With processed food, we are drifting and unmoored.
[pullquote_right]The French Paradox states that the French eat more carbohydrates, dairy, sweets, and drink more wine than Americans, yet Americans have higher rates of obesity and heart disease.[/pullquote_right]
As I broke a piece of Comte cheese in half at our tasting in Arbois (only a few miles from the dairy farm genesis of this cheese), smelling the emergent aromas, and closing my eyes for a small, slow bite, I may not have been the quickest to articulate the taste and aroma down to the most minute detail (as some in my group were able to do). However, after the taste education sessions, I looked back and realized that I had never been more present while eating. I had never been more conscious of the movement of my jaw, of the progression of tastes from first bite to finish after the swallow. I had never been more aware of the grasses outside being transformed, via the cow in the field, into the cheese I was consuming. I was IN IT—so much so that I didn’t know how in it I was until after the fact, out of it, I was reflecting back on it.
The idea of “being present” must play into the French Paradox in some way. The French Paradox refers to the fact that the French eat more carbohydrates, dairy, sweets, and drink more wine than Americans (who are notoriously health- and diet-obsessed), yet Americans have higher rates of obesity and heart disease. In France, eating is a social experience. Food is not simply the sum of component nutrient parts, but is a composite of French culture and culinary heritage and tradition. Maybe being present can mean being cognizant of the long stream one finds oneself floating in when eating a particular French meal. The meal is not an island, not an isolated event or a just means to an end, but is instead a ripple of water in that long stream.
For the first half of the trip we stayed in Paris at a student residence, Residence Republique, which is located in the 11th arrondissement. The 11th is not exactly a tourist destination. It has been compared to Greenwich Village, and it certainly has a bit of the bohemian, college-town sensibility associated with the Village. Most important about our location was that it did not cater to English speakers at all but to the French college crowd. To get my falafel (Paris has great falafel, due to its sizable North African population), I had to labor through my French (I have trouble with silent letters). Because of my lack of French language ability, and my unfamiliarity with French dining etiquette and dining customs, I felt, quite acutely, my Otherness. Eating in a restaurant alone, something I feel fine doing in New York, felt odd, because it seemed that French people were mostly eating in groups. I also paired some wines with cheeses or entrees that seemed to get me an amused look from the waiter (in France, there is typically a “right” way to order, a “right” combination of plates and wines and cheeses; in my unsophisticated way of eating, I simply chose what sounded good and/or what I could understand on the menu).
The one time I didn’t feel like an Other was when I went to an American-style food truck that sold tacos. This was a language I could understand—tacos, quesadillas, a menu written in Spanish. The French eaters had to be instructed on how to properly eat a taco (pick it up with your hands, tilt your head, put down your fork and knife)—French people are notoriously averse to eating with their hands and eating on the go, but the food truck craze seems to have reached beyond New York and L.A. to Paris.
The second half of the course took place in the Jura Mountains, in a town called Arbois. The Jura Region borders Switzerland and has a vastly different feel compared to Paris; it is as far from the big city tourist feel as one could get. In the Jura, we focused on the entire production to consumption chain of Comte cheese—the dairy farm, the cheese maker, the aging cellar, the marketing office, the tasting of the actual cheese itself. We visited a vineyard and went foraging in the mountains. We stayed at a small hostel in the hills, where we ate all our meals in a communal fashion—including an amazing feast of escargot brought to us by a local escargot farmer.
In the Jura, through each farm, processing facility and aging cellar, we witnessed the anchoring power of terroir, which translates to “the taste of place.” We saw the ways in which terroir is both a reaction to modernity in the food system and a component of it. In my next couple of columns, I’ll be discussing terroir and other elements of our trip, including the nuances our class came to understand during our time together. The focus will be mainly on the dialectic we observed between the ideal of a pure French cuisine, the notion of a globalized/mechanized American cuisine, and the synthesis of those two elements that can be witnessed today on the streets of Paris and in the hills and fields of the Jura.
Feel free to check out what the French Ministry of Agriculture had to say about our trip.