OOH LA LA
By Christine Ying
Bon Appetit! or How the French showed us how to enjoy the whole culinary experience;
sourcing, preparing, cooking and eating everything, literally from soup to nuts.
For centuries the poor and less wealthy had to eat at home, and if it weren’t for the French Revolution we might still be there—we wouldn’t have the dining culture that we have today. The Révolution française and French cuisine revolutionized the way we enjoy food… and we’ve been living under its influence ever since.
It is rumored that what we know as French cuisine was started by an Italian, Queen Catherine de’ Medici of Italy. When she arrived in France, she brought a coterie of cooks, chefs, winemakers, and gardeners from Florence. Her Italian staff has historically been credited with establishing the roots of high French cuisine, although this connection has been hotly disputed, especially by the French! Both cultures have had their mark on how we dine, but the influence of Italian Epicureanism on French dining is a valid link—just don’t bring it up in casual conversation at the bistro.
In the Middle Ages, fine food was an expensive commodity in Paris. The exceptional dining culture started to build up from the exclusive food guilds regulated by the city government and the monarchy (they had artisans before being an artisan was fashionable). Whichever food the guild specialized in was their monopoly, so if a particular guild specialized in cheese, others were banned from selling cheese unless they belonged to that organization. However, following the French Revolution, the guilds were dismantled, and those specialized chefs that had cooked and created for royalty and the aristocracy were left without an outlet for their talents and expertise. Used to catering to those with high-end tastes, these displaced artisans turned to opening communal dining establishments in Paris open to all who could afford the prices. The experience caught on and the industry blossomed. There you have it, restaurants and a new entertainment for Parisians; dining in public, with beautiful and opulent china, cutlery, and linen tablecloths. Aristocracy was now available to France’s middle class. With new and diverse menus, the public became exposed to a new realm of cuisine, and the custom of fine dining in France would soon be popularized throughout Europe and then the rest of the world.
As restaurants started to expand in Paris, wealthy Europeans flocked to the city to partake in its thriving gourmet food culture. After wars, many military personnel would regularly return to Paris to enjoy the dining experience, fine food and wine all boosted by the advancement in transportation at the end of the 19th century. With ocean-going steamers, inter-city railways, and the freedom afforded by automobiles, luxury tourism was now prevalent and ‘eating out’ played a huge part.
The French restaurant culture has an ever present influence on the United States, especially when we entered World War II and so many were exposed to the culture. It was also when Americans started to eat at restaurants much more because it was possible to pay for food with cash, rather than ration stamps. This shift was so significant that during the war, eight million restaurant meals a day were served; a vast difference from the three million eaten before the war.
If you can’t tell already, the French are serious about eating. In many modern societies, people are accustomed to eating alone, but for the French, that’s an abomination. Even the most basic, frugal or quick snack must be enjoyed with others. It’s not just the evening repast with family, but at every opportunity—friends, colleagues, even strangers become an essential part of it. In the U.S. it might be the most natural inclination to just grab a sandwich or salad on your own. In France that’s a strict no-no. Your coworkers might very well see that as strange, sad, or even rude. They enjoy a serious amount of time in eating while socializing with others.
Déjeuner is the national main meal and most midi breaks, even for school children, are at least 45 minutes to two hours long. And since it’s customary to partake in multiple overlapping courses, dining out can sometimes turn into a four-hour engagement depending on the occasion. Meals are essentially social activities and family dinners often last into the wee hours. Eating alone is simply sacrilegious. Bon appétit is taken very literally.
Americans originally adopted a three-meals-a-day model, but as our lives became more hectic (and social media more intrusive) eating together en famille is becoming a rarity especially in restaurants (except for fast food establishments that don’t really count). For the French, however, meals are a social and grand occasion. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner the whole country gathers at the same time to eat. For Americans, time is of the essence, and eating cannot always be reserved to enjoy with others. So for us, we often shove everything in our mouths as quick as we can before it’s time get to work.
Taking your time to eat is just the French way. And as a companion to eating slow, the French way is to love cooking slow as well. It’s really a sign of respect. There’s pride in slowing down, and it’s reflected in their cuisine. With delicious stews simmered for hours, cheese aged for a year and more, and wine second to none, to microwave anything is a crime; these slow-time meals look, smell and taste magnificent.
There are a few factors that leave Americans a bit disconnected from a rich food culture. Our food traditions stemmed mainly from Grreat Britain, a land not known for its Epicurean tastes. Especially the early settlers who were mostly poor English, Scottish, and Irish Protestant migrants. So the New England tradition that associated plain cooking with austerity, religious piety and frugality was born. Because of this less bon viveur approach to life, there was a general hostility toward fancy or highly seasoned foods. And of course for those who were deeply religious, such sensualist foods were believed to incite sensual indulgence. When the first American cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796, there was a disdain for French cooking and its painstaking detail for ingredients, condiments, herbs and spices, which was best described by the then popular chef-author, Hannah Glasse, describing French recipes as “an odd jumble of trash.”
French cuisine is still often dismissed in the States as this fancy, fatty, overpriced and over-cooked experience. The contrary is actually the true case. Most traditional French cuisine relies on basic ingredients and it’s the time preparing them that makes the difference. Fruit, vegetables, and meat either grown at home or from local farms and fresh fish and seafood from the many miles of coastline.
Good news is we have a quickly growing minority in this country who have adapted to French cuisine beyond its high fat deliciousness. Many of our most innovative chefs were specially trained in French techniques, When Alice Waters, chef, author, and food activist opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, she established the organic food craze and championed local sustainable small farms making the farmers market the trend it is today. Many would be surprised to know that her cutting edge cooking has French roots beyond its name, as fresh and organic ingredients are the norm in France (many local recipes were created from what was in season).
Then of course there’s Julia Childs. Mastering the Art of French Cooking showed us that she—and we—could enjoy cooking French food as well as eating it. Not only did she bring the fundamentals to homes that had never seen a French dish, but she also exposed homemakers to an array of ingredients previously unknown or underappreciated in home kitchens. For a culture that had catered their cuisine around canned goods or manufactured ingredients, all of sudden Americans were cooking game birds, offal and innards, and classic stocks. Instead of Wonder Bread, freshly baked baguettes; biscuits were joined by croissants; and French pastries were suddenly at the fingertips of the world.
The New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborne, an expert on French food, taught Americans how to be foodies. Although French food is now more accepted in our social consciousness, it is arguably still has a sense of snobbery to it. Make no mistake: The food of European aristocrats is still a class marker in our society.