When the French cook, they read from recipes written in invisible ink. Their culinary creations are much more elaborate, much richer (and not just in butter content) than what is written on the page. Their foods — and their eating practices — seem to be infused with their values, their traditions, their beliefs about humanity, themselves.
In eating French food, I’ve tasted a value for practicality, for economy. When invited to a dinner party, my host mom instructed me to ask the host what you should bring to ensure you don’t bring something he/she is already making. It would be tragic, for example, to have two desserts, because then only one could be eaten and that would make for gaspillage: waste. (“Couldn’t you just eat both desserts?” I asked. My host mom furrowed her brow. Clearly not.) Better to bring a bottle of wine or champagne, she advised, that could be opened on another occasion if the host is already serving another drink or serving a kind of food that doesn’t pair well with the drink. She requires that her sons finish everything on their plates before leaving the table; she used my eggs that were about to expire and bought new ones for me, rather than letting mine go to waste. And it’s not just food wastage that is avoided — it’s electricity, gas, water. I’ve been chastised for leaving the heat on after leaving the apartment. I’ve been surprised to find the rare ice cubes in my drinks, as they guzzle unnecessary electricity, according to the French.
Perhaps as a consequence of this prudence, I’ve tasted an acceptance and a normalisation of the body — the entire body. I’ve ordered a salade aux crevettes (shrimp salad) to find a full-fledged shrimp (whiskers, legs, and eyeballs) swimming on my plate. It’s not uncommon to come eye to eye with what you’re about to eat; the act of eating an animal isn’t disguised in purées or patties. And it’s nothing shocking to serve up all different parts of the animal or all different kinds of animals. I’ve seen intestines, tête d’agneau (lamb’s head) and tongue on a menu. One night, my host mom asked what exotic foods I’ve eaten, and after racking my brain to come up with escargot and squid ink pasta, she rattled off an extensive list of her own: horse, zebra, antelope, sea urchin, turtle… The stigma around eating cute, cuddly critters or romanticized species isn’t such a stigma here. One animal’s body merits a meal just as much as that of any other. This acceptance and normalization of animal bodies extends to the human body, as evidenced in the scantily clad women fronting magazines on streetside kiosks, in French people’s confusion about why Facebook automatically censors nude pictures, in the social acceptability of men wearing tight pants. For the French, the body just is, in its human and animal forms.
I’ve tasted a value for precision. While teaching my host family how to make chocolate chip cookies one afternoon, my host mom broke out a cooking scale to measure the weights of the ingredients. When my 10-year-old host brother accidentally dumped 92 grams of sugar — a whopping two grams more than the recipe called for — into the bowl, my host mom grabbed a spoon to scrape out the imposing two grams. And when the sticky dough was ready to be spooned onto the baking sheet, my host brother quizzically asked, “There’s no mold?” Expecting an American equivalent of a madeleine pan, a shape to fill, a standard to conform to, he couldn’t believe that the blind indulgence of a chocolate chip cookie could be so careless. Through their cooking practices, the French express their value for exactitude, for uniformity and order.
I’ve tasted the importance of food towards social bonding. My study abroad program assigned us college-aged Parisian correspondantes, and one night they invited us to one of their apartments for a party. Accustomed to American college party refreshments (i.e., usually nothing more than a few packs of stale Doritos), I was amused to find a thoughtful assortment of snacks spread across the counter: a bowl of Haribo gummies, a vat of potato chips, several tubs of pretzels and a tarte aux pommes (apple pie). It seems that, not only amongst the classier ranks of society, but across all ages and occasions, food is a staple at any social gathering, a symbol of hospitality and celebration. Whereas in the U.S., food is a facilitator of friendship but not a requirement, in France, food is what makes a social gathering a social gathering.
Beyond revealing French values, these encounters have served as a point of contrast to my American ones. In becoming aware of the French concern for conservation, for example, I have become aware of my own wastage. In realizing the French normalization of the body, I’ve realized my own squeamishness. In appreciating how the French value precision, I’ve realized my own appreciation of individuality. But in finding that food serves a social function in France, just as it does in the U.S., I have felt more similar than different from the French. Our shared understanding of the importance of food in bringing people together brings us together. You don’t even have to speak French to understand what it means to receive a lemon poppy seed cake when you first arrive in France.