Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bon Appetit

The French are famous for, among other things, having a deep appreciation for good food and wine. Even the simplest components of their diet--bread and cheese--are second to none.

But what I observed during my week in France (mostly in Brittany) was that my hosts were not slavishly devoted to eating. Despite their love of food, they don't seem to mind a little hunger.

If we were to measure food appreciation by how much or how frequently the citizens eat, America would trounce France as an eating culture. But it's not the quality of the food for which Americans are known, but the quantity of food  consumption.  It's not how much the French eat but the quality of their food that makes France a foodie nation.

My son, 12, held to the American script, asking every thirty minutes to stop for  an ice cream or crepes or croissants. In his persistence, I recognized a familiar anxiety, the American mindset about food that would suggest that we had  recently emerged out of a prolonged period of famine.

Hunger gnaws on the American psyche like a bone. When, if ever, will I eat again? 

Where does this come from? From the Pilgrims' experience of near-starvation? Is there a genetic marker in the American profile that reminds us of the Irish Potato Famine, the American Dust Bowl, the Depression?  Or does it point to the Pogroms, the abductions, and the deprivations that propelled our forebears to the New World?

While in France, we had places to go and things to do and see. We walked, took photos, and did not stop to eat every time we felt the slightest twinge of hunger. We got plenty of exercise exploring the old cities, neighborhoods, gardens, chateaus, cathedrals and basilicas. We stopped to eat only after we had thoroughly exhausted the breakfast fuel, having seen and done what we set out to do.

And when we did eat, we sat down at a table, hungry and enthusiastic. The menu dazzled with possibilities, almost a torment to read. I would choose something rich and delicious: a pasta with Gorgonzola sauce; a sausage wrapped in galette; a carafe of cold fermented cider to take the edge off the harsh light of day; a tartine for me, a chocolate crepe for Josh.

I explained to my French host that Americans were generally deeply neurotic about food, but I couldn't explain why.  For my host, such negative feelings about food were inconceivable.

Nonetheless, most of us are like that, I said.

But that is a mistake, he pointed out. Food is to be enjoyed. Eating is one of life's great pleasures.

I agree, it's supposed to be that way. And it is a pity for us.

My host was searching for the English word that describes a person who passionately loves to eat. Such a person, he explained, seeing desserts on a table, could not prevent himself from eating it. What is that word?

Pig?  The only word that came to mind. That's how we would describe such a person.

He looked at me as though I had willfully misunderstood.

The French have more regard for pigs than Americans. There are expressions in French that compare close relationships among friends to the affection between pigs. Apparently, pigs can be quite devoted to their friends; a quality that has seldom been celebrated in America, except by E.B. White. The majority of us focus on their flies, filth, and gluttony.

The correct word was "gourmand."

gourmand-- 1. one who is fond of good eating, often to excess. 2. a gourmet; epicure

If you have a passion for eating that borders on excess, you're a gourmand, not a pig. Don't be so hard on yourself. There is nothing shameful about being a gourmand.  (Nor is there anything shameful about being a pig, come to think.)

Perhaps Americans eat too much because there is too much sugar in our diet, or too much gluten or too many carbohydrates.  Perhaps the linings of our stomachs remember our grandparents' brush with starvation. For me, it's all conjecture.

There was simply no way that I could convey to my French host any plausible reason why food should ever be a source of grief.  And it was equally impossible for me, an American woman, to imagine having a lifetime of eating without it.

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