French Eating Rituals

The first time that 10-year-old Francois came over to our house to play with our son, Christopher, he announced that: “You Americans eat lunch standing up; debout!” I laughed heartily, and asked him what he meant.

He replied that his parents had explained that Americans eat lunch while standing upright- with very little time to boot. At the time, I thought that comment was very humorous, and didn’t actually realise that his comment was, in fact, not far from the truth regarding the dining habits of Americans in general. I was already familiar with frequent inquiries from our French friends about our ‘adaptation to the French cuisine’, with questions such as, “Est-ce que vous mangez comme les Francais or les Americaines?” Do we eat like the French or the Americans? What, when and how we eat as Americans in France has been a frequent point of curiosity among the French.

Our answer, of course, is: “Like the French”. The food is delicious, accompanied by amazing wines. From fresh and diverse fruits and produce, to an endless variety of regional cheeses, pates and dried saucisson, French cuisine is truly gourmet. Yet it is not only the special food and drink that makes French cuisine so different from American cuisine. It is the presentation of the meal and the length of time that it is given, that creates the single biggest difference between the American way of eating and the French way.

Until Francois made his announcement, proclaiming what the French typically think of American eating habits, I hadn’t stopped to think about it. But his comment forced me to acknowledge that Americans do typically tend to eat more quickly, certainly more often than not with a hurried lunch, grabbing a quick sandwich on the run or while on the job. American schoolchildren are usually hurried through the lunch line and the cafeteria in their schools, to accommodate the next group of hungry students. In my own children’s school in the US, they are allotted 20 minutes in the cafeteria for lunch! I have not yet admitted this to any of our French friends, as it would appear that we are barbaric in our meal-time rituals!

In France, lunch is honoured, even during the school and work week, with a minimum of one and a half to two hours granted to students for lunch, either at school or to return home. The French really do sit down to eat meals together as a family; lunch at the weekend and dinners every night. Meals are served ‘a table’, in a leisurely and organised manner. There is a minimum of four courses; entrée, plat principal, cheeses and dessert, often fruits or tart. On the weekends, this lunch and dinner ritual can last four hours or more.

So, although there is certainly delicious and wonderful food and wine to be found in France, and cuisine that is new and different, the greatest change for Americans in France, I feel, is adapting to the French approach to leisurely mealtimes, en famille. The American lunch ‘on the run’ just doesn’t exist in France. Francois’s comment may have provoked a lot of laughter, but in retrospect, it’s not far from the truth!

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