Before you say “Nora, all of your posts are about food,” let me ask, “what did you expect?” However, I want to dive a little deeper than the croissant and brie exterior you may be anticipating. Sure, these are aspects of French eating culture, but beyond that is the gastronomic culture — that is to say, the distinction between eating for satiation and eating for pleasure. I’ve had the chance to learn the ins and outs of gastronomy in my food and wine class. You heard me right, a class on the history, customs, and culture of French gastronomy. I may have told the advising staff that this class was absolutely obligatory for my degree in order to get off the waitlist… oops. Each class includes a discussion of gastronomy from its inception and, of course, a tasting.
As my professor explains it, there are varying levels to one’s dining experience: l’alimentation, or the food that you need to survive, la cuisine, a meal that you might enjoy in a casual setting, and la gastronomie, the most refined of the three and defined as a perfected version of cuisine, fit for company or a well-established restaurant. Being a college student, a gastronomic meal is not really in my budget. To learn the traditions and rules of refined eating, however, is free.
While I may not be able to dine at a fancy restaurant every night, I find myself noticing elements of gastronomy in my everyday experiences. One element I notice most is the idea of multiple courses. Every night that I eat dinner with my host family, we start with the main course, accompanied by a piece of baguette on the side of each person’s plate. Occasionally, if we have company, my host mom, Helene, will put out glasses of wine and some sort of appetizer like thinly sliced sausage or baguette and a cheese-based dip. Typically, during the first course, each member of the family will take only one serving but eat the entirety of it. I’m talking Clean Plate Club to the extreme. This is where the French value of conservation as well as the French love of bread comes into play. The piece of baguette given to you at the beginning of the meal becomes an apparatus for soaking up all the leftover sauce and scraps on your plate. Once everyone has had enough of the first course, my host mom will offer to bring out the cheese. Unlike in America, cheese is served as a prelude to dessert in France rather than an appetizer.
My natural inclination when I see a creamy Camembert in front of me is to ensure that there is no cheese left behind. However, I’ve learned in my gastronomy class that the respected norm is to cut off just one slice of cheese. If you take more than one, this signals to the cook that you did not eat enough in the first course either because you were served too little or did not enjoy the meal. Next comes dessert which, at least for me, varied drastically from what I would consider dessert in the states. Every night after our cheese course, Helene offers yogurt or fruit. For me, this is a breakfast menu offering. Yogurt, however, does not just mean plain, soupy Yoplait. Many French households have what I would call chocolate mousse pudding cups, but what they would call “yogurt.”
I believe the use of the gastronomic, multi-course dinner in French households combines ideas of eating for necessity and eating for pleasure. Living to eat as opposed to eating to live is a privilege that we don’t necessarily recognize in our culture. Of course, it’s preferable to have a gastronomic experience with many courses and attention paid to every aspect of every dish, but it’s not accessible for every social class. The prospect then of bringing elements of this luxurious dining experience into the home creates a place for everyday families to enjoy at least one meal together for an extended period of time. Time, in fact, is what most Americans note as the distinguishing factor between the French and American dinner. By splitting the meal into multiple courses, French families devote more time to the actual experience of eating and being in each other’s company. After two years of being in college, sometimes not even having the time to eat anything more than a bag of almonds from 7-11 in between classes, being able to stop everything for a few hours and just take pleasure in a home-cooked meal and the company of my host family feels like a necessary part of my day.