Food. Eating. And the art of the meal.

Celebrating my two-year anniversary of living in France has made me reflect on the ways this country has changed me. So this post is a personal look at how my view on food has been impacted:

March 15 is popularly known as “the Ides of March” but to me it will always signify the day I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to Paris. As I celebrate my two year “Paris-versary” of living here, I can’t help but reflect on who I was two years ago and barely recognize the girl at the boarding gate that evening in Newark, NJ.

I can list off many ways I've changed. I arrived two years ago without a job, without speaking a word of French, without a notion of what living abroad really meant. An identity crisis later and constant lessons in patience and humility bear marks on who I am today. There is a badge of confidence and independence that I think all expats wear as the scars of fumbling through a different culture and making a fool of themselves fade (or just start to feel less severe).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and there is way too much to share on how I've grown during the past two years. So today I’ll leave you with one aspect of life that French culture has pressed upon me, one I will take away with me whenever my time to leave this country comes.

Food. Eating. And the art of the meal.

“Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of ‘The Splendid Table,’ says there are two kinds of people in the world: people who wake up thinking about what to have for supper and people who don’t. I am in the first camp, certainly. But it took me about twenty years to say that out loud.”
-Shauna Niequist, “Bread & Wine” 

Dinner at Ciel de Paris

I have always loved food. I think it only comes naturally having a mother who is a fantastic cook and baker. I grew up eating delicious meals and being exposed to new foods. There was notably the time we tried rattlesnake on a family vacation in Arizona (which, sorry for the cliché, really did taste like chewy chicken). Or the vacation we took to California and ate grilled calamari steaks (first time eating them not fried) at Abalonetti’s. My little brother, about ten years old at the time, liked it so much he ate his leftovers for breakfast.  Strange eating calamari for breakfast? Yes. But my brother was born with quite a palate. This was the same time frame when he could tell if his mashed potatoes were made with Idaho potatoes, which was his preference.

I have great memories around the table with my family. But I also have struggled between enjoying food and then feeling guilty. Wishing I didn't enjoy food as much, that I could pick on lettuce and be thin and happy. Finding balance with appreciating food and eating to provide my body with healthful nourishment has been difficult for me to discern.

In the midst of trying to navigate this balance, I tried Weight Watchers about a year or so before we moved. The plan aligned with my food beliefs since there were no foods off limits, but instead just calculated moderation. It was successful, but I also was eating bagels that tasted like cardboard and cream cheese that had no flavor whatsoever to attempt to mask the bland bread. What used to be full of flavor and enjoyment became reduced to points, black and white numbers. I felt like I was fighting against the evil enemy of food, battling it out as I constantly added up points.

So then I moved to France, a country smaller than Texas that probably eats enough baguettes for every carb-deprived person the Atkins diet. A country full of foodies, lovers of a good quality meal, down to the perfect wine pairing accompaniments.

The first thing I learned was that eating a meal is an event. Going out to dinner usually entails a two-to-three hour experience. There is no rushing, just relishing the sacred space of mealtime. And although you are seated for a while, the platings are not heaping mountains of food. If you are unable to finish it, you don’t pack it up to go. The food is to be savored in that moment and setting. (Note to those who are planning a visit to France, it is a good idea to make reservations for dinner ahead of time. Tables don't turn over rapidly!)

I love that the French have an additional course included in a proper dinner: the cheese course. Check out that fromage at Paris bistrot À La Biche Au Bois

Even a morning coffee is enjoyed in the moment. You can stand at the counter of a café quickly downing an espresso, but even for those short few minutes you remain stationary. The attitude is to be present, to be aware of what you eat and drink. It’s not to be rushed, to be thoughtlessly consumed on-the-go. Lunch is not eaten behind a computer screen in between meetings and snacks are not consumed in front of the TV. I noticed living this way drew my attention to savor each flavor of a meal. I was engaged fully, without distractions, during meal times. 

With such attention given to the meal, it follows that quality of ingredients is emphasized. I do frequent the supermarket, frequently enough due to a small refrigerator that Google deduced it was my workplace. But I've also learned to embrace consulting with vendors on their wares at markets and specialty shops. This did not come easily in the days when I was a beginner in French classes coupled with an ingrained mindset to value efficiency. (I was coming from past experience where weekly grocery trips to Stop and Shop in Jersey involved me, a hand-held scanner, and sometimes an automated touch screen to order from the deli. No human contact, in and out in a flash.)

There was some learning to be done. I started to frequent open-air markets. I learned that the French eat seasonally. I started to learn what the actual seasons for produce are, things like strawberries are not available all year round. I talked with fromagers to pick the perfect combinations of cheeses. I bought the most delicious fresh salmon. I asked for leg of lamb at the boucherie and the butcher held up an entire lamb's leg…(he then helped me find a better alternative for just two people). There is a honestly about what food is and how it looks naturally. Feathers on poultry, heads of pigs, eyes in the fish heads - it’s all presented in a frank way. And thanks to more free time and fresh ingredients, I have significantly upped my cooking game. 

My regular market, Marché Popincourt

The thing is, the food itself is wonderful in Paris. It’s why some fellow foodies seek it out as a travel destination. The bread, cheese, wine, and pastries are barely the start of what France has to offer the culinary scene. But the food, even combined with the beauty of this city, would have never kept me here happily. It is all the wonderful people I have met along the way who have made this journey life-changing.

And that is why French culture has forever changed me. The meal is an art form in itself, a vehicle of connection. Food meets the physical need of nourishment. A meal provides the stuff our soul needs, the nourishment of a relationship. I have learned that food is France is more than that - it is meant to connect people, to be enjoyed jointly. 

I have a much greater appreciation of the meal and the space it provides for fellowship. I love lingering at a café or restaurant with others, and I've also been learning so much more about hosting guests chez moi. I have slowly tried to create space around my table to nourish others. I cook to make and create, I host to show love for those who gather in my home. I am learning the French way to host, complete with an apéro, entrée, plat, cheese course, and dessert, paired with wines. But whether I make a complete meal, pack a picnic to share with friends, or serve pizza and Belgian beer for a movie night (it was getting embarrassing that I've been to Bruges twice and still hadn't seen In Bruges), in the end it’s about spending time together. And one thing I really value about European culture in general is the work/life balance. There’s a time to work, but an equally important time to be with friends and family. Usually around the table.

I'm still a work in progress with the whole entertaining bit - here's the mushroom soup I finally served my family. Doubling that recipe caused a major delay!

So if you ask me what I have learned while living in France and hope to learn a clear-cut formula on how the French stay so slim, I can't offer that information. But what I would share with you is how I have made some peace with food. Although I still struggle with the balance of enjoying food and not living in shame, there is beauty in how meals connect us relationally in a powerful way. And investing time with others fills my heart in a way that most delicious baguette can never deliver. Because of that, I desire my home to always be a place of rest, of nourishment, of replenishment wherever “home” becomes in the future - this is a piece of my Parisian experience that will remain with me.

“What people are craving isn't perfection. People aren't longing to be impressed; they’re longing to feel like they’re home. If you create a space full of love and character and creativity and soul, they’ll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd.” 

-Shauna Niequist, “Bread & Wine” 


Room for dessert?

Further Reading:

These two books have impacted me greatly in the past year.

I mentioned this book in my Valentine’s Day post for the salmon recipe. This cookbook is wonderful because it is easy to understand and follow to make some French dishes. The mushroom soup I've made has been a big hit as well as the salmon - and there are so many other great recipes! This is one of my favorite cookbooks and one of the few I bothered to carry all the way here.

Shauna Niequist's insightful food/spiritual memoir really spoke to me this winter. She writes about the essence of the meal, and how it is a vehicle for relationships, intertwined with some recipes I am looking forward to trying.


Has travel / another culture ever challenged the way you thought about something?