When was the last time you sat down to a meal with everyone you live with? When was the last time you spent more than a half an hour at the table? When was the last time your home-cooked meal was several courses?
In the U.S., we plan our family meals, drink our coffee from paper cups, and eat while we multitask. Our going, going, gone approach to life has not only changed how we eat, but what we eat. If it can’t be easily packed up, we probably don’t eat it. Especially among college students, if it takes too long to prepare, you can just forget it—my apologies to anyone who cooks really good and intricate meals every day. Living somewhere where eating is an event, even in a big city, is an eye opening experience to how this piece of our life can be different. We can make the choice to eat together, in courses, and just enjoy it without feeling like we’re wasting time.
The French don’t really eat on the go and with the exception of Starbucks, beverages do not come “to go” and the “travel cup” is most definitely not a thing. The Parisians take refuge from the cold in street-lining cafés, ordering an espresso and pulling out a book or settling in with a lover or a friend.
On top of the way they eat, the French are famous for their cuisine with good reason. I’ve been inspired to try my hand at cooking, abroad and in the US, through my experience with French cuisine, so here’s a taste of dining life to inspire you too.
The only meal the French don’t eat together every day is breakfast. While more traditional families may all sit down together, the reality of the world in general is that most members of the household are on vastly different schedules and it just doesn’t work out.
What it has: The French are famous for their pastries and these definitely make an appearance, especially when dining out. Typically though, breakfast is more along the lines of coffee—and by coffee I really mean espresso—or tea (usually black or earl grey), with buttered or jammed toast. Cereal is sold in grocery stores, but don’t be fooled, your favorite brand does not taste the same here. Many large manufacturers, General Mills and McDonalds included, cater to local tastes when abroad.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that the French are obsessed with yogurt. It is everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. The grocery store near my apartment has an entire aisle dedicated to cheese on one side and yogurt on the other. It’s pretty common to eat it multiple times a day. If I’m hungry in the morning I’ll have it with breakfast. If I’m packing a lunch, yep there’s a yogurt. Snack? No pretzels or chips or munchies, okay let’s have yogurt. Dessert with dinner is…you guessed it. Yogurt. The best part about this obsession, though, is that there are more varieties and brands than you could ever imagine. There’s vanilla and vanilla bean, coconut, hazelnut, fruit, lemon curd, everything. And, wait for it…pudding is sometimes considered yogurt too. But all jokes aside, you can find milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, vanilla and chocolate mousse (with whipped cream and/or actual chocolate chunks and swirls).
What it’s missing: Eggs! Quiches and omelets are more prevalent on the dinner menu.
As a student, I’m usually between classes for lunch. The majority of my lunches are packed from the groceries I buy, or sandwiches picked up from a local café. It’s more expensive to eat in a restaurant than to take it outside and sit on a bench in the nearest park, on the steps of the Seine, or on a stone wall in a courtyard so lunches are also more of the picnic meal. More often than not my lunch has a lot of baguette and cheese involved, but that could just be my taste and its availability.
In large part, the French don’t snack. If dinner’s going to be late, they have an espresso or a cup of tea. For an American in Paris, this may be one of the biggest adjustments. Dinner is much later here, so an afternoon snack after class at 5:00 is an absolute necessity for me. You really can’t buy snacks in the grocery stores so my staple has become baguette, cheese and tea. Unfortunately, large macarons are not a daily snack, but today I just happened to pick up my baguette from a new boulangerie near my apartment that doubles as a patisserie and had lovely, fresh lemon macarons in the window. I’m weak, I couldn’t say no.
What it has: It’s filling. The empty feeling you get from walking around all day and doing spiral staircases to and from class and up to your apartment can always be patched up with the miracle that is a good baguette. And it’s a bargain: baguettes are cheaper than water. Two feet of bread? That’ll be 90 centimes.
What it’s missing: Salt. It is my profound opinion that Paris has an insane sweet tooth. Herb garlic goat cheese is my go-to for a savory note, but most things in the city—even potato chips—have an undertone of sweetness. Speaking of which, I finally discovered why Madame’s homemade salad dressing has a sweet note: the oil in the vinaigrette is walnut oil, not olive oil. Not bad… not bad at all.
Dinner is the most involved meal for the French; it’s the time for family and friends to gather on a daily basis and share time and conversation over good food. As a student living in a homestay, this meal falls under three categories for me: dinner with Madame, dinner on my own and dinner out. I live with a single retired woman, and on top of the fact that she is kind and generous in a million ways, she is an amazing cook.
When Madame makes dinner, it’s a veritable feast. There’s always a main dish: seafood, chicken, omelet, quiche, etc., and then at least one side, usually a vegetable dish like fennel and carrots, zucchini, potatoes, green beans. Then there’s the salad course, followed by bread and cheese, and then dessert, which is usually fruit or yogurt, maybe a pastry or pudding. This is the more traditional French dinner where everyone living in the same home eats together and spreads the meal out for an hour or two. Filled with conversation, this meal is an affair, and definitely one to remember.
Dinner in France is much later in the day than in the US, usually starting anywhere between 7:00 on the early end and 9:00 on the later end. Madame and I usually sit down for dinner between 8:00 and 8:30 and finish up by 10:00 most nights. If Madame has company the meal usually lasts a bit longer to accommodate more conversation.
When I make dinner, I’m a little lazy. I’ll admit it, most times I’m just hungry and tired and I just want the food to be ready, quickly. So when I cook in France, in someone else’s kitchen, with ingredients I’m not entirely sure are what I need, I like to keep it simple: one course, few dishes. My self-prepared dinners have included pesto (store-bought, I’m ashamed to say) gnocci, pasta with red sauce, a large salad (with homemade dressing!) with tomatoes and baguette with brie.
I’m boring myself with the lack of variety and Madame’s cooking inspires me, so I bought this fantastic book that breaks France down by region and talks about the food that comes from each place and gives recipes for those items.
When we go out is the time to get adventurous. Depending on where you are in the city and how much you’re willing to spend, you can try local specialties and delicacies. Seafood is a big deal and sea urchins are definitely on my list to try, but escargot are the quintessential Parisian specialty and when I went out with some foodie companions to a restaurant called Le Coupe Chou, I felt compelled to try them. Our dinner out was 3 1/2 hours long with a shared appetizer (the escargot), poppyseed crusted salmon over braised fennel and carrots, and chocolate mousse for dessert. Not unlike the courses Madame prepares, but with a much longer timeline in a formal setting.
Eating is an experience here and it’s a great gateway to understanding the French philosophy on life. You don’t rush through any form of art here, and food is no exception. Just like you should wander through a museum with leisure, eating is a hobby, not just a necessity. Preparation and service also play a big part in this cultural ritual: Madame spends at least an hour and a half in the kitchen preparing dinner, and when dining out, servers arrive only upon necessity or request so as not to interrupt the diners.
My challenge: Adopting the eating habits takes a little effort, and I do miss snacking, but it is all part of the cultural experience and it makes you think about the way we eat in America. Neither method is more right or wrong than the other; it’s all just different, and having a new experience can help you decide what you like and/or want to adopt into your own life.
I know I don’t want to settle for sub-par dinners when I cook for myself, so I’m ready to embark on this adventure and attack food prep with renewed vigor, patience and curiosity. Try it yourself with more variety in your meals, using seasonal food as inspiration (especially as spring comes on), and take time to really enjoy the fruit of your labors.