Monday, August 31, 2009

Cooking & Eating in France

We're preparing some art work to sell at a lively local art fair in a couple of weeks. It will be the first event like this we have participated in. We are particularly interested in introducing our photogravure process to our local public. So I began to look through my enormous photo library to find an attractive image to transform into a photoetching. The kitchen at Danièle Mazet-Delpeurch's house immediately caught my eye. We took a cooking course with Danièle in 2005 and the weekend yielded a number of wonderful photos, and inspired my art work over the next year. This memory has made me stop to consider again, why the place of food and the experience of eating is so different in France than in the U.S. It also put me in mind of the very funny comparison between Paris, France and Paris, Kentucky, which made it's way around the internet a few years ago. Of course it's by no means true that every American is obese and certainly not every French person is slim, but it is true that the U.S. ranks absolute first in the world for obesity, while France ranks 23rd. About one out of every three people in the U.S. are considered obese, while less than one in ten are obese in France. Still, this is a huge increase for France and this number is staggering to them. It is considered a real national crisis. The problem particularly effects student-age children, who have picked up American's bad habits of fast and junk food eating. When a new report came out revealing a significant increase in child obesity, the government immediately took action. They outlawed anything in vending machines at schools other than fresh apples. It was quite impressive to see how quickly and efficiently this occurred. It's also interesting to note that France ranks 9th in the world for life-expectancy while the U.S. ranks 50th. That seems rather remarkable when you consider that 30% of the French population smoke, as opposed to less than 20% in the U.S. Another bit of news which is not often discussed in the U.S. media, is that the World Health Organization ranks France's Health Care as the best in the world. The U.S. is ranked 37th. The French do get a lot of things right, and cooking, eating and their relationship to food is one of them. The good health follows naturally. Some people have theorized that the U.S. dysfunction with food and the lack of importance given to really enjoying our meals, may have its root in our Puritan history. We were taught not to appreciate some of those basic, sensual aspects of life. Even while the French eat quite a bit more fat than the average American, they don't gain weight nearly as fast. People have been talking about this paradox for years, trying to understand what makes the difference. Some people believe that it's the red wine/resveratrol factor, while others just see it as a completely different philosophy of eating and food. One also has to consider the time factor. French people are horrified to hear that children in U.S. schools get only a half hour for lunch. All school children in France are provided sit-down meals at lunch. It is considered essential for their concentration and success in class. Family meals in France are very significant and lengthy. Even small children are taught to sit at table for very extended periods. A gathering of friends and family think nothing of taking four hours at table for Sunday lunch. Lunch hour is often two hours even for working people. I read about Danièle's cooking course in the Dordogne in a 2003 Travel & Leisure article. I saved it for a couple of years as it captivated me. Two and a half years later, I finally gave Danièle a call and arranged a time for our visit. When we took our class with her, she first took us to the large and bustling market in Brive-la-Gaillarde to purchase ingredients. Markets are located in every nook and cranny of France. People naturally look for fresh food and a personal relationship with their suppliers. Danièle taught us how to look at food, and of course she knew which vendors to trust. The standard of perfection in the U.S. for fruit, for instance, always seems to be big, bright and blemish-free. The first time we returned to the U.S. we were amazed at how big and red the strawberries were. We had forgotten. But that size and color are a bit artificial and the taste is effected and the nutrition value diminished when the food is grown for consistency of size and color primarily. Danièle bought us some peaches which were small, malformed and pock-marked. They are called pêche de vinge, and they were incredibly sweet and delicious. Another important point in Danièle's approach to cooking, is to use fresh food in season and to plan meals around the bounty of your own garden. Our meal together featured fresh figs prominently, as they were ripe on her tree. Danièle is a natural cook, who has had so much daily experience, year-in and year-out, that she has an intuitive understanding of how to put a meal together. She follows no recipes, and she makes no mistakes. Cooking is still an endlessly rewarding and satisfying activity to her and she shares her knowledge with her students in the most loving way. The time in her kitchen flew past. We all helped prepare our several-course meal and more than gathering recipes, we learned to pay attention. It was a basic and sensual experience, we received great pleasure from each step. After we had prepared our meal, we sat down together to enjoy it at Danièle's table, which she set with superb care. This one short weekend has lived long in my memory as one of the most charming and nurturing experiences of recent times. After spending the morning working on this blog post, I took my usual lunch break to read the International Herald Tribune. In today's paper was an op-ed piece by Roger Cohen, called Advantage France. He and I are definitely thinking alike. At Maison Conti we also offer a cooking course with the lovely Alexandra Tallen.


  1. I would so love to go to France! Maybe some day.

  2. Hi Nancy
    I'm hanging out for those leisurely meals at a French table with friends - old and new. Nothing like it. What a brilliant story.

  3. Wonderful and very good approach of what food means to french people : friendship, sensuality, epicureanism, "carpe diem" philosophy ! We could add that during a good meal it often happens that we, french, speak about ... food : the last excellent gratin dauphinois or cake or fish, any, and the next meal we are thinking of !
    I remember James saying one day at home that our Sunday lunch with a very simple roasted chicken and chips was "so decadent" ! It was funny for us to think in this way. Another time he wondered why it tooks us ages to choose the restaurant where we were going to have our evening mea, but to-day, after having tested, I think he became a very exigent eater. This is a gene of our latine origin I suppose and also it comes from of a tradition in agriculture and growing vegetables, and markets. We can drive a long way to get the best products, not the biggest, but the most gustative ones.

  4. Fabuleux! What a great post, I enjoyed hearing about you cooking weekend. I want to come!!!!!

  5. I'm so glad that I discovered your blog! Thanks to Printsy blog! I love your art, and your views on food. It seems to me that you are truly living the life!