Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Art of Food and Pleasure

In Àlit’s last article, Olivia pointed out the sharp divergences between Italian and American lifestyles, offering a few food-related examples to illustrate this remarkable contrast. Let me point out a few other interesting disparities between our gastronomic culture and that of our friends in Europe.

- French and Italian restaurants open at eight at the earliest (and by open, I mean start taking reservations at that time – no earlier). In France at the least, most diners arrive at nine; in Spain, adults often don’t arrive at the restaurant until ten or eleven. After arriving, you take your time to satisfy your hunger, and leave late enough that there's no extra stops for last-minute ice cream on the way home. The rush to get to dinner, the hurried waiters asking for orders five minutes after you’ve sat down, that extra midnight snack when you get home? Nonexistent.

- The French go shopping everyday at the fresh produce marché, and purchase exactly what they’ll need - and no more – for the next twenty-four hours. They don’t gorge on the food in the cabinets, because they need to make what they have last. There is no rushed bi-monthly grocery shopping spree at the nearest supermarket, but a half an hour each day to take time and decide on the best quality food.

- Nearly all Europeans, rather than snack, enjoy three long multiple-course meals a day, with little in between. While “grazing” (snacking very lightly) throughout the day, eating every three hours, is ideal for the metabolism, let’s be honest: most of us Americans take it too far, and eat much more than we need to feel satisfied. Europeans, on the other hand, hardly know the meaning of snack – and are thinner for it.

- French meals – dinner in particular – call for many courses and several hours, as do those in Italy. Le dîner is a four–course, sit-down event (l’entrée, le plat principlal, le fromage, and dessert) Wine or champagne is enjoyed at lunch. Everything is enjoyed – but enjoyed slowly.

As Olivia told us, the discrepancies of course reach farther than just food – overall, our European counterparts lead much more leisurely lives, if a tad less “ambitious” (and I use that word reluctantly). The French, for instance, are famous for their strictly enforced limits on citizens’ working hours, and relish long vacations during the summer. I focus on food in particular only because the drastically different European outlook seems to affect the practice of eating and dining more than any other aspect of daily life.

Food is huge to European countries, much more so than in America. Gastronomy is acknowledged as such an integral aspect of French culture that it is one of the first things an American student studies in French class. Food vocabulary, eating habits, even what French students eat at their school cafeteria – it’s all taught, because it’s that important to French culture.

Europeans in general place enormous value on food, and thus treat it with respect. A piece of chocolate is enjoyed, but in moderation, and the eater takes the time to appreciate its taste. Does this sound anything remotely like a New Yorker dumping a bag of M&M’s into his mouth while sitting in the subway with his laptop open, and simultaneously talking on the phone? No. Good food is appreciated, and Europeans give it the focus and attention they feel it deserves.

Take note: Europeans fully dedicate themselves to their food, and science backs them up on this habit. Studies have shown that those who eat more slowly feel more satisfied, and ultimately weigh less. Those who scarf down meals are prone to obesity and shortened life spans. We all know the Mediterranean diet (the eating habits of Greeks) lengthens lives and slims waists – but what we often forget is that following such an eating plan goes beyond replacing butter with olive oil or meat with fish. It requires taking time to savor our meals, with friends and family by our side. It is not a diet – it’s a lifestyle. And it happens to be a lifestyle that the Europeans have mastered.

Now is when I point out that America is an extremely fat country – whereas Italy, France, and Spain are not (see the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano). Could this have some relation to our grab-and-go eating culture, our weakness for all things fast and easy? After all, our tendency to munch down this and that at our desks or on the train could hardly be beneficial to our health.

Perhaps if we slowed down for a second and took the time to fully savor and enjoy our food, we would be all the more aware of what exactly is entering our bodies – and consequently won’t feel the need to eat as much for the same feeling of satisfaction? I certainly think so, but let me know how you feel.

- Meredith

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