Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Eating Out—More Lessons from France

Last Saturday at 11 PM, 2 ½ hours after entering the bistro, I comfortably strolled out following my 3 course meal, my final dinner out in France. And my top pants button was intact! Appetizer (they call that the entrée), plat (the main course), dessert and an overpriced café au lait included.

Anything strike you as odd here? Well, to start it strikes me as strange that eating a full multi-course meal including dessert (yes, I almost licked the plate clean) left me feeling physically comfortable. And just to give you some detail, that included a mille-feuille (think Napoleon—those multi layered pastries filled with rich cream filling) with a side of sorbet. So we’re not talking about Edy’s light or anything. In fact, there was nothing light about this meal, which included a delectable risotto, and pistou soup (think pesto, soup style) as well. Being who I am I couldn’t just leave it at that and not analyze my dining experience. So here’s what I’ve determined:

  • Dining out in France is not like eating out in the States. It is an activity unto itself. It is leisurely, with a focus on the food, truly savored and enjoyed. The food is artfully prepared (for the price it ought to be) and people really linger over it. In some ways, it drives me crazy. I have to wait so long for everything, and no one apologizes for it either. That is the way it is. But what a lesson for us impatient foreigners! Slow down and taste the garlic, so to speak. And with a meal lasting more than 45 minutes or so you will actually have enough time to notice if you have had enough.
  • Main dishes (pasta and risotto excluded) come without a starch. Imagine that! Unlike what we are used to here in the US—you know, the balanced plate—the “meat”, starch and vegetable, in France it appears they skip the starch. How can they get away with that, you’re wondering? Because they serve this amazing bread that they know you’ll be eating instead. In contrast, in the US we’re served the starch (potato, rice) and the bread and guess what? We eat them both. And if they threw a third starch in, we’d probably eat that too.
  • Portions are smaller. But the benefit is that you get to enjoy many items without feeling ill from overeating. I wonder if there’s a French term for doggy bag? Quite unlikely.
  • Desserts are no novelty. Spectacular, yes, but not a special occasion, “now or never” occurrence. The French are eating delectable baked goods on a regular basis. Four bakeries in that town of 5000, remember? Somebody’s buying and eating them! So when they eat out they don’t feel obligated to order dessert as if it’s their only chance. I suppose if they feel full, they bypass dessert until the morning, when they pick up a crusty pastry with their morning coffee and baguette.
  • And did you notice the time our meal ended? Eleven PM! Yes, later meals are fashionable in France and no, they are not gaining weight as a result of eating after 8pm!

So once again, consider the French at your next restaurant outing. If you love the bread they serve, eat it! But maybe skip the potato, rice or pasta they serve you in addition. Slow the pace and linger over your meal. And if you’re full, give yourself permission to get dessert—tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. You've managed to stay seated at a table in a stateside restaurant longer than an hour without copious hints from the waitstaff that they'd like you to pay up and leave? American restaurants (and the people who work in them) prize their turnover too highly. After about an hour, you start to notice little dirty looks, and the waiter you only saw three times in the first hour is suddenly coming by every 5 minutes to ask if you're done yet.

    This probably has more to do with the waitstaff relying on tips to make a living wage, but I guess it's an example of how many cultural elements come together to create the complete picture.