Sacre bleu! French starting to eat like us -- sans pleasure

April 18, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

PARIS -- It is not the new currency that strikes this returning visitor's eye. The euro has been accepted, and the franc retired, without much fuss.

Nor is it the mobile phone that hangs from nearly every French citizen like an earring.

Nor is it the Benetton on the Champs-Elysees or The Gap on the Rue de Commerce that seem like icons of change and globalization.

On this bright April day, as I leave the much demeaned and very crowded McDonald's where I have been allowed to indulge my great-nephew in not-so-French fries as a nod to his dual citizenship, I confront an image much more surprising: Crowds of young French men and women walking and eating their way down the street.

Mind you, these sandwiches are on flawless baguettes, not soggy subs, but the French, eating lunch on foot? Twenty years ago, it was unheard of. Five years ago, unusual.

This is the country that coined the adage: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." If you are what you eat, is a walking-and-chewing Frenchman a member of the global fast-food village, or, worse yet, a traitor to his culture?

I bring this question to Claude Fischler at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, who has been taking the culture of food seriously for some years.

Mr. Fischler and his international colleagues have been doing cross-cultural comparisons of attitudes toward food, most notably and most deliciously comparing the Americans and the French.

If countries are on a bell curve, America still is way over on the carbohydrate end, France way over toward the coq au vin side. Americans score highest in anxiety about what they are eating. We are least likely to associate food with pleasure, most likely to associate it with health, and also least likely to think we are eating a healthful diet.

The French, on the other hand, are most likely to think about the pleasure of food. The words bien mange may technically translate into eating well, says Mr. Fischler, but eating well in America has a distinctly nutritional aura, while bien mange in France is flavored with, well, flavor and conviviality.

I nod my head, having accumulated a week's worth of flavor and conviviality. But how then to explain the ubiquitous Chinese take-outs, the couscous as common as croissants, the McDonald's (which I do not confess to sampling) that are creeping around the edges of the traditional cafe culture?

"We see signs of globalism in food and behavior," acknowledges Mr. Fischler, "snacking, fracturing of meal patterns." But he observes that every culture has a way of making the global local at the same time. For example, even as the French walk and eat, they make a linguistic distinction, saying, "I didn't have lunch today. I just ate something standing on the street."

The French connection -- between food and pleasure -- has been shaken in the last handful of years by mad cow disease, by diseased Belgian chickens and now by growing anxiety about genetically modified foods, a sticking point in trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union.

Mr. Fischler records a common complaint across the world: "These days you don't know what you're eating." Then he puts it into a very French context: If you are what you eat and you don't know what you're eating, do you know what you are?

In Paris, the refrigerators are small, the markets are fresh and the arguments over food are more intense than over politics. Maybe here there is a chance to retain the hard core of a culinary culture. But this visitor, guilty at having seduced one very small Frenchman with an American "french fry," stops off at the patisserie to bring home dessert.

It's a blissful madeleine of happily undisclosed fat grams and a taste transcendent enough to make a poor Twinkie weep.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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