On the French Front: Crazy French Beliefs about American Eating Habits

Aug 19, 2009 by

Stock eifel tower

I just got back from 17 days in France visiting my husband’s family there.

One evening at my parents-in-laws’ house, I met a woman whose first question to me was:  “But do you have regular meals at your house in America?”

I knew what she was getting at, but I felt defensive.  I knew she had a point, but I was irritated. Also, as if I would admit it at this point if the answer was no.

I felt like I was being asked if I had quit beating up my husband.  I felt like she was holding up a piece of our collective national dirty laundry for examination.  I may criticize American ways here within the family, but I have to defend them to the outsiders.

“Well, yes,” I responded, in a slightly snippy tone as if I thought she were insane.  If there were an equivalent to “duh” in French I would have been tempted to use it.

“You obviously don’t know who you are talking to,” I felt like saying.  Which she didn’t, of course. “I am a proponent of the family meal and healthy home cooking in America. I am actively trying to make a difference with that little problem (not that we need it, as far as you’re concerned).  Sorry it’s not good enough.”

The question felt to me somehow like she was asking the pope if anything was being done to teach the people of the world about Jesus.  Actually a much bigger part of me felt as if I were from Africa and she was asking me if my family were cannibals.

The woman went on to justify her question: a French teenager of her acquaintance had gone to the U.S. and stayed with a family. No one in the family ever cooked, nor did they have any regular meal times or even any actual meals. That French teenager, she noted, was shocked and miserable in that situation.

I admitted that yes, such people existed, but that it wasn’t us.

The conversation reminded me of when my French husband and I first got married, living in France, and we invited his aunt and her adult sons to have dinner with us.  They came, and one cousin mentioned how surprised he was that I had actually cooked a homemade meal. He had believed that Americans never cooked, but ate only fast food, hamburgers in particular, day in and day out.

I laughed a lot about how crazy such an idea was, and how utterly silly he was to think such a thing. Such an overstatement, such a ridiculous stereotype.  Yet I knew in my heart there was some grain of truth to it, especially in contrast to the exuberance and reverence of the French toward quality food and family mealtimes.

What I didn’t tell this woman was that my French husband had also spent a few months with a family in the U.S. when he was 20. The culture shock for him as well was that the family had no regular lunches. Everybody would go dig in the fridge for something to eat. Also, the mom would cook something at night but with obvious reluctance.

Traditionally in France, moms see cooking and providing home-cooked regular meals as well as a regular after-school snack as an indispensible part of their job description, he told me. Somebody has to cook.

Here, as we all know, that’s not a given.

So, just so you know, I’m defending our honor. But just between us, I think we might have a little something that could use some work.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 19 August 2009 / All rights reserved