I’m reading a fascinating book, “French Kids Eat Everything,” by Karen Le Billon. It’s a highly accessible memoir by a North American woman who moved to her French husband’s home village in Brittany, and suffered culture shock as she tried to get her small children to transition from a North American way of eating to the French way.
I love this book even though it makes me feel crappy about the way I feed my own kids. You wouldn’t know it from this blog, and how often I write about how my wife and I love food and cooking different kinds of food, but our children are terrors at the table. I mean, they eat very bland diets, and balk at most things we try to feed them. Two of my children really do have intense sensory issues, and that’s not something that can be overcome by culture. But it’s still awfully frustrating trying to manage their eating, especially given the cultural pressures here. Reading Le Billon’s book has challenged me (in a good way!) to consider things about my family’s approach to food that I had never thought of. I mean, I’m pretty good about these things compared to many Americans, and still, much of what I’m reading in this book is news to me, and gives me good ideas.
To generalize, Le Billon says that food culture in France is very, very different from our own. It’s not just that they eat different things. It’s the way they eat, and their entire approach to food.
In North America (I say that because Le Billon is Canadian, but the food culture she describes is common to the US and Canada), parents use food to punish or reward kids for behavior. “If you’re good, you’ll get to have ice cream later.” In France, she writes, parents don’t do that. They believe that it’s wrong to train kids to think of food in emotional terms. Le Billon says that the reason NA kids eat when they’re bored, tired, or upset is because they have been trained to react emotionally to food, and so they use it to manage their emotions.
Secondly, there is a very strong social component to eating in France. That is, there’s a “right” way to do things, and a “wrong” way. Individuality is frowned upon. In school, kids are fed adult things, and not given a choice about what they can or can’t have. Le Billon tries to plead with the teacher when her little girl starts elementary school, telling her that the child has fears of certain food, and needs a snack to get her through the morning. The teacher is completely unfazed by this, and says Sophie has to learn to do like the other kids are doing. If she’s hungry, she’ll eat. If she doesn’t, well, too bad; exceptions cannot be made.
The really interesting stuff in the book comes in a chapter in which Le Billon explores the general French approach to eating. She ends up at a French dinner party, and criticizes the French attitude towards food as alien and strangely rigid. But she begins to appreciate the logic behind it.
The French take food seriously, and do a lot of food and nutrition education in schools. Le Billon finds that this, plus a strong French food culture, means that children of working class and poor families eat as well as children from wealthy families — the opposite of what we see in our libertarian country.
Plus, French food culture is both authoritarian and democratic: it is expected that all people will follow the rules of French eating, and if you don’t do this, it will affect you socially. French people don’t have the North American appreciation for choice. Scientists doing a large comparison of French and American food habits asked those they surveyed which they would prefer: an ice cream parlor that offered 50 flavors, or one that offered 10. The overwhelming majority of French chose the one that offered 10 flavors — the opposite from Americans’ preference. When Le Billon asked her French friends why this would be, they told her that a place that offers so much choice is not likely to make their products taste good. It’s more important to have quality than choice.
At that dinner party, Le Billon said that it was a “terrible idea to make everyone eat the same way. People should be allowed to choose what they want to eat!”
“But choose what?” said Antoine. “Sure, Americans are free to choose, but they end up making terrible choices. They have no standards for what, when, or how to eat. And they often eat alone. We all know the result!”
More, after the guests explained that “gastronomie” was an important value in France:
By this point, I [Le Billon] was completely lost. Maybe I was misunderstanding the word “gastronomie.” For me, it meant elaborate, expensive, indulgent meals that had little to do with what interested me about food: nutrition, health, and price.
“Maybe it would help if I understood how French people learn to eat as they are growing up. Why don’t you tell me the most important things that French children learn about eating?” I ventured.
This got everyone’s attention. “Knowing how to enjoy food,” said Sylvie.
“And knowing how to talk about it!” added Hugo.
“How to behave at the table, and to enjoy good meals with family and friends!” said Olivier.
“It’s part of French culture,” someone else chimed in, “that children should learn to eat well!” This got the most enthusiastic nods.
Ah. In America, we don’t even agree on what it means to “eat well.” To say that one way is better than another would be to start a class war.
Along those lines, Le Billon finds that French culture is permeated with the idea of good taste. The good side of this, Le Billon says, is that quality matters to everybody, not just the well-off:
This is one of the main reasons, I came to realize, that everything in France is so beautifully done: people are openly demanding of the very high standards associated with their understanding of bon gout [good taste].