À Table: The Culture of French Eating

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Every night, my host mom calls “À table!” to alert me that dinner is ready. My host dad loves to cook, and makes something different nearly every meal, so I always enter the kitchen, eager to see what he’s prepared.

Typically, we’ll start with une petite salade, some sort of conglomeration of vegetables and vinaigrette. We then have a main dish—usually a meat of some kind, or pasta. Afterwards, dessert. Dessert consists of one of three things in my host family: une compote (apple sauce), une petite crème (basically pudding), or cheese. And of course, dinner is always accompanied by copious amounts of bread, which we place directly on the table next to our plates. We eat dinner around 8 PM and usually finish within the hour—short for a French meal.

The culture of French eating was certainly an adjustment for me. In the U.S., restaurants are open all day, sometimes 24/7. Servers are expected to constantly cater to the needs of their customers and turn tables as quickly as possible. Meals are short and to the point—meant more for sustenance than enjoyment. Our portions are large, our patience short, and the art of tipping complicated. So, while the American viewpoint on eating can be summed up as a necessity, the French seem to regard eating as one of life’s greatest enjoyments—something I can certainly get behind.

Restaurants here close between lunch and dinner, which is not ideal for late-risers and can pose problems on the occasion. French restaurants are significantly smaller than their American counterparts, sometimes single-room with five or six tables; so, once those tables fill up, that restaurant is full for the night. French meals can last hours, and no one expects you to give up your table once you have it. I have yet to decide if the stress of finding somewhere to eat with a vacant table is worth the leisure that comes with not having someone trying to rush you out the door as soon as you’ve sat down.

Of course, there’s something to be said about the lengthy meal times. Meals become much more social when you’re not constantly shoving food down your throat. There is space to chat over un apéritif (a drink before the meal) and room to breathe between different courses. “Menus” are common, in that you pay a fixed price for an entrée, a main dish, and a dessert–and no one shames you for getting all three. With less rush comes the ability to actually taste the food you’ve ordered.

At home, getting dinner with friends feels more like the beginning of an evening, a transition into some other activity. We eat so we aren’t hungry at whatever other plans we’ve made. Catching up with a friend more often means grabbing a drink or a cup of coffee—meaningful conversation is difficult to have in a loud restaurant, in the minuscule seconds between bites. In France, however, I find that meals can be the evening plans. They are an opportunity for gatherings of friends, for long conversations, for laughs over bottles of wine and a bowl des ravioles (a dish from Grenoble of tiny ravioli—and they are delicious).

Here, I am forced to plan my days around my meals, rather than the other way around. Yet I have gained a much greater appreciation for what it means to eat. Sure, eating is a necessity. But why not turn that necessity into something enjoyable, something sacred even? Life no longer means scarfing down a salad in between classes or meetings; life with French ideals means appreciating what you have in front of you. So next time you find yourself à table, consider staying for a while—life is too short to rush through the good parts.

This post was contributed by Makenna Brandt, a student from Rhodes College who is spending her spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in Grenoble, France.

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