Friday, October 17, 2008

"Flavor Week," French style

It’s so much fun to stereotype the French. The berets, the baguettes, the Pythonesque outraaaaaageous accents, it all begs for satire. Many of our preconceptions are, as one might expect, outdated, purely regional or just plain nonsense. Frogs legs, for instance. Yes, the dish exists, but after three years I have yet to see it on a menu. And berets, despite many Americans’ vague association of them with leftist European intellectuals, tend to be worn only by old French farmers, and even then they are not so common a sight anymore. And as far as I am aware monkeys, even here, do not eat cheese.

But this week I have been reminded that the legendary French obsession with food is, if anything, understated. The French are totally indifferent to breakfast, often sending their children to school on empty stomachs (which, when I think back to the Frosted Flakes of my youth, may not be such a bad thing). But the idea of a simple sandweeeesh for lunch is considered barbaric. So our village school has the luxury - deemed a necessity and sacred right in this blessedly civilized place – of its own kitchen for supplying the children with hot three-course lunches.

The things that come out of this kitchen are not quite what you’d find kids eating across the suburbs of America. The first course is generally soup, salad or cold cuts. Then meat and a vegetable side dish. We’re not talking turkey dogs and fries here: recent offerings have included duck breast, confit de canard (a traditional farmer’s dish of duck leg preserved in its own fat), veal ragout, quiche and courgettes gratinées, often followed by a cheese course. And then, yes, the occasional hamburger (the French way, no bun and blood rare).

But this masks the more important side of the Gallic food fixation. While it’s important what makes it onto the plate, more crucial is that the food be eaten from a plate, at a table, with others, and slowly. Food is not only about eating, it is about tradition, culture, a way of life. Process is as important as product. Montcabrier’s elementary school students – all 31 of them – sit down at table and eat their three course long lunches like little ladies and gentlemen. Comme il faut.

To shake things up a bit, this week Sebastian’s school is having its Semaine de Gout, badly translated as Flavor Week, intended to introduce the children to more exotic foods. In a country where they eat snails and reeking unpasteurized cheeses, that seemed to me like an ambitious goal, especially for first graders. But there I was losing track of the bigger picture. The French generally have little interest in foreign food – even in Paris you’re hard pressed to find much more than the occasional Vietnamese or North African restaurant as a nod to France’s colonial past. In a farming community like this one, where locally produced tripe and paté are the norm, Italian food counts as a cultural experience.

So Sebastian’s foray into international cuisine has included pizza, sauerkraut, and an unidentified meat in sauce which was meant to represent that most exotic of cultures – France. After all that excitement, I’m sure he’s relieved to come home every evening to his familiar old standbys like Thai green curry, and next week for the school menu to return to the comforting norm of duck confit.

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