The “F Word” In France and What It Means !

| May 27, 2011 | Comments (2)


On a recent business-class overnight flight to Paris – I was cashing in hard-earned traveler’s miles – the dinner hour arrived several hours over the Atlantic.

My traveling companion in the commodious leather seat next to me was a youngish frenchman, impeccable in appearance and manner. He was what the French in current parlance would call  “BCBG” – bon chic, bon genre; totally top-drawer. Lodged in the window seat, I barely noticed his arrival as he slid into the aisle chair and murmured  “Bonjour” to me. We spoke for  a while and he imparted to me that he had lived in Princeton, New Jersey for 12 years and was going to Paris for a technical conference.

The more he spoke, the more I admired that “raffinement” that only the French seem to possess. The Brits can be very posh and certain Americans are ever so patrician, but the French  – some French – possess a classy elegance that  also manages to be  unpretentious and intimate. It is expressed by the beauty of their speech as well as  a certain body language and a “je ne sais pas quoi” manner that defies description. 

In any case we spoke pleasantly over cocktails and it was nice to get into a french “zone” even before arriving in the City of Light. Then the meal arrived. I remember that we had both ordered filet mignon – what the Hell ! Why eat healthy on a trans-Atlantic flight I always say… could be my last meal!

As soon as dinner arrived on our tray tables, I felt a Jekyll-Hyde change come over my BCBG Frenchman. As I sipped my Bordeaux and shot him a sideward glance, I noticed his nostrils flare in a distended, distinctly savage manner as he contemplated the repast before him. He  stabbed the bloody steak and his upper lip curled; I fancied  I heard him emit a  snarl, the kind of growl a pack of hyenas produce when  ripping apart a little wildebeest on the African veldt. Then I remembered: this is a Frenchman at table. I had seen it before when I lived in France – tiny, ancient ladies tittering away,  suddenly becoming atavistic carnivores attacking their rillettes (blood sausages) as though they were lions in the Coliseum dining on tender Christians. In France conversation all but ceases when the entree is being consumed. The French know what is important and what to concentrate on.

By now you have deduced  that the “F Word” in France is food. And I am glad to report that despite inroads made by MacDonald’s and Disney and a host of other trans-Atlantic, globalized impostors, French food is as wonderful as it has always been. I am also happy to tell you that that horrid tryst with “nouvelle cuisine” that seized France some years ago, seems dead and gone and we are now back to traditional basics with no sacrifice in quality.

But I am deeply puzzled by one thing. The French love to eat and do it often and very well, but they are not fat. As I dug into a variety of food and wine during my ten-day sojourn in France, I pondered this puzzle, determined to find an answer.

There were several explanations – the French eat smaller portions (definitely NOT true from my on-site “research” in many Parisian bistros, cafes and restaurants); the French do not indulge in junk food binges to the extent Americans do (this seems to be sort of true although our stop at a gas station in the Loire Valley made me aware that Kentucky Fried Chicken was a most popular indulgence); French food is purer, better, more organic and less hormone-infested (there is no question that French fruits, vegetables and meats taste better than what we find in  the US  even in upscale places).

Back in New York City, filled with these ideas, I approached my quack last week when I went for my annual physical exam. I asked him point blank why, despite their dedication to eating (in their conversations the French seem to talk mostly about what they HAVE eaten, what they ARE eating or what they WILL eat) the French are so relatively svelte when compared with their counterparts across the Atlantic.

As he jabbed me with various needles, my doctor nodded thoughtfully and uttered one word : wine. He seemed to think that the ingestion of wine with food created some sort of chemical, digestive breakdown that chased calories into a non-fattening mode. Who knows? Who am I to question one of New York City’s top doctors (there’s a plaque on his consultation room wall that says he is a top doctor). I do know that the French drink less wine than they used to, so what does that say about the wine argument? We didn’t get into other areas of speculation like smoking (the French still seem to love their cigarettes…aaah those Jeanne Moreau-esque creatures in cafes enveloped in clouds of Gaulois and Thierry Mugler…..) so the  “F Word” question remains basically unanswered.

I will say that in my ten days in France, I did not have a bad meal. There were some unusual dining experiences for sure, but none bad.  One night with our hostess in the Loire Valley we drove to a farm that served only a duck menu. As night fell, we took our aperitifs –  extraordinary, tiny concoctions of wine and local fruit liqueurs – in  vast barnyard surrounded by 500 year-old buildings while peacocks and hunting dogs roamed the verdant lawn. We then proceeded indoors to a dimly-lit eating area that reeked of the Middle Ages. I became impressed at this point with how serious French dining can be. Throughout the meal an almost religious aura pervaded the place, so much so that I felt I was engaged in a four-course holy communion. Conversation was minimal, rather hushed and reverential.  Although duck has never been my favorite dish, I could say after that evening on the ancient farm, that I would opt for their duck pate as one of my last meal requests if I ever get sent up to Death Row.

Even the slightly unusual dinner  on our final night in Lutece, offered by my dear friend Jack, a longtime expat resident of Paris, at his local bistro, turned out to be a great eating experience despite a rather brusque server and our sitting at a table in the street  between arriving and departing  cars that spewed out exhaust fumes.

I think my quack was right about the wine. Every meal we had in France was accompanied by lots of really good red and white wine. No plonk for us! How can you go  to the Loire Valley and not over-indulge in a little bit of Pouilly …. and damn the expense? And I did return from France two pounds lighter despite non-stop eating.

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  1. Roger Cranse says:

    Sam, great portrait of the BCBG gentleman. I’d add another reason to indulge on an airplane: for every 10,000 feet altitude the caloric intake of food declines by 25%. This is why stewardesses, pilots, and Sherpas are mostly thin. The slimming effect may be similar to your doc’s analysis of wine which, by the way, I’m glad to learn about. The latest research on coffee’s effect on lowering prostate cancer confirms the health benefits of my two favorite beverages. RC

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