For my husband and I, being in an inter-cultural marriage (him being French and I, Indian) opens up a world of tastes and food habits . It has also made us confront some of our own cultural hang-ups around food, food-combinations and eating. Many of these are akin to food rituals we both unconsciously followed : they might come across as personal preferences but they are derived directly or indirectly from our cultural background and socialisation.
‘Tis a truth universally acknowledged, that the French are very particular about their eating habits, so strap in for a bumpy ride, especially if you are not French! Of course, the points I make below are massive generalisations from my sample size of exactly 1 French husband, but they are a fairly good representation of what I mean when I talk about rituals around food for the French.
These kinds of differences are realised and experienced even in couples belonging to similar cultures, but they can become even more apparent in relationships between people belonging to markedly different cultures. While these have been fun for us to explore, it is easy to see how food preferences and habits, can become reasons for conflict within any kind of inter-cultural dining.
Aren’t we all super sentimental and possessive of our food cultures?! So, it has been beneficial for us to keep an open mind above everything and talk about it all with respect, curiosity and humour, rather than judgment.
France is where snack-time goes to die.
The French do not really snack, at least not in the way that I had grown up snacking. Let me explain what I mean. Indian cuisine has delicious main meals but the variety of food we have for snacking is staggering. Snacks according to the time of day and the season (Maybe I will write a post in the future dedicated to Indian snacks?). While the French might claim goûter or apéro time, where they munch from communal plates, as snack times, in my opinion, they are not .
We don’t need a label for snacking. If you label a meal time, it’s not really snacking anymore, is it? Snacking is everything that happens between labelled meal-times.
In France, people eat their meals or smaller food portions at designated times which are recognised formally and informally: breakfast, lunch, goûter, apéro, and dinner. The idea of throwing caution to the wind and stuffing one’s face without any rhyme or occasion at an unlabelled hour purely for the joy of eating is, to put in mildly, foreign to them. Just try opening a bag a chip at 4 PM, and the probability is that my husband would ask me, “Oh you are hungry, P ? You didn’t eat well at lunch?”. This still happens : Every.Single.Time. The answer to that is, “No, I do not eat chips because I am hungry. I eat chips because I have the urge to revel in it’s salty goodness.”
Goûter is not really Tea time
As I mentioned above, goûter can masquerade as snack time but you would be hard-pressed to find adults indulging in it regularly. And even if you goûter, it comes with its own set of rules. First of all, it is between 4 PM- 5 PM. And second of all, goûter does not imply you get a clean chit to eat whatever as a snack. There are specific appropriate types of foods which are supposed to be consumed : sweet foods only.
When I first arrived in France, I took goûter to be the equivalent of chai time or tea time in India. It involves drinking (usually milky boiled Indian) tea with a whole host of sweet and salty treats which could include anything from samosa to spicy noodles. So when I first arrived in France and learnt of this apparent snack loophole, I got very excited and I got it in my head that I wanted to host a goûter . The little Indian girl in me just wanted her chance to shine as a perfect tea host. If you are Indian, you know the vibe I was going for: hot beverages, and tons of yummy salty-spicy food served up to be enjoyed over hot gossip.
My dreams were swiftly dashed when we set out for grocery shopping. I suggested we should try to make some version of a pakoda ( yummy veggies dipped in batter and fried). My husband’s face wore a look of horror. If you are French and reading this, you might be making the same facial expression right now. Forcing his voice not to quiver, my husband says, “No, P. It’s goûter . Goûter is sweet.” As I stared at his face wearing, what I am sure, was a stupefied expression, he realised he must elaborate. “Goûter is sweet.” Robotically, he just repeated himself, as if I am supposed to infer the rest. “Why ?”, I asked. His answer, “I don’t know why. It’s always sweet.”
Such is the depth of food rituals. Sigh. Goûter is sweet. Why? I still don’t know. Let me know if you do.
The dawning realisation that the French do not eat viennoiseries everyday!
Viennoiseries are a group of food which are defined by a specific technique of baking, which involves yeast, dough and other things I am not so sure about. Suffice to say, they are a baked-good category in-between breads and pastries and include buttery goodness such as croissants, brioche, pain au chocolat, pain au lait etc.
I used to have the impression that croissants are breakfast food i.e. it is perfectly acceptable to eat it for breakfast on a daily basis. For me, it was after-all, an amazingly elevated version of a toast for breakfast. If you are French, you are probably shaking either with consternation or laughter, at this misconception. Because of course, a croissants is an amazingly elevated version of toast, mostly in terms of calories and fats.
No French person would ever eat croissants or viennoiseries every day. But I know of more than 1 expat who would actually do this and then bemoan the dreaded Parisian 10 pounds: the weight almost every expat is very likely to put on because the food is so good. Truth be told, it is also because it can be quite isolating to move to a new country/city and food always helps to comfort. Anyways, more on that in another blog.
Bread is life
That being said, bread itself is another story. Technically, I would put croissant in the category of bread but as I said before, it has been grouped differently. I don’t know yet why the French love sub-grouping and sub-labelling everything and every emotion so much. But honestly, I find this ceaseless desire for precision in French language very admirable.
My husband and by (limited) extension, the French, have the super-power to eat bread with everything. (I am sure he will say the same about me and my super-power to eat rice with everything.) When I say ‘everything’, I mean I have seen the man and his family happily sop up masala chicken gravy with their baguettes and be so content. It was trés bon all around. This definitely challenged some of my own hang-ups with food.
Additionally, an exception to the no-snacking would be when you are going for a boulangerie run. Well, confused?
So one of the first things I did in Paris was to go to a neighbourhood boulangerie to pick up viennoiseries and baguettes, as one does when in Paris. Good old days when I was on my expat approved a-croissant-a-day diet. It was then that my husband cheekily performed a beloved ritual of the French: tearing off the end of a still-warm baguette and chomping on it on merrily while walking. This according to him, was an acceptable snacking ritual because clearly, it pays homage to the irresistibility of the bread to the French.
Breakfast in Bed is a Sacrilege
Eating in bed is probably the easiest way to get a rise out of my husband. This is saying a lot because he is honestly the most chipper and patient guy I know. But even suggesting eating anywhere near the bed can get his anxiety meter hitting the roof. He says it is the thought of crumbs in the bedsheet. I suspect it is more a cultural conditioning thing.
For my husband, there is no romantic association with the phrase”breakfast in bed”. Just sheer horror at the seeing the edges of the world collapse.
Okay, I am clearly being a tad bit dramatic but I’m not too far from the truth. Eating in France, as I said, is a ritualised activity. Eating where you sleep, is a psychological barrier which he is not prepared to cross even if I promise there will be no crumbs.
Although I have come to appreciate this in due time, every now and then the stars align with the next day being laundry day and my husband being away, I tuck into bed with a bowl of popcorn and watch Netflix, just for old time’s sake, when I was a spinster and eating in bed was but another way to enjoy a slow hungover weekend.
If you enjoyed reading about French food rituals, stay tuned for Part 2.