By Sarit Henig, Lauder/Wharton Class of 2015 and member of Lauder’s French program
As tired of a cliché as food and France is, it still rings true, and I really understood the depth of this at the end of my Lauder French summer immersion. Food is an essential part of the French identity and strongly defines the country and Francophone culture, even beyond France’s borders. Although the United States and France may look similar in many ways, I came to understand over the course of the summer how fundamentally different these two nations are. Food is one critical cultural aspect that exemplifies this.
Our summer was extremely busy, and I did not have the budget or physical space in my Parisian apartment to prepare or purchase elaborate meals. Still, I ate better than I have in most other places because the standards for food quality in France are exceedingly high. Additionally, I am a serious chocolate fan and I was very excited to do a tour of the city’s best spots, but I was even happier to discover I didn’t need to rush anywhere and one bite from the corner shop was enough to satisfy me. Indeed, you ask Parisians what are their favorite restaurants or food shops, and each person will give you an entirely different list of spots that are all singularly excellent.
Through our program, we were able to have several finer French dining experiences. A classic French meal has three courses—appetizer, main course, and cheese or dessert, all accompanied by wine bien sûr—and can take upwards of two hours. Dishes are filled with rich meat, cheese, and cream sauces but portion sizes are small, so you can eat these dishes and feel indulgent without ruining your health (really- I promise). It could also be because we were so busy each day that we had no time to grab snacks, and we reached each evening meal exhausted and ready to do justice to the menu. And wine was an ever-present part of our lives—an accompaniment to every meal that emphasized quality and variety even at low prices.
A two-hour lunch break used to be de rigueur but today, more and more French people are seeking faster, lighter options for their afternoon meals. The French culinary scene has responded with bistros all over the city and even food trucks that serve less expensive, simpler fare without compromising quality. Many French are whole-heartedly attached to their culinary traditions, and some decry these new establishments as an invasion of fast food à l’américain. As an American, I can say these spots have nothing to do with fast food as we define it in the United States.
I really understood the depth of French culture’s value for food during our week-long trip to Morocco. I shared a home-stay with an older couple who were very traditional in most respects. But for breakfast every day they had bread, cheese, and coffee—a very French way to start the day. Although Morocco ended its French colonial period decades ago, their daily eating habits are decidedly marked by French influence.
I don’t mean to say that unhealthy eating habits do not exist in France. France is McDonald’s largest market outside the US, and the chips and cookies aisle in the grocery store is ever expanding. Economic uncertainty and the increasingly fast pace of life pressures more people to cut out lengthy lunches in favor of a quick sandwich. But for me, as someone who is tired of years of bland lunches eaten in front of my office desk, it was extremely refreshing to experience a culture that still prioritizes taking a pause in the day and enjoying food as one of the finer things in life. This value is something I’m trying to integrate into my daily perspective at Wharton. This remains one of my favorite aspects of my whole summer experience, and the way in which I most markedly felt the vast differences between France and the US.
Are you interested in gastronomy and globalization? Check out a recent Global Knowledge Lab (GKL) from the Lauder Class of 2013 titled ‘Gastronomy and Global Cities’.