Americans romanticize the idea of French food and French leisure, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m not guilty of doing the same. There is a thrill to sitting and savoring an aesthetically pleasing meal at an aesthetically pleasing cafe in an aesthetically pleasing outfit that somehow feels even more thrilling as it flies in the face of American efficiency and utility. Plus, the fact that the French aren’t even trying to be so chill makes it all the more cool. As an American and diagnosed anxious, I have no such chill.
The first few times I had lunch or dinner with my husband’s friends or family, the novelty of the slow pace, many courses, and bottomless stomachs were simultaneously adorable and enviable. Because my husband is legit French, he never told me about how it would be when I arrived at a friend’s house for lunch–this was all normal to him. This made it all the more fun to discover, hour by hour, just how much savoring these people are capable of. Let me walk you through it.
I arrived at my first French meal at about 1pm in a cute Venice neighborhood in LA. (Unrelated, and don’t ask me to explain why, but many French expats in LA live in Venice.) I define this as a French lunch not because of the cuisine, but because the hosts and most guests were French, therefore the style of the lunch was the same. To be honest, I don’t remember what we ate–that’s not the point anyway.
Upon arrival, nothing is in process, but no one is rushing to begin. Everyone is fully focused on converations and sipping on G&Ts. This continued for quite some time, until one person reminded the group of our reason for the assembly–eating–and that we should get started. Instead of the hosts now falling over themselves to set table, grill protein, make a salad all on their own while guests sat around guesting, everyone in attendance just began executing tasks. Because there are very singular ways to do things in France (more to come on this in a future post), no one has to ask “how do you want the dressing made?” or “should the bread be grilled?” or “do you want this on the table?” They all just know the proper way to make vinegarette and which utencils are used for which course.
Not being in the know, I kind of put around where possible, make mistakes like putting the cheese out too soon, fail to give everyone a butter knife, etc. I’ve learned to fake it better since then, and find I am good at clearing the table after the meal as this is a universal task. After about 25 minutes of frenzied effort from everyone in the house, boom, the meal is totally done being prepared and we all sit down. Very slowly. Once everyone has taken a seat, no one began to eat for a few minutes more, until all conversations wound down. They all sat and acted like there wasn’t food in front of their faces. Maybe they didn’t notice and that’s why they’re all skinny. I usually drink a full glass of water waiting for everyone to sit down because my stomach is gnawing at itself but I can’t start until someone says “bon app.”
The passing begins the same way it does in the US, everyone takes food and kind of waits for everyone to be done serving before they begin eating. Something I love is how much food the French take–they really go for it, the women too. They make enough food to really get down, they have seconds, they keep making you have seconds because wasting food is a sin and leftover culture is not really a thing. Also, you can’t signal too loudly that you’re off carbs or watching your waistline with the French–it’s gauche to show too much effort in any task. If you’re dieting or working out or staying late at work, it doesn’t mean you’re a martyr we’re all in awe of, it means you must NEED to put in that extra effort and wow what a schmuck you are. I love this rule. Eat the damn ravioli.
I remember distinctly that this meal was the first time that I ate too much of the main because I had no idea of how many courses would follow. They kept urging me to eat so I ate to capacity, assuming I’d be in my car driving back across town in twenty minutes. Nope. Next comes an approximately fifteen minute talking hiatus where the host kind of picks at their plate and finishes their story and I as an American have to stare at the bookshelf because I have no idea what anyone was saying. Then someone grabs the cheese: there will always be three cheeses, and don’t you dare slice them first because you will do it wrong and everyone will judge you. All guests eat a ton more bread and I have to find room in my stomach to sample this cheese which was naturally the best cheese I’ve ever had while in LA. I recall one Frenchman saying “this will be so good in two weeks” and I’m shocked at that dairy timeline.
If you think you’re done because it’s now 2:30 and you’re stuffed, you’re wrong. Next, everyone poured another drink, and all adults went out and had a cigarette. This was freaking amazing to me, it was just so damn novel. Certainly cigarettes must mean the meal has come to a close and we’re all moving on from food to smoke? No, just another break. Next comes the dessert, which in this case was Cuban pastries because that’s what my boyfriend and I brought. I thought we brought enough, but the five French in attendance demolished them so quickly, I felt a bit embarassed. There was less of a break after the dessert, but the next stage of course was coffee, usually made painstakingly with a French press, poured into thick ceramic cups, no cream or sugar offered because they all knew how one another drank it. Note to the reader: sometimes before coffee there will also be a fruit course, and during coffee there might be chocolate passed around. The main takeaway should be not to eat too much of the main course.
Once everything is eaten and all plates are put into the dishwasher, everyone has to sit and talk for another half an hour to be polite. I always begin complaining that I’m tired during the coffee to hopefully signal to my now husband that I’m going to explode if I don’t get some introvert time on my own soon, not that this ever speeds up our exit.
I’m sure you can tell from my snark that this style was novel at first, glorious even, but can be maddening if you just want a quick bite so you can get to bed after a long day or you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. At my wedding, the Americans who did not read the FAQ were dumbfounded when we sat for four hours at the table as three huge courses crept past us by very slow staff. If you have all the time in the world and know what’s coming, it’s a refreshing way to have a meal that makes you rethink the speed with which we do everything in the US. If you’re jetlagged and want to go home, maybe feign illness and stop by McDo.