I got my first cookery book as a Christmas present when I was around 6, old enough to read and understand simple instructions like how to make bread. Flour, water, yeast, a small amount of sugar to activate it, a pinch of salt, and — if my memory serves me right — a dash of olive oil.
The recipe was foolproof, as befits recipes in a book aimed at children; it had fun, quirky illustrations, too. Although my mother bought it for me, there never was any expectation I would follow in my grandfather’s or uncle’s footsteps and become a baker. Or a pastry chef like one of my other uncle or my cousin. Instead, knowing how to bake bread is something she regarded as a basic life skill, like brushing your teeth or tying a shoelace.
Then again, I was born in France where food is not just an art form we export around the world but an intrinsic part of togetherness and a unifying force. Food, to us, is a way of life, one we’re passionate and proud of in equal measure; rare is the French person who doesn’t have strong opinions about it. Our culture is all about sitting around the dinner table with family and friends; we love hosting others and the ability to prepare a good meal is a point of pride.
Because we love to eat.
In France, a meal is always an occasion, even if it’s simple like tartines, a salad, and mass-manufactured (plain unsweetened) soy yoghurt or (unsweetened) fruit compote. What’s more, meals are a reliable and regular source of anticipation, enjoyment, and conversation.
In my family, dinnertime is when we catch up, attempt to detangle current issues be they personal or societal, and have a laugh. More often than not, conversation is also about food as we’re always quite vocal about our appreciation for whatever we’re having. And it’s not just a French thing either: The Belgians are similarly wired as are the Portuguese even though neither cuisine isn’t as well-known as ours.
In fact, go anywhere in the EU and you’ll find strong culinary traditions the locals are immensely proud of.
Despite the many fast food outlets now dotting every French city big or small, many French people still care about where their food comes from.
Many of us watched either our parents or our grandparents grow it. Papi — i.e. my paternal grandfather — tended a garden that fed five kids and two adults, and he kept gardening until the end of his life. As a a kid, I used to pick runner beans with Mamie, my gran; I helped her shell beans and peas, and I was the one in charge of plucking some fresh herbs for salad every night.
Not too much, not too little, not young leaves; respect the plant.
My parents used to leave me in my grandparents’ care over the summer; one year, Papi lent me some garden space so I could plant flowers, mums and gladiolas. He taught me what to do and how to do it, encouraging the city kid I was to get my hands dirty and care for what I had planted. I was also frequently put in charge of watering things, and the only reason I remember this is because the watering can was very heavy.
And I carried it with pride and apprehension.
The garden was my grandfather’s kingdom and there were strict rules about where to walk, what to pick, and when.
Being asked to help was an honor.
When the famous Golden Arches arrived in France, I was curious but my grandfather couldn’t grasp the concept. To him, a sandwich involved fresh crusty baguette, butter, saucisson, ham, paté, cold cuts, or cheese. If you wanted to be extra fancy, you could add a little mustard, some salad, some tomato, and maybe a couple of gherkins but that was the extent of it.
He watched the adverts on TV, utterly baffled; not once did he express a desire to go get a burger, which didn’t register as food in his mind.
Mamie, meanwhile, was similarly unimpressed; to her, the apex of progress was instant pudding, i.e. powder to which you add milk. Everything else, she made from scratch; even buying a roast chicken would have been unthinkable and she never did.
She wasn’t a fan of anything mass-produced save for Christmas chocolate bonbons and the occasional pack of cookies. Those were strictly rationed and soda was as unknown in her home as it was in ours; my mother forbade it on the grounds that it was empty calories.
However, my grandmother always kept a bottle of iced water with cordial in the fridge. But she only used enough cordial to change the color of the water and make it fun for the grandkids. The grenadine I drank was never sweet, just pink water; the fanciest Mamie ever got was lemonade in glass bottles, and that was a very rare treat.
When I first tasted Coke — known locally as Coca Cola — at a school party as a teenager, I wanted to spit it out. To this day, I can’t abide sodas as I don’t understand what they’re for, even when used as mixers; they ruin everything they come into contact with. Then again, I’m not a mixologist and I don’t have a sweet tooth. The only mixer that ever made sense to me is tonic water because I spent so many years in the UK where gin and tonic is an institution.
Candy was something I got during holidays like Easter and Christmas, or when we visited my uncle the baker. Back then you could go up to the bakery counter and buy penny sweets. My auntie would hand me a giant paper bag filled to the brim and twisted around twice so its corners curled and the loot was secure.
My mother was never thrilled but she remained gracious because my uncle was her big brother; I’d spend the journey back to Paris in a sugar daze on the back seat of the car. The minute we got back, I was immediately dispatched to the bathroom to brush my teeth and given the lecture about how detrimental sugar is to oral hygiene.
It stuck. My American dentist is endlessly amused with my obsession with flossing and finding the perfect toothpaste.
When my parents divorced, my mother got custody and she worked long hours as a civil servant trying to rise through the ranks. As a result, there was often square ham and frozen pizza that tasted like the box it came in for dinner so I started cooking in earnest age 12 and never stopped.
At school, we all learned nutrition basics in biology class, how calories worked, and what the human body needed to survive. The message was always the same: Too much sugar rots your teeth, junk food will make you sick, eat your veggies, but make sure you enjoy a little of everything.
Our school dinners reflected those nutritional priorities, too, but preparation was hit and miss. If you didn’t eat, you’d go hungry all afternoon so sometimes there was no choice but to stuff it down because ours were exceedingly long school days.
And there certainly weren’t snack vending machines in our schools either, nor were we allowed to leave the premises to go buy something else.
My high school in the Alps had a coffee machine that also offered hot chocolate and lemon tea, all contingent on having pocket money. My friend Sarah and I would often get one drink and share it.
That I’m now a vegan has a lot to do with those often gray meat meals that featured unidentified animal stew with bits of gristle. And a slice of mortadella with one lone bit of pistachio in the middle, a much reviled school lunch item familiar to anyone who ever ate at the cantine.
“In my time, we used to throw them at the ceiling to see if they’d stick,” my mother tells me, her face still twisted in a look of disgust some 60 years later.
And yet, ours were nutritious meals cooked from scratch by people with actual kitchen training. The end result depended on budget, local culinary traditions, abilities, and suppliers; I had far better meals in the Alps then I did in Paris or in Northern France.
I have fond memories of giant cubes of baked polenta with melted cheese in the middle, a beloved winter lunch in Haute-Savoie. And a wondrous discovery for the little kid from Paris who had never seen such a thing before and used to cheer whenever it was on the menu.
If you’re French or are familiar with the French educational system, chances are you have school meals horror stories of your own unless you were one of the lucky kids who had a stay-at-home mom or a grandma who shielded you from the indignities of institutional cooking. And you lived close enough to the school so you could go hoof it back home, wolf down your lunch, and come back an hour later having burned the calories.
But if you grew up in America, all the above may sound both alien and unfathomable because pre-prepared food is so endemic to the US. Contrary to what the name implies, French fries or frites were a rare lunch item, never a fixture and schools didn’t offer a menu choice; you ate what there was or you skipped lunch.
I did the latter a lot in high school when the menu didn’t appeal; I’d get a cup of coffee or tea instead and go hole up in the library for the duration. Because the library was quieter than the cantine, I had the privilege of breakfast before coming in, and I already knew there’d be dinner at home that night.
This wasn’t the case for everyone.
Most of us made our own way to school and back home, too, on foot. This means that even kids who skipped PE as I often did got their exercise no matter what.
It wasn’t until I had to figure out how to get a bus from the train station to my mom’s a few days ago that I realized I had never used mass transit in this town. And yet, I attended high school here for a little longer than a year and my mother didn’t live anywhere near it, nor did she drive me places.
She was a working mom with a strict, public service schedule subject to unpredictable overtime, and rides had never been in her vocabulary; I was an able-bodied teenager. Having the opportunity to walk to school was great as it meant I got to go home every night, unlike many of my friends from nearby villages who were boarders and only saw their family at the weekend.
When I realized that, with a little patience, bus money could be transformed into any book I wanted or into a new fountain pen, it was a no-brainer. When I got a walkman, my foot commute became even more fun; I’d get lost in the music and often walk past my destination and this much hasn’t changed.
Dedicated school buses do exist in some rural areas and there are parents who will drive their kids to school and pick them up but neither is the norm. Instead, we use mass transit or walk in France; in the Netherlands, people cycle everywhere from a young age and all this moving around means food is a friend, not an enemy.
Counting calories is anathema to me; as a kid, I watched my mother put herself through countless attempts to reduce even though she never needed to. She was an adept of those groups where you meet once a week and get weighed in public, a tyranny imported from the US that had a cult following a few decades ago.
The cookbooks that were part of her eating plan made for sad reading, the recipes were tasteless, and our fridge was filled with inedible things that had the same name as regular foods but none of the taste. To wit, fat free milk that looked like white water, quark with the texture of grout, and those square slices of reduced fat ham.
Those eating plans were designed to turn dieters against food, i.e. culturally tone-deaf, and never led to sustainable weight loss. They also made my mother incredibly difficult and snappy because she was hungry all the time. Instead of a chunk of baguette with butter and jam for breakfast, the diet recommended cornflakes. Not only are they a highly transformed product but they’re offensive to anyone with taste buds, even when frosted. And yet, the breakfast cereals aisle in French grocery stores looks a little similar to any in the US now, the difference being it is far, far smaller, and the ingredients are different. For health reasons, the EU doesn’t allow many of the additives and binders commonly found in processed foods in America so even our junk food is not as bad.
But it’s still garbage.
As home delivery and ready-made meals become ubiquitous, European eating habits are rapidly changing and waistlines are expanding to reach unprecedented girth, something that has become highly problematic in the UK. But we French are “Gaulois réfractaires” (Gauls resistant to change) as president Macron famously stated.
In the kitchen, cooking from scratch is still very much part of our culture rather than the sole preserve of boastful hipsters and health-conscious folks as is the case in the US.
And yet, instant gratification continues to trump health concerns for many Americans. Rather than eat well, it’s easier to pop a pill to control all kinds of conditions a healthy diet could prevent or even reverse.
The answer to better eating and better health is the same as the answer to most societal ills: curiosity, not money. It is possible to feed ourselves well on a tiny budget as long as we’re prepared to put in some effort and understand how food works.
For example, canned and frozen veggies can be as healthy as fresh as long as they’re not laced with additives, and they are often much cheaper. In the UK, indefatigable political journalist, food campaigner, and cook Jack Monroe has made it her mission to teach people how to eat well even when they are food bank users on government assistance, which she used to be as a single mom. In the spirit of solidarity, she also makes all her recipes available for free on her website.
What’s more, the internet has democratized culinary knowledge, too. No need for Cordon Bleu training to put together a feast when you can follow instructions.
As Jack Monroe keeps teaching Brits, even on a tiny budget we can eat nutritious meals but likely not in the quantities most Americans are used to. The fundamental difference between our two continents is that Europeans approach appetite with some degree of discipline and self-control. We aren’t always munching on something nor do we stuff ourselves into a coma at every meal because a standard portion is for one person. Asking for seconds is acceptable and encouraged if there’s extra and we’re still hungry but helping ourselves to more than we need is the ultimate social faux pas, as is wasting food.
Instead of pigging out, we’re taught from a young age to savor every mouthful so we naturally understand that bigger isn’t always better. Whether at home or in a restaurant, the focus is always on quality, not quantity.
Indulgence, it seems, is a matter of definition and taste.