Let Them Eat Cake. Or Violet Macarons. Whichever.

March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

I haven’t read the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, but perhaps I should.

We just got back from a week in Paris where we did nothing but eat wonderful, rich food everywhere we went. And despite recent reports that even the famously-thin French are getting fatter, I couldn’t help but think that, to all appearances, the French just don’t do obesity.

Not only do you simply not see many overweight people, but the entire culture seems geared toward a slender, more agile people, to whom we klutzy Americans bear little resemblance: teeny tiny bathrooms, waiters fitting six people around what Americans would term a “table for two,” elevators that reminded me disconcertingly of being buried alive. The shower in our apartment was so far elevated off the ground that some mornings I had the sense I was mounting an alpine expedition armed only with a towel and hand soap. After the first day of our trip I switched from my American satchel (in which I have been known to stuff my entire full-length down coat and still have room left for a bag lunch and an umbrella) to a much smaller purse, because I had no desire to sweep clean every nearby shelf and countertop everywhere I went. Paris is oriented toward people who are comfortable being Small. Efficient. Compact.

Eve Tries Bone Marrow

Eve Tries Bone Marrow

How can they get away with this? I thought. Haven’t they heard about the fact that the rest of the modern world is blowing up like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man? About people getting too fat to fly coach? Or use tanning beds? Or be buried in a regular casket?

Apparently not. Sure, they’ve picked up a few bad American habits over the years- I hear fast food and snacking are on the rise- but we saw little evidence of such. I’m neither the first nor the last person to ponder some version of the French Paradox, but after considering the matter for the week I did have a few sugar-related insights.

For one thing, the French have no qualms about getting all militant about certain aspects of their food. Baguettes by law may contain only three ingredients: flour, salt and yeast. (The weight and price of them is controlled by the government too.)

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Legislating ingredients? In America, land of the bucket soda and fried butter on a stick, the concept of legislating a food’s ingredients– beyond making reasonably sure it contains neither arsenic nor broken glass- seems positively Orwellian.

And yet, after reading too many American bread labels that resemble more closely the fine print on a liability waiver than a food description, how lovely, how very civilized it seemed to me, to be able to simply buy a loaf of bread and know that it contained only what it needed: flour, salt and yeast.

No antifungal agents!

No Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening!

And, need I even say it? No added sugar.

Speaking of sugar, it’s worth noting here that the French have no aversion to sugar. In fact, in restaurants, it is generally taken for granted that diners will have three courses: appetizer, entrée and dessert; “Pris Fixe” menus always allow for a dessert choice.

One could get into trouble here, no doubt. Some might succumb to the siren song of a creamy chocolate mousse or fluffy little profiteroles… me? I am a sucker for a beautiful, shiny fruit tart- every where we went there seemed to be a luscious Tarte Tatin lying in wait, ready to pounce.

We handled such temptations as we have learned to do- declining dessert most times, saving it for special, and when we did have it, ordering one serving for the four of us to share. Two bites apiece can be surprisingly perfect.

That being said, I noticed something I’ve experienced before in Europe: many desserts simply aren’t as sweet as one expects them to be- or should I say as sweet as Americans would expect them to be; they’re much more sophisticated than that. Whereas it often seems Americans only recognize one melody in our Song of Dessert- !SWEET!– the French have a flair for intertwining harmonies and rhythms that emphasize a much broader field of taste interest: from creaminess and flakiness, to fruit, floral and spicy.

It’s this greater range that allows the French to arrive at insanely delicate things like Macarons (little tissue-paper-esque sandwich cookies) in flavors of Rose Petal and Mint. A recent offering from upscale confectioner Pierre Herme is described as being the flavor of “Smoked Tea, Saffron, Iris, Carrot and Violet.” On their website this limited edition bite is described as “offering an otherworldly experience.” Take that Oreo.

Am I waxing a little too poetic here? (You’re lucky, I stopped just short of comparing American desserts to Britney Spears and French desserts to Madame Butterfly.) And certainly, there are exceptions. If you’re waxing nostalgic for good old-fashioned blast of American-style sugar, all one need do is find the nearest crepe cart and order one avec “beurre et sucre” (butter and sugar), or, if you prefer, Nutella (sweet hazelnut spread) Wham!

Perhaps I’m getting too preoccupied with dessert details in a blog concerned with avoiding sugar. Aren’t we just talking about two different degrees of the same problem? Who cares about subtle versus blatant when we’re talking about the health scourge of the world? But then there’s this: you can order dessert without added sugar in France. Yes. During the course of our trip I encountered plain yogurts, cheese courses, and fresh fruit plates all presented right alongside the crème caramels and sorbet trios, all as if these were perfectly legitimate desserts! Try that in an American restaurant and see how far you get.

So it all comes down to a fundamentally different attitude towards dessert, and, really, a fundamentally different attitude toward food: rather than sating oneself with a ginormous “Death by Chocolate” sundae, you have a tiny cookie flavored of saffron. Rather than crappy supermarket bread with 147 ingredients that will last indefinitely on your counter, you buy a fresh loaf on your way home from work at the boulangerie. It’ll be stale in a day or two, but who cares? We’ll have eaten it by then and bought another.

Sure, not everyone can afford to buy those saffron or rose petal cookies, and yes, they have cheap crappy cookies in French supermarkets too. Surely, someone is buying those. But people are eating cheeses, plain yogurts, and fresh fruit for their “treats” too. And because the price is regulated, everyone can afford a nice three-ingredient baguette. Which is nice, because I’d like to think that everyone has the right to good quality food. The right to just have food in our food. N’est-ce pas?

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