Responses to New York Times Readers' Questions
by Mireille Guiliano
Feburary 12, 2005
What would you suggest for me to do in order to actually LOVE food? I do eat some because I need it to survive. I tend to find Mediterranean ways of cooking in the Midi of France, as well as simple Chinese or Japanese fare, less objectionable, somewhat more tasty and less fat. But I do not take any real pleasure in it, neither in preparing food nor in eating it. What would you suggest, particularly in terms of FOOD PREPARATION pleasure? Thanks for your help on this.
- Cleo, College Station, TX
MG: I like to believe, Cleo, everyone has latent gastronomic pleasures just waiting to be awakened and when they are, life only gets better. While my whole book is really the answer to your question, I will share a few big and related thoughts. You are obviously very sensitive; that can be made into a plus rather than a minus. Begin by slowly discovering some taste preferences and then cultivating pleasure in those. For instance, some people adore basil as a seasoning, while others find it overwhelming. Try sniffing several alternatives: rosemary, sage, thyme. If rosemary, say, is appealing, at the level of fragrance, chances are you will like it in food (since much of taste is smell). If so, try the simplest preparation you can with a sprig of rosemary on a piece of fish or chicken, whatever seems more appealing, brushed with a bit of oil (grapeseed oil for instance is very nutritious and without flavor of its own) and seasoned with a bit of salt, perhaps a little squeeze of (fresh!) lemon. When you eat, concentrate on the new flavor, as well as the texture and the appearance of your menu portion.
Even if you're not big on cooking, preparing food with our own hands prevents our being joyless alienation from what we are eating. Chop everything by hand (no machines). One of the great things about cooking is the relatively instant gratification you get from completing a task then enjoying it by eating. Don’t you feel good about checking off little or not-so-little projects? Cleaning a closet. Getting past those income tax returns? Buying clothes for a special event? If you can learn to take pride in shopping and cooking, there are inner rewards there as well . . . at least that’s how I look at it and feel.
Finally, I invite you to be bold and open minded in your approach to new foods. Some are acquired tastes. Think about sushi? Who would have thought raw fish would become a passion for people around the globe. You appear to like it. Some people still can not quite get up the courage to try. And no one says you have to like French food or any other cuisine. Certainly there are some that I like a lot less than others. As far as French fare goes, it is a lot different today than the stereotypical rich, creamy sauces of a generation ago. Since the 1970s it has evolved to be lighter and leaner and more Asian influenced, but that doesn’t mean some of the bistro classic comfort foods don’t have a delicious place now and again. And you don’t have to go to Paris to experience the best (but, hey, go for it if you can); there are a host of wonderful French-American restaurants in the US, notably in New York and a few other major cities. Treat yourself to the best and see if you like it. At home, another tip would be to start tasting things you have never tasted before: a new vegetable or perhaps a cheese. Anyway, I'm glad you want to discover your gastronomic pleasures. Who knows? Good luck and bon appetit!
I lived in Chalons sur Marne from August 1958 to the beginning of 1961. We could take the time to cook things slowly and enjoy them. How do you find the time to make the meals you write about? After working, commuting home, shopping, and getting home, I'm just too tired to think of cooking. Please, I want to change but don't see how. Merci!
- Thilde Peterson, Henderson, NV
MG: I certainly understand this time dilemma: the belief or reality of too much to do in this life and too little time. And life’s exigencies seemingly take away all discretionary moments. Still, it is really all a question of prioritizing and planning. In order to find the time, you have to commit yourself to finding it, convincing yourself that nothing is more basic to a happy and civilized life than a civilized relation to food. You owe this to yourself and your loved ones. You gotta eat, after all, why not make the best of it. Certainly in my professional life, I have to prioritize constantly and am amazed by the time-consuming demands that just are not important. They are the first to go to free up time for what’s important for business or me personally.
Can you find 30 minutes a night for cooking? 60 minutes? That’s all you need. Shopping is another task, but that can be managed efficiently with a little planning. Most people in this country are extremely busy -- or at least have convinced themselves they are by filling up the hours with all sorts of things -- but quality of life revolves around the things we enjoy doing, not the things we have to do. And what's the point of getting everything on your list done without quality of life? Of course the workweek limits those of us who work outside the home. During the week, my preparations are much less elaborate than they are during the weekend. But there are many simple and delicious things one can make if one lets go the notion that cooking is a big job, with a big clean up afterwards. (My book has lots of no fuss recipes. I made that a priority.) And home cooking makes excellent leftovers, so why not commit to cooking 3 or 4 nights a week and spend seven civilized nights. Life improvement guaranteed.
Do you think there is societal pressure or other inherent stress that causes some American women to binge? Or that perhaps looking around they feel safety in numbers?
- Bob Bean, Upstate NY
MG: This is an important topic. I wouldn't say there is a societal pressure to binge. Nobody admires a glutton or takes refuge in group solidarity from the pain of feeling fat. But stress in our lifestyle definitely drives bingeing. It's almost as if we displace our anxiety by trying to devour it. Food becomes a substitute for emotional comfort. But bingeing is not a pleasure, it's a release, just as drinking too much is a release, and both are unhealthy. Like any other good thing, food can be abused, and certainly it's the most readily available thing to abuse. I know first hand, that a piece of chocolate can be a great pacifier, but can lead to a second and a third and then the box or bar is gone. That’s bingeing, and you don’t feel good about it afterwards, either. Again, know your own demon offenders and, as I explain in the book, learn to trick your mind into compensating in other healthy ways.
Do you believe [the argument in your book] this represents all French women or French women from certain types of areas, i.e. suburban vs. rural French women?
- Sara Hinderer, Cleveland, OH
MG: Perhaps people have been taking my title far too literally. It's meant as a provocation and a broadly true observation. There are obviously some fat French women, though admittedly fewer in urban areas. My argument is that, on the whole, French women, regardless of geography, don't get fat as long as they possess a traditional French relationship to eating. And the statistics overwhelmingly support that claim. I can't speak for the ones drawn to McDonald's, or to the growing number of immigrants who have perhaps not yet had the opportunity to absorb the gift of French gastronomy. Also, France is still an agrarian country with regional cuisine consumed in relation to fresh, local produce, so there’s not a standard formula for what all French women eat. That’s a point I embrace: eat what you need and enjoy but find your own equilibrium. And so long as we are talking about adult French women -- say 21 or better 25 years old and up, there’s no getting away from the significant cultural difference in my view between their relationship with food and eating for pleasure with women in other countries.
It is my impression that the French smoke more than Americans. I have even heard it said that the decline in smoking in America is partly to blame for the rise in obesity. How does smoking play a role in French women's ability to stay thin?
- Liz, Longmeadow, MA
MG: No, Liz, but I'm so glad you asked that question. This is a very popular myth about French women. And I am startled that people who have not read my book are writing to me and posting notes saying that French women don’t get fat because they smoke a lot. Nonsense. It’s as if they want a simple reason to avoid embracing a new approach to eating for pleasure and to dismiss the vast majority of French women who are simply not nearly as overweight as our American counterparts.
French men do smoke more than American men (33% vs. 24%), but with women it's about the same (21% France; 20% US). And a lot of those French female smokers are young women in their teens and twenties who have not found their equilibrium in relation to a lot of things, just like in America. Is obesity in America related to less smoking? Hardly. One might argue if one substitutes a cigarette for a snack, you might not get fat. But it doesn’t appear smoking or non-smoking women in America are skipping their snacks or full plates, and women in France don’t snack. So, I don’t see the connection. I'm not a scientist, but while it's plausible that one oral gratification might be substituted for another if you don't have a properly cultivated relation to food, the transference isn’t all that simple and smoking isn’t the proven vehicle by any means. But as I tell in the book, I have known women who ate badly because they were smokers: smoking deadens the taste buds, and one eats more to get the same taste pleasure, often with a greater taste for fats.
Are the recipes in your book what you would term easy or time consuming; with common ingredients or specialty items?
- John Wilson, Omak, WA
MG: Most are easy and inexpensive -- a lot of bang for your buck. I made sure of that, and many reviews have commented on the simple, delicious recipes. Simple fresh ingredients are easy to whip into something delicious. The point is not to buy second-rate. Sure in towns and cities in France there are more open markets (the food is fresher and cheaper) and green markets are less common in America, but there are amazing things to be found in all sorts of specialty stores and nowadays in good supermarkets. If you embrace what I say in the book, you’ll appreciate that you are your own master and substitutions are welcomed. The book is currently scheduled for 22 foreign language editions, and I just read some queries from a translator asking for substitutions or at least alternatives to some of the fish and vegetables I recommend that just are not common in that part of the world. No problem. Go for what’s available and good. I do have a few luxury items. In that category there are fingerling potatoes with caviar. They make brilliant hors d'oeuvres, but are not in everyone's budget, of course, though they could be for a very special occasion since you don’t need much. So I always include a more affordable alternative (e.g., chopped chives instead of caviar or fish roe that’s increasingly available and good across America). I do have a few recipes that take time -- a lot of time, and that’s entirely on purpose, like baking bread or making your own croissants. Obviously these are weekend projects, and more serious commitments, but they unlock certain experiences you just can't enjoy any other way. (If you've never baked your own bread, you don't know what you're missing!)
How do French women and men deal with sweets, pastries, and other desserts? How often do they eat them and in what quantities?
- Steve Baima, Warren, MA
MG: As in every culture, “sweet tooths” vary a lot. I've always had a big one, and as I tell it was my downfall during my adolescence. A well-trained French palate has a measured appreciation of sweets. A rich dessert rarely follows a rich meal, after which a sorbet or a wonderful ripe piece of fruit would be more pleasantly satisfying. (Those "napoleons," that the French call millefeuilles, are more for occasional indulgence, such as an afternoon tea). When a more desserty dessert is served, a French woman usually contents herself with three fork-fulls, since taste satisfaction is generally to be found in the first few bites. (At that point in the meal, you can't say you're eating out of hunger! Practice a little restraint, and you don’t need to deprive yourself of anything). Two more things I note about desserts in America versus France. In America, the desserts are sweeter with much more sugar generally added. If you bake at home, trying cutting back the sugar in the recipes in half. I regularly do that and find the desserts more to my taste and certainly less cloying. And, of course, American desserts win the gold medal for size . . . jumbo size. My husband and I don’t skip the pleasure of a good dessert but generally pick one for two when we dine out.
How do you adapt your eating habits to accommodate a changing metabolic rate as you age?
- Diana, Pittsburgh, PA
MG: You are talking to the right person, Diana. I certainly can’t handle the wine or desserts that I could in my twenties. In the book I describe the various life phases when one should stop and take stock, make small adjustments and compensations. But regardless of age, the basic principle is always the same: small changes, taking from Peter to pay Paul. It's easy to do slight portion reductions as we age because older stomachs tend to be more delicate. You don't need to cut out entirely anything you enjoy as long as you remain open to cutting back slightly (this is the essence of my "fool yourself" advice -- small changes add up but don't have to put a dent in our enjoyment). Also, one shouldn't accept metabolic decline as inevitable if we can remain active. Try increasing your walk time, and if you are past 40 you must do some strength training with dumbbells. (Unless we resist we naturally lose muscle mass as we age, and the less muscle mass you have the lower your metabolism).
An etiquette question: Why do the French never place their bread directly on the dinner plate? Is there some historical reason for this?
- Brooks Doherty, Minneapolis, MN
MG: It seems to me more gastronomic aesthetics than etiquette. As a rule, the plate is the frame, so to speak, for the course one is eating -- a space surrounding a moderate portion arranged as attractively as possible in the center. A French plate is never laden with food on the edge, which is where some non-Frenchwoman would likely place bread. We don't find anything gauche about laying one's bread on the tablecloth. Indeed, bread is such a tactile part of French lives that people are always carrying baguettes and breaking off pieces by hand. It’s French finger food. Only in the most formal settings would a bread plate be de rigueur. So, at a bistro you’d get a breadbasket and no bread plate and at a fancy haute-cuisine restaurant, you’d get a plate that a waiter comes around and places bread on during the meal, often, different breads with different courses.
How to win a French woman's heart?
- Wil, NY
MG: I love your question. It seems to me you have to start by finding a French woman. France isn’t a bad place to start. They have a lot of single French women, and the food isn’t bad, either. Of course, you can frequent places in the US that attract French women (forget gyms) -- and there are many around the country. You write from NY, which certainly has the greatest number, but I’ll leave it to you to figure this all out. But assuming you have found the woman of your dreams, then there’s the inner her you must win.
Speaking now as a French woman, let me say that since we cultivate joie de vivre showing an appreciation for that is the key. Respect and enhance the enjoyment she derives using her senses in tiny thoughtful ways -- some flowers for no reason, a divine piece of chocolate left for her to find with a sweet note. Champagne is great. All the old clichés . . . they became clichés because they work and are used again and again. And be sure to be open to the pleasure of the senses yourself. American men can be so joylessly pragmatic sometimes and short of spontaneity, delight in the moment. Above all make her laugh, and that applies to all women the world over.