18 September 2011
Fortunately, we have also learned some important French rituals which give comfort when the rest of daily life is a bit challenging. This is what rituals do, in part; they help create order and normalcy, and also give one a sense of unity with the rest of society. The ritual I am thinking of here is the eating of food.
In France, breakfast is light, usually a delicious croissant, or the ubiquitous baguette, and espresso or coffee or juice. We have an espresso machine, and I've learned that a noisette is an espresso with a tiny bit of milk to make it the color of a noisette, or hazelnut. Before school started, the boys would go to their favorite bakery, Lavarenne, every morning, to pick up fresh pain au chocolat (croissant with chocolate) and other bread, while practicing their French with the nice lady there. We have to stock up now in advance, with the early school mornings here, and because of school, we do usually supplement the lighter breakfast with a boiled egg or a piece of deli meat, for some protein. We do feel very lucky though that we can have fresh croissants or baguettes whenever we like!
The big meals are dejeuner (lunch) and then dinner. These two are multi-course affairs, even at home, and especially at school. Our sons are demi-pensionnaires at school (which means they take school lunch, in their case, on M, T, Th and F), and they love French school lunches! I think the lunch rituals have helped them solidify their social relationships at school, but they also REALLY like the food. The boys enjoy the entrées (appetizers), and the fact that there is always dessert! Last Thursday's lunch was an enormous cordon bleu with a side of haricot verts (green beans), preceded of course by an entrée of some kind of cheese puff pastry and followed by dessert of custard with chocolate shavings. The boys reported that on one of the first days, a new boy asked with great consternation about the fromages (the cheeses), and now it is rumored that there might be some cheeses available soon for dessert. How very French! The boys' school lunches are so good that I feel rather inadequate with my lunch offerings on Wednesdays when they have just a half day of school. Who can compete with chicken in wine sauce with couscous, and creme brulée for dessert?
At home, I don't serve much by way of appetizers before lunch nor do I partake of the wine then (if I had wine every day between 12noon-2, well, you can guess that nothing much would happen in this household after that!), but because we eat dinner so late (in France, 7 pm is quite early), we do eat an entrée before dinner, maybe tapenade (olive or vegetable spread), or raw vegetables or foie gras, with a baguette. We have adopted the ritual of enjoying wine from a box that we keep on the counter like many French families do, and we break out the nicer bottles on weekends. I have also been sticking to my old ritual of planning the weekly meals on the weekends, because it simplifies my grocery shopping and prevents last minute meal-planning angst. Here though, since I am still without my favorite cookbooks, our dinner plats (main dishes) are things that I can put together without too much planning and that are easy to assemble with French grocery store ingredients. Some typical meals I've made or offered lately include: ratatouille over pasta, rotisserie chicken, omelettes, soup, and the boys' current favorite, steak haché (ground beef patties) which is part of our regular Wednesday night repertoire. These 'steaks' I buy frozen from Picard, frozen food store (U.S. friends, imagine a giant Trader Joe's frozen food section). I had finally asked a French friend how she managed grocery shopping and meals with her three kids and she told me about Picard, and her extra freezer. Busy French mothers shop at Picard with their big freezer bags or boxes (everything melts a lot faster here in the summer), and they stock up on frozen potatoes, frozen vegetables, frozen soups, ice cream, etc. So far, I've been very impressed with the quality and prices, even if my shopping there is limited by my small freezer.
We have clearly been quick to adopt French food rituals in our household. That should be no surprise; all four of us enjoy food! Yet, the food rituals give us more than just gustatory pleasure; we find them also very rejuvenating. The multiple courses and the fresh foods seem to sustain us and refresh our spirits, so that we can manage another day, at school, at work, or at the market, stumbling through with our awkward French. And not only do the daily wine and desserts make it easier to deal with the daily frustrations, because they are normal, expected elements of the meals here, we enjoy them without any guilt.
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The absence of guilt associated with eating is something that I really miss about France. No 'sinful' or 'decadent' desserts, just plain good ones!
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