16 May 2013

À table

As we move through le printemps (spring) into summer, we have more and more opportunities to participate in the French version of le pique-nique (picnic), and boy, do the French know how to picnic.  My spouse discovered this in his first summer consulting in France, when he was invited to the beach on a warm Friday evening after work by some co-workers.  He was awestruck by the blankets, the candles in the sand, and the elegant foods and drinks brought by everyone.  We've since picnicked many times along the Mediterranean beaches, particularly at dinner time, surreptitiously watching the French families around us.  Our more revealing picnicking experiences have come through the many sports tournaments we've attended with our sons and their teammates' families during the past two springs.  By now we know to expect the ubiquitous baguettes and wine, even at youth sports' events, (I first recount this discovery in Rouge ou rosé, June 2012), and we've even had the novel opportunity of introducing a favorite Bordeaux sausage to our French picnicking friends!

In thinking about how French picnics feel different from the American barbecue or the tailgate party, I think it is partly in the scale but also in the intention.  The many pique-niques in which we've participated seem pretty simple.  Everyone brings a bag or two, or a cooler, with their food, but we don't see the hauling of grills or the schlepping of piles of paper plates and huge quantities of food.  Among our two groups of sports families, salads and bread with some protein are the normal fare, while the supplies often include cute folding camping tables brought by a family or two, a roll of paper towels and a garbage bag, and of course, a corkscrew and plastic cups.  Simple sandwiches are often assembled on the spot, as our rugby-playing son's coach did last weekend, with a baguette, some ham, and a jar of moutarde de Dijon (Dijon mustard) that he pulled out of his bag, along with a bottle of wine to share.  Families may also share olives, cut-up watermelon, and cake or chocolates.  Each stadium or venue has a buvette (a bar, or a concessions stand) hosted by the sponsoring club, for those needing to supplement their picnics.  The limited offerings seem to be fairly standard and inexpensive, along the lines of one type of grilled sausage, french fries, candy, ice pops, crêpes, espressos, soda and beer.

photo courtesy of Bernard Guigues, AUC Rugby, 1 May 2013 (Tournament at Les Cadeneux)
The bigger difference between U.S. and French picnics seems to be in the intentionality of the dining experience.  At French youth rugby and football tournaments, there is actually une pause (a break), where matches stop and everyone attending eats at the same time, even at the huge rugby regional tournament last weekend in Avignon, with its hundreds of players and their families.  The research institute Insee notes that the French are much more likely than Americans to eat meals at the same times across the entire country, suggesting that well-established mealtime traditions continue to be important here.  Lunch is one of those meals that is particularly sacrosanct; at 13h (1 pm), Insee estimates that half of the French are engaged in eating their lunches (see de SaintPol et Ricroche, Insee, Le temps de l'alimentation en France, no. 1417, Oct. 2012).  At tournaments, this break in the action is notable; the little camping tables are quickly set up, food containers emerge, and the wine bottles are uncorked.  You don't just attend tournaments with some money in your pocket, hoping for a gap between matches that will allow your family to eat a greasy burger or something.  French picnic meals are planned, even if simple, and they will be eaten as properly as possible, à table (at the table).  I am often surprised by the unexpectedly lovely salads, olives, cheeses, and fruits that emerge from coolers, that reveal the clear effort and intent associated with mealtime.  Interestingly, I rarely see potato chips or crisps as part of the tournament meal (these often emerge as a snack, later), but we do see a lot more sweets than we might in the U.S.--chocolates, candy, and soda.  The French seem to gravitate towards sweets while Americans like their salt, but some of this difference may also be related to the importance of dessert as a traditional end to most French meals, and to the tendency for afternoon gôuters (snacks) to be on the sweet side.  My family isn't as consumed by the sweet habit (although we do eat dessert here, without guilt; see Les Desserts, Sept. 2011), but we appreciate the time taken to eat meals, even at tournaments.  The French savor their meals; despite all kinds of modern distractions, the hours spent eating by the French have actually increased lightly in the past years.  (See Insee source above.)  My family is becoming so acclimated to this aspect that I think we may have to acquire our own little French folding camping table to bring back to a U.S. soccer tournament someday.

photo: Decathlon http://www.decathlon.fr/media/803/8030285/zoom_400PX_asset_11984223.jpg

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