Passionate eating

An American expat discovers why eating very bad things is very good for you.

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My first full-blown dinner in Paris began with thick, creamy slices of homemade foie gras sprinkled with coarse Guerande salt on toasted poilane bread. Along with several bottles of Bordeaux, the liver was followed by a truffle-stuffed cheese souffli littered with peppered chicken morsels, garlic-butter lamb navarin with black Corsican olives and laurel, potato gratin dashed with olive oil and crhme franche, five different kinds of heavy,
thick-rinded pungent cheese served with fresh chestnuts and oak-leaf salad, and Baba au Rhum. At the end of this meal I remember thinking: I will die if I keep eating this way. But I will die old and happy.

Several years later, when I asked for her longevity secret,
98-year-old sculptress Beatrice Wood replied: “Everyday: meditation,
chocolate, a glass of port wine and flirting with young men.” This
luxurious acknowledgment of the relationship between gastronomy, pleasure
and health is not new. Famous French centenarian Jeanne Calment was a chocoholic. People on the island of Crete outlive
their Western neighbors thanks, in part, to a lustful appetite for olive
oil, goat cheese and wine. Instead of perishing in their prime, people in
the Pirigord region of France push the age envelope with a diet that
includes goose pbti, cheese and Armagnac. The French in general, for that
matter, outlive Americans by about two and a half years and suffer 40 percent
fewer heart attacks.

All things being equal, the common ground here is an almost
libidinous pleasure in food. Could this pleasure principle, this unbridled
enjoyment in guilt-free, often ritual-bound eating, contribute to overall
health? American supermarkets are filled with fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free, cholesterol-free products, but we top the scales in obesity. We live in a land of breathtaking abundance, but we corner the market on eating disorders. Like an insatiable teenager, America stalks the refrigerators and check-out stands of the nation to satisfy a rapacious appetite. Europe leans back on its vintage sofa with cognac in hand, shaking its head in weary disbelief. In the end, good balanced health may all boil down to living and eating with what Diane Ackerman, in her book “A Natural History of the Senses” called “sensuous zest.”



In America, sensuous zest has been eaten away by worry. What’s good for
you one day is bad the next. Like the garrulous American who tells you his life story at a bus stop, the entire country seems to wear its chronic food and health pathologies — its clogged heart, its guilty bingeing — on its
shirtsleeves. Even Bob Dole smiles wryly at us from a Pfizer ad, talking
about his erectile dysfunction.

This type of public purging is both baffling and unthinkable in
Europe, where the relationship between eating and pleasure, including the
relationship between food and sex that goes back to orgiastic Roman dining, is deeply bound up in social mores.

All this, of course, is not to suggest that the French are the
picture of perfect health. They smoke too much. The few gyms that exist
have a theatrical or desultory air about them, and big spaces for athletic
activities, at least in Paris, are almost nonexistent. Their socialized
healthcare system grants women stunning maternity benefits and provides
low-cost medical check-ups for all, but it also is partly responsible for
creating the most avid consumers of pharmaceutical products in the world.

And the consumption of American-style fast, frozen and junk food is slowly changing the landscape here. But by and large the French in particular and Europeans in general enjoy a level of overall health that is free of fear and rooted not only in deep sensual pleasure, but also in a sense of common sense — something that, in the jungle of diet divas and “techno” foods, has
completely escaped Americans.

What’s “bad” in America is not only “good” in Europe, it’s usually a basic,
fundamental staple in the overall European diet, a part of the joie de
vivre that’s been the bedrock of Latin culture for centuries. Consider, for
example, what the Italian response might be to Dr. Barry Sears’ hugely popular
book “The Zone.” “BASTA WITH PASTA” the book jacket screams. “WARNING: EATING THESE CARBOHYDRATES COULD BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH.” The blacklist that follows includes bananas, cranberries, apple juice, carrots and rice — foods whose virtues (Fiber! Potassium! Beta carotene!) have been vigorously endorsed by nutrition experts and health organizations worldwide. Curiously, while denouncing the humble carrot stick, Sears promotes snacking on instant corn muffin mix and ice
cream, and his obdurate claims underscore an almost burlesque relationship
to food: “Food may be the most powerful drug you will ever come in contact
with,” the book warns and (my personal favorite), “You can burn more fat
watching TV than exercising.” Follow “The Zone’s” advice and you’ll even
“reset your genetic code.”

Reset your genetic code? Most of us can’t even reset the timer on
our VCRs. With books like “The Zone” coming out every year, each one
contradicting the other and selling by the millions, and with diet doctors
gnawing on the excrescence of our ever-expanding insecurities and our
imperfect bodies, it’s no small wonder that for many Americans eating has
been entirely robbed of both pleasure and common sense. The stressful
mental workout required to “stay healthy” has become unhealthy, and it
is often an act of sheer courage to surrender to lascivious cravings for,
say, steamy artichokes stuffed with chopped sausage and bacon or an
oven-baked profiterole au chocolat.

In the land of plenty many are starving for a raw, more sensual experience of pleasure in food, which may explain why eating features so prominently in the Anglo-Saxon experience overseas. In his book “Toujours Provence,” Peter Mayle asks us: “It is impossible to live in France for any length of time and stay immune from the national enthusiasm for food, and who would want to? Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?”

The journalist A.J. Liebling put it differently in his book “Between Meals”:
“If I had compared my life to a cake, the sojourns in Paris would have
presented the chocolate filling. The intervening layers were plain sponge.”
Indeed, nowhere has a culture of epicurism reached such celestial
heights as in France, where for centuries cuisine has bequeathed itself to
successive generations and defined an entire civilization, from its rural
heartland to its haute bourgeoisie. France may no longer be an empire, but
its food has survived war, famine and colonial ruin. Louis XVI and
Napoleon III invented, respectively, the foie gras and the camembert that
remain to this day subjects of almost rhapsodic enjoyment.

One might imagine where 20th century literature would be without Proust’s high-fat, butter-rich madeleine. Then again, Liebling lamented Proust’s prosaic “tea biscuit” and posited: “In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautied soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”

When in the lands of pasta and pbti we Americans are compelled to
enter the dolce vita, to experience, sometimes for the first time, what Ackerman refers to as the “textures” of life. “We need to return to feeling the textures of life,” she says. “Much of our experience in 20th century America is an effort to get away from those textures, to fade into a stark … puritanical, all-business routine that doesn’t have anything so unseemly as sensuous zest.”

Sensuous zest, in this context, does not come in a can. It is not
sugar-free. It is sometimes positively intoxicating. And it is rarely
to go. For Americans, it often means learning to appreciate (or, in some
cases, discover) the taste of the real over the artificial. And it
invariably means learning how to eat slowly and to savor. The American
way of putting everything on one plate and eating simultaneously is
overkill in France. Each food is eaten separately, and slowly.

I admit I’m still struggling in this department. “Are you late for a plane?” my
French husband asks when I eat. “Slow down,” he intones. And I do. Today, after almost eight years of French living, the doors to my gastronomic perception have definitely swung wide open, if not been entirely unhinged. I have learned (but not mastered) the art of savoring meals with a certain
singular gourmandise and acuity. I have overcome certain cultural
prejudices and indulged in butter-drenched, garlic-roasted frog legs or
pesto-stuffed snails, pulling out the little wormlike sod-dwellers with
almost exasperating precision using a tiny silver escargot fork.

I have rediscovered familiar foods, their tastes and smells. Even my
relationship to the simple and exquisitely versatile tomato has changed. In
American supermarkets I am as deeply suspicious of the pristine, queerly
odorless, genetically-altered fruit as I am of the one picked, unripe and
immature, for our perennial and seasonless sating. In fact, the first
fresh-picked, farm-grown French tomato I ever ate was an ugly, misshapen
fruit, but its smell alone (not to mention its taste) was so intense it was
almost sentient, and it took me back to summer days spent in the rich, pungent soil of Trinity County nearly 30 years ago. “Smell,” said Helen Keller, “transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”

Many of us have literally forgotten how to listen to our gut
feelings, and the road from our stomachs to our heads is a rocky one
reeling in the “revolutions” of free market fads and special interests. It
takes hundreds of reports, from the likes of the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the
Life Sciences Institute, to confirm for Americans what Europeans have known for centuries. We’re talking shamefully basic common sense: A daily glass of wine is actually good for you (and even OK when you’re pregnant). Natural fresh foods are better than processed foods. Carbohydrates don’t make you fat; overeating them does. So does snacking. Everything is OK in
moderation.

All this implies that there are limits to things, and limits, like taxes or
unprocessed cheese, are something most Americans are very uncomfortable
with. Choice is our birthright. We’d rather have, say, 20 varieties of
all-you-can-eat, nonfat, sugar-free, dairy-free ice cream and eat it
whenever we want, than the thick, creamy, luscious real thing for one
after-dinner pleasure.

“You Americans are too busy making a living to have a life,” a French
friend of mine once said. Gene Ford, author of “The French Paradox,”
laid out a different perspective: “Despite all our billions spent on
health care, and the sweat and self denial, and the bland health food
diets, we still die younger. And some would say that at the end of this
journey, we didn’t enjoy the scenery nearly as much as the average French
peasant.”

In other words, for those of us who choose to keep pumping the proverbial
treadmill, it may be too late to live with sensuous zest by the time we end up, lean and mean, on our deathbed. Then again, maybe not.

As Oliver Wendall Holmes once said, “Good Americans, when they die, go to
Paris.”

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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