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What the French Do Best

There's eating, and then there's dining.

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Consider eating versus dining.

The word "eat" comes from German and means "to take food into the mouth," with secondary meanings like "to destroy" and "to slowly consume," as in "Dude, what's eating you?"

The word "dine" comes from French and means "to take dinner," with the secondary meaning "to give a dinner for," as in "wine and dine."

The difference is a fundamental one between American culture and French culture: Americans eat, but the French dine.

Consider, for starters, your typical waiter. The American version gives you about a minute with the menu, spits out the specials with an eye on his other tables, comes back with drinks in less than two minutes, and constantly reassures you throughout the meal with endless variations on "Are you okay?" He generally leaves the check with the dessert, since others are waiting impatiently to take food into their mouths.

The French waiter allows you to settle into your seats for a bit, get the feel of the place, then hands you the menu and disappears. When he returns, after an amount of time that would leave the average American considering another restaurant, he takes your order, nods politely, and goes away again. From then on, you'll see him when he has food for you, and he'll bring the check when you ask for it. Should you decide to linger for, say, an hour after your meal, it would no more occur to the French to hustle you off than it would occur to an American to -- well, to linger for an hour after a meal.

Then there's the food, of course. On the great range of food, the low end is pretty much the same everywhere: It's crap the whole world over, but we eat it because we're either hurried or low on funds. France has American fast food, especially McDonald's, and one block in Paris has a McDonald's, a Pizza Hut, a Burger King, and a Hard Rock Cafe. It feels like an American ghetto.

The high end of food is also pretty much the same, except my father (who would know better than I) says that a fine meal in Paris is actually cheaper than the same meal in Memphis -- and, yes, he insists that a few Memphis restaurants do just as well as places where we recently dined in Paris.

It's that range of food in the middle, the stuff that average people eat on average days, that makes France seem like another world. What these people are eating in those two-hour lunches! It's typically a three-, four-, or five-course fixed-price menu, where you choose one starter, one main dish, and one dessert. The more expensive the menu (a French word, by the way), the more courses and the better the options.

And by the way, how on earth did "entrée" come to mean "main dish" in the U.S.? It clearly means "entrance," as in "beginning," and in France, it is, quite logically, what you eat first. The French word for main dish translates as "plate."

While in France, we stumbled into one place that advertised "moules et frites," mussels and fries. It didn't sound like much, but we were hungry and in a hurry, so we dove in. It was one of the best meals of my life, with a bucket of mussels in marinara sauce, a bucket of them in a creamy basil sauce, and a waitress who politely showed us how the French eat mussels: Use the shell of one to grab the meat out of another.

We found a pastry shop in Paris called Lauderelle, the mere appearance of which in America would cause half the donut shops in the country to close. They served rich coffee with hot milk on the side in pewter pitchers, and they had about five different flavors of macaroons. In America, for whatever goofy reason, "macaroon" always seems to mean "coconut." But this place had almond macaroons, pecan macaroons, and pistachio macaroons, the primary reason I wish to return to France. Americans do vegetables better, but the French completely kick our asses with their pastries and desserts.

We went to restaurants, especially in Paris, that were recommended by various guidebooks, and we generally found them to be overpriced and filled with Americans. We had good meals everywhere, but at times, I felt like we were in some kind of ParisLand theme park, where tourists come to see how French people eat without having to, you know, speak or read French.

Our finest meals always came right after we said "Hey, let's check out this place." The perfect example was in St. Malo, where, after being turned away from several restaurants due to crowds (of other tourists), we checked out a place that looked, from the outside, like a scaled-down Cafe Society. We were the only people speaking English, and every word on the menu, plus every word coming from the waitress, was French.

I had a simple salad with shrimp, haddock (la spécialité de la maison) in a white wine and capers sauce, and, for dessert, scoops of vanilla, chocolate, and praline ice cream. It might not sound like much, but every bite was divine.

Besides, we spent almost three hours there, having a wonderful meal and conversation. We ordered in French, awkwardly but with great pride, and at the other tables were lovers holding hands, families being entertained by their kids, older people eating quietly, and a triple-date laughing loudly without disturbing anybody.

About 45 minutes after dessert, I leaned back in my chair and thought to myself, We're not just eating. We're dining.

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