By Yanan Wang:
No culture would be complete without its culinary traditions. We associate the Italians with spaghetti and pizza, the Greeks with gyro and souvlaki, the Chinese with rice and dumplings. In Paris, there is ample fodder for hungry tourists in the form of diverse cheeses, Burgundy wines, and baguettes made-to-order. As a food-lover, I’m at once excited and apprehensive about the city’s myriad offerings. What should I eat? I wander amidst rows of rainbow macaroons and tartes au chocolat. When? How?
- Since 2012, “the gastronomic meal of the French” has figured on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a list compiled by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meant to celebrate and raise awareness for diverse practices around the world. Alongside Mexico, France is one of two countries to have its cuisine globally recognized as an essential part of its history. The properly structured meal begins with an “aperitif” (drinks with the meal), contains about three principal dishes of meat or fish, vegetables, and cheese, and culminates in a dessert. So entrenched in their roots is the notion of this traditional meal that the French refer to it as their “patrimoine gastronomique”—their gastronomic patrimony.
But the typical Parisian family has neither the time nor the desire to partake in this culinary custom. While I have found all my meals with my host family delicious, they have also been too rushed for me to fully appreciate the new developments of my palate. My host siblings—14-year-old Baptiste and 18-year-old Alice—generally take less than twenty minutes to gulp down the contents of their dishes. My host parents Geneviève and Patrick kindly wait for me to finish before clearing the table, but I feel awkward being the last one eating, like a guest who has lingered too long.
When I commented on how quickly everyone seemed to eat, my host mom shrugged, “It’s a French thing.” Really? I had always thought the opposite was true.
It may be that this tendency of hurrying is a symptom of Paris’s urbanism rather than a sign of France’s culinary decline. Nevertheless, in the regions of France outside of Paris, an altogether different movement is brewing—one that is in support of local farms and the traditional process of both making and eating a meal.
In an age of increased food imports from countries such as China and Pakistan, this renewed awareness is more important than ever. In recent years, French consumers have opted more and more for low quality, cheap alternatives to their usual native fare, taking away from the regional specificity that is essential to the French standard (in order for a cheese to be termed a true Roquefort cheese, for instance, it must have been refined in the Combalou caves of the Averyron mountains). Young farmers today are fighting against this erosion by promoting a return to France’s gastronomic roots.
This weekend, I will travel to Provence, a region known for its breathtaking coastal vistas and delicious seafood. With luck, I’ll get the chance to have some authentic bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille. And when I try this fabled dish for the first time, I’ll be sure to savour the taste of this cultural heritage for as long as I can.
Yanan Wang ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at email@example.com.