The dinner table. Where North American families gather for meals, parties, Thanksgivings, and Christmases. The dinner table often has a spot in the happy memories of childhood and family gatherings. But for many North American families in the 21st century, gathering the whole family around the dinner table happens at best on the weekends, but rarely on the busy school nights during the week. There are just too many after-school activities that keep the kids and/or parents out, such as team sports, youth groups, scouts, dance, etc.
Par contre, the French have preserved this family tradition, and the whole family gathers around the dinner table every night. The French eat a little later than an average North American, sitting down to eat dinner between 7:30 and 8:30pm. The children stay in school longer than North Americans, as well, getting home around 5pm and doing homework. There are very few after school activities for the kids, and when there are, they practice once a week: Wednesday afternoons. On Wednesdays school gets out at noon, so they have the whole afternoon for activities, without encroaching on evening family time. Because of this set up, the French school systems have (comparatively) very few extra-curricular activities, which has consequently attracted criticism from North America, where 'well rounded' youth, with many experiences in various sports or clubs and leadership are appreciated, and even expected. However, grace à this system, the French have maintained a very strong family culture. Families remain the fundamental building block of society, which is an admirable thing to find in an advanced society. They sacrifice the extra-curricular activities in order to preserve time for the family. That's not to say that no one in French society plays instruments or sports, it just NEVER happens in the evening.Genial, non?
Ok, so now that everyone is home from school or work we are ready to sit down at the dinner table. Then what? At a North American table you might see the serving dishes being passed around, everyone taking a serving of the salad, vegetable, and main dish, often putting them all on one plate. This idea rather scandalizes the French. Especially when there are cold foods touching hot foods. Then everyone digs in, enjoys the delicious food and its all over in half an hour. This idea isn't scandalizing so much as it is just unfathomable for the French. French meals take time! But why?
The French have a fundamental appreciation for intelligent conversation. A person is held in high esteem if he can carry on an intelligent conversation that is also interesting, and everyone enjoys such a pastime. Thus, the dinner table is not really about the food at all, rather it is a place and opportunity to gather people together and converse. The food is simply a catylist. A good one, to be sure, that they take pride in making beautiful and delicious, but it remains a means to another end.
So the French meal takes time. There are several courses (which keep the different foods from touching each other), generally with a minimum of four courses but it can get up to as many as seven or eight. This doesn't mean that they are always extravagant and exotic, the courses can be very simple, but there are always courses. We'll describe the extravagent and exotic meals first though, which are had at holidays and special occasions, then we'll simplify it to the day-to-day meals. Keep in mind that even though the French have lots of courses, each of the courses are small portions, so though it is a large meal, each of the dishes isn't a full-meal size.
Example of a French Holiday Dinner:
Aperatif: (Hors d'oeuvres) Drinks and finger foods such as caviar on (very fancy) crackers. This can be taken at the table or standing and mingling before sitting down.
Entrée: (Appetizer) For very fancy meals this is a tasting of fish, escargo or foigras, which is ground up liver.
Sorbet: Palet Cleanser, to wash out the taste of the last dish and give the mouth a fresh start for the delightful flavors of the next dish.
Plat de Resistance: (Main Dish) This can be just about anything under the sun, but usually involves meat. One of my favorites is Pork with baked apples (baked with the pork, giving it a delicious hint of apple flavor) drizzled with a sauce.
Salade: Green Salad with vinagrette. French salads are not very complex, just a variety of lettuce with dressing. No extra veggies.
Fromage: Cheese Tray. You'll get a choice of a variety of exotic French cheeses which could be soft or hard, gooey or crumbly, and a few slices of baguette to go with. Normally, which cheese you eat depends on the area of France you live in. For example, Neufchatel is a Norman cheese, and so it is a normal in Norman homes. Cheeses from other parts of France will be a specialty for the holiday dinners.
Each Course will take approximately 45 minutes, stretching the meal over 5 hours. When we were invited to a Christmas Dinner party, we began the Aperatif around 7:30, and we were served dessert at midnight. Then there was talking and dancing until 3am. What was rather amazing to me was that even the little kids were able to keep up. There were several who were up there dancing until about 1:30am. This kind of craziness is usually reserved for Christmas and weddings, other holiday dinners are special and long, but not necessarily all night.
Example of a day-to-day French Dinner
Aperatif: The day-to-day Aperatif is another chapter of French culture, but the simple version is that it is the afternoon snack, also called the quatre-heure or the 'four o'clock'. Adults often meet up with friends at a sidewalk café for the Aperatif.
Entrée: Salad. For the run-of-the-mill dinner the salad often comes before the main dish, eaten in the place of the entrée.
Plat de Resistance: Main Dish. Again, this is the meat dish.
Fromage: The Cheese Tray. This remains the same, though a smaller sampling of cheeses.
Dessert: Often this is a piece of fruit or a yogurt.
A week-night dinner usually takes an hour, so they're cleaning up the dinner table around 9 or 9:30. Eating dinner that late is also my explanation for why the French eat small breakfasts, or none at all. Weekend dinners --Saturday and Sunday-- are a mix somewhere between these two descriptions. The main meal of the day is often in the afternoon on the weekends, and you will be à table for three or four hours. I have often noted, however, that we have stayed à table after finishing eating, sometimes for another hour or two talking.
The French dinner table really is the location for conversation, for stories and catching up, for the birth of ideas and plans, for talking politics and change. Enfin, the French dinner table is a surface across which intellects come alive, knowledge exchanged, and friendships deepened; and it is at the heart of French culture and society.
I have often remarked that though the French are widely acclaimed for their amazing cooking, apart from pastries it is nearly impossible to get a taste of it at a restaurant. Most of the dinner restaurants in France are foreign foods, not French cuisine. And outside of Paris, most cities shut down after 7pm; the shops close and everyone goes home for dinner. That seems to line up with the importance that the dinner table has for the French. Perhaps there aren't many French cuisine restaurants because the real French experience at a dinner table can't be created just by the food, and you can't buy good conversation and friends. No, one really must be welcomed into a French foyer in order to experience a real French meal, and that (in my opinion) is a beautiful thing, that the heart and culture of the people is still in their homes.