Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The culture of the Dinner Table

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.

Dessert: Yum.

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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Learning to Bise

What an experience! Before coming to France I understood the concept, you kiss each other on the cheeks.

Seems simple enough.

But then there are all these funny boundaries that you didn't know were there before — it turns out that it's as awkward as going in for that first kiss of your life and not knowing if the other person is ok with it. And then, it's terrifying as you move in to kiss because no one ever knows which cheek to kiss first, which could result in both turning the same direction and your simple kiss on the cheek becomes horrifyingly close to real smakeroo on the lips!!! :O

After a few of these heart-stopping efforts, I decided that I would just wait for others to initiate the bise, rather than trying to do anything about it myself. But by never offering to bise I found out that other people are shy about it too. Unfortunately it didn't just stop there, we couldn't just be friends in our evasion of the bise. No, in fact it made others feel bad because I didn't ever say 'hello' and they started giving me the cold shoulder. They took my shyness about the bise to be a personal offense and thought I was giving them the cold shoulder on purpose! Ahh! That's not at all what I wanted! Rather, I wanted to be friends and to be accepted into this culture, because it is a culture where you only really start to understand after you've been initiated, and UNDERSTANDING was my goal.

So, after some pep talks and swallowing my awkwardness, I made a firm resolution to always initiate the bise. I decided I'd systematically offer my left cheek first hold firm so they would be the one to juggle side to side if there was any confusion. That helped. And soon when I walked into a room it was with lots of smiles, Hello!'s and bises, rather than silent nods and trying to look preoccupied. You might say that learning to bise changed my whole French world. :D

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Sampling of French Food Experiences

French use of Pumpkins

Pumpkin Pie or Jack-o-lanterns? Nope! For the French, the pumpkin is a vegetable, a squash, and a very banal one at that. There is nothing extraordinary or exciting about it, except for its ability to arouse distaste by children, who have a general dislike for all squash. The French make pumpkin soup and stews in the fall, and that's about where their pumpkinness ends. Except when there is an American girl at school who tells them fantastical stories about carving funny faces into them or painting them, which the kids laugh at, or about making sweet tartes out of them, which the kids really cannot fathom. But basically all they can connect it to is the soup, so they imagine putting that detested vegetable soup into a tarte pan and baking it... YUK!



Think… fondue upside-down. Or, cooking a hot-dog over a campfire but with cheese. MMmm, it's delicious, warm, and CHEEZY. Cheezy in the way North Americans think of cheezy: yummy melted cheese on top. Which is quite different from the normal French cheeses, cut and eaten on a baguette.

Raclette is a 'conversation meal' which is held at an almost folkloric level in the minds of the people. A bit like HotPots are for the Chinese, or chocolate fondue for North Americans. Raclette is actually a rather heavy meal. There is usually a platter of various meats, a platter of various cheeses, cut in slices, and pot of cooked potatoes. There is the Raclette machine in the middle of the table and each person gets his own little device that looks like the little shovels kids use at the beach. You put your cheese on the shovel, put it on the hotplate and wait for it to get deliciously-bubbly hot and melty. Then you spread it across your pick of a meat slice and a potato and Voila! This is repeated again and again, at a slow no-rush pace with lots of lively conversation in between savoring bites.

Pizza: a safe meal? Think Again.

My pizza catastrophes, as recorded after the temple trip and my second experience with pizza in Europe:

“Last time I ordered pizza I ended up with a mountain of shredded carrots on top, so I was looking for something very safe—like pepperoni or cheese pizza. The menu was in German (of which I understand nothing), so when the girl said ‘four cheese’ I jumped for that one. It was familiar and sounded simple and safe.

Think Again! When my pizza arrived, nice and hot from the oven, it smelled pretty strongly and there was green dried-moldy looking stuff on top that I could only wish was spinach. Nope, it was from the crazy European cheeses that I usually avoid and now were all on top of MY pizza. :/! Ugh. ” I got through about half of it, but avoided the green stuff with a 49 and a half inch pole...

Medicinal and (surprisingly) Practical uses of Herbs

With all the recent natural disasters (it must be a record high for a Spring season) and moving into a new home, I have been thinking more about emergency prepardeness and food storage, or, my 'extended pantry'. What good things do I need to have on hand so that every time I want to make a meal I don't have to make a grocery run? As I've been researching this, I found a wonderfully insightful list of the uses of those herbs and spices that mostly just sit on my shelf. So I thought I'd share it!

Because Knowledge is Power.

This list comes from a foodstorage booklet put together by a woman who you can reach at this website: http://www.debidawn.com/. I'm grateful for the research she put into making her booklet! Some of the uses were rather surprising to me. Enjoy!

Alum (white, powdered)- When sprinkled on an open wound it will draw out infection and any drainage. It will leave the sore disinfected and dry, and will speed healing. (Buy alum in the spice department at your grocery store.)

Baking Soda- There are so many uses for baking soda that a book could be written on its uses. It can be used as a deodorant, mouthwash, toothpaste, cleaning and scouring agent, degreaser, and a natural deodorizer. It has leavening properties and can be mixed with cream of tarter to make baking powder. 1/2 tsp. mixed in a 4-oz. glass of water is good for upset stomachs (remember bicarbonate of soda?). In laundry it’s good as cleaner and water softener. It also makes soaps stretch farther. It can be used as a coolant for the skin, especially for sunburn, rash, bee-sting, poison ivy and oak. Helps maintain pH in water. Baking soda can be used safely without polluting the ground water. It also makes a great fire extinguisher.

Basil- Basil tea taken hot stops vomiting and eases stomach cramps. Helpful when applied to snake bites and insect stings. (The tea is made 2 tsp. per hot cup water once a day.)

Corn Starch- Cornstarch can be used in place of talcum or baby powder. Great for diaper rash and other rashes. Absorbs moisture. Great for cooking. Used as a thickener with simple broth to make gravy. Also will stretch soup and thicken it. It has carbohydrates to provide energy.

Ginger- Powdered or gingerroot. Made into a tea it can be used as a decongestant (like hot mustard plaster, but better because it won’t burn the skin). Just immerse a towel, rag or old shirt in a strong, heated ginger tea and place on chest to loosen chest congestion. It causes heat even after it’s cooled, though it can be re-rinsed in the warm tea. A milder tea can be drunk for upset stomach and gas. Ginger in the water of beans as they soak will control gas problems.

Jell-O- This product offers a way to cover the taste of chemically treated water. It can be added to with canned, fresh or dehydrated fruit. Jell can also help relieve diarrhea symptoms. To do this prepare jell as directed with just slightly more water than normal. Then drink the jell water while still warm, like tea. This will also provide necessary liquid to avoid dehydration, which is a big danger of diarrhea.

Nutmeg- Should be used SPARINGLY only. Can settle stomachs, nausea, and vomiting. Also can be used as an expectorant. Helps improve appetite and digestion. Good for helping maintain a healthy intestinal tract. In boiling water it can be used as a deodorizer.

Oats- Excellent source of bran and fiber. Oatmeal baths, masks, and soap are healthy for skin and good for itches and rashes.

Parsley- Fresh or dried. Parsley is rich in vitamin C and in iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin A. Prevents urinary infections. Good for fevers. Excellent for prevention of, or maintenance of, cancer. Cures sting from insect bites when used in a poultice. A tea made from the seeds can be used as a shampoo to kill vermin in the hair. Helps aid digestion (which is the original thought behind sprigs of parsley being placed on dinner plates in restaurants).

Salt- In ancient times salt was highly valued. Nowadays this inexpensive item is an excellent addition to your food storage for your own use and for future barter needs. Salt is very versatile. It can be used to cure meat, add flavor to otherwise bland foods, and can be used to help ease the pain of sores. It will speed healing (try it on a canker sore). Apply the salt straight on the wound (it sometimes stings initially), or dilute it with water. ½ tsp. in warm water is good for headaches and indigestion.

Sage- Can be used as a cure-all. A strong sage tea is an excellent gargle for tonsillitis or ulcers in the throat or mouth (good mixed with lemon and honey). The sage tea can be drunk cold or hot. It’s one of the best remedies for gas, liver, stomach, kidney or bowel trouble. Will stop bleeding and is good used to clean old wounds and ulcers. A wound will heal more quickly when washed with a sage tea. It’s useful for typhoid and scarlet fever, measles and smallpox. Soothes nerves and relieves headaches. An effective hair tonic (will make hair grow if roots haven’t been destroyed), and will remove dandruff. When used in high quantities sage is good for easing female problems, and all lung problems (colds, asthma, coughs, bronchitis, influenza and pneumonia). Tea from sage should be steeped (while covered), not boiled.

Vinegar- When mixed with honey it’s a cur-all. It can be used as an astringent. It’s a wonderful glass cleaner.

Whole Cloves- Whole cloves can be used directly on toothaches to help relieve pain. One clove can freshen breath after only a few minutes in the mouth. Several cloves in a pan of hot water is an effective air freshener (added citrus peel and a cinnamon stick makes it even more aromatic-especially during the holiday season).

Hydrogen Peroxide- (and rubbing Alcohol) An excellent source of disinfecting. This item could mean the ability to avoid a severe infection. Besides being used directly on wounds it can also be used to disinfect surfaces (bathroom sinks and counters, and needles to take out slivers).

Bleach- This is an inexpensive storage item that is quite valuable. It can help you have a purified water supply, clean clothes, and disinfect almost anything. Don’t buy a more expensive name brand. Bleach is bleach. Also, avoid bleach with a fragrance added.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stone-cold Tiramisu

Tiramisu has long been on the list of 'off-limits' European delicasies for me because of its achoholic content, but even the Arabs have their own version, so why not the stone-cold people too?!? :) I was over at a friend's house in France and she was preparing this for dinner. Later, I got to try some, so I asked for the recipe and now share it with you all. It is really simple and SO delicious!!

Wikipedia: Tiramisu [tirameˈsu];( literally "pick me up") is a popular Italian cake. It is made of biscuits (usually savoiardi [ladyfingers]) dipped in coffee, layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks and mascarponecheese, and flavored with liquor and cocoa.[1] The recipe has been adapted into many varieties of puddings, cakes and other desserts.


Preparation time: 30 min.

Chill time: 4 hours.

Recipe for 8X8 pan, double for 13X9.


3 eggs

100g brown sugar (I use half)

1tbs vanilla

250g mascarpone (or creamcheese?)

6 graham crackers or Ladyfinger cookies

Small bowl of nesquik mixed into milk (for dipping the cookies in)



1. Separate the eggs, whites into a separate bowl.

2. Mix the yolks with the sugar, vanilla and cheese.

3. Beat the whites until firm, add to the yolk mixture

4. Lightly dip the cookies in the nesquik milk and layer the bottom of the pan, creating a bottom crust with them.

5. Spread 1/3 of the cream mixture across the cookies, and repeat steps 4 and 5, creating 3 layers.

6. Finish with cream on top, and then sprinkle generously with straight cocoa powder.

7. Chill at least 4 hours.

Histoires d’un Cameronais

We stayed a couple nights in the home of a French-Cameronais family just before leaving France. I always love stories about other cultures, and so the father of the family shared these very intersting things with me...

Basaa Tribe, Cameron, Africa

Traditional parts of a wedding ceremony:

Before the ceremony the mother takes the bride apart, the father takes the groom, and they wash and dress them and give them their blessing. The (patriarch) blesses them.

At the wedding feast there is a cake: Gateau de concombre/Cucumber Cake. It takes practically a week to prepare from scratch. You take the seeds from big cucumbers (an African type), dry them, crush them into a paste (same as you would with peanuts to make peanut butter) add shredded meat (and water, I think) and then it cooks. Men are forbidden to enter the kitchen during the process. The cake is a light color, almost white. It is wrapped and cooked in big leaves. The cake symbolizes the bride. At the wedding ceremony the groom unwraps the cake, then cuts it, symbolizing the marriage (breaks it/opens it—we don’t quite have the right word in English. It is not and does not represent anything violent). You are not considered married until this ritual has been observed. While at the family's house we were privileged to try some of this cucumber cake. It was delicious!

Religious Origins and the Creation

There are two theories for the origins of the Basaa Tribe (and how they have traditions which are so similar to the religion of the Old Testament and the Temple culture). One theory is that the Africans were in Egypt. They lived there at the same time as the Israelites, and that they left around the same time as the Israelites did. They then traveled southward into Africa until they found a similar river system to the one they left: two rivers diverging and running parallel. This is where they settled.

The creation legend describes the creation of spirits, then the first man and woman who lived with God in a state where they felt no pain or death. The legend explains that they had children in this state and that God did not leave them until they became very wicked and they scattered to new areas, at which point they forgot God and no longer worshiped him. The Basaa people believe that a certain cave in their country is where God lived while he was on earth with them. They also believe that this area is where man was created. The man who recounted these stories to me thinks that it is also possible that this creation could be a symbolic adaptation for when the tribe moved into the area and re-established their (world)—a new beginning—a creation of their people.

Though Catholicism and Protestantism came to Africa, the people say they are neither Catholic nor Protestant—they are more, because they already knew what these religions teach, plus more.


Authority and age is very important and respected in Basaa society.

When performing a ceremony or rite the (authority) wears an apron, sometimes on the left shoulder, sometimes on the right, depending on the nature of the ceremony he is performing.

Among the elders in the tribe there are leaders who have specific responsibilities: justice, … , and one is the link between the earth and the heavens.

When someone is found guilty and is given the death penalty, they are killed without the shedding of blood.

When there is a crime and someone dies, the community kills an animal (often a chicken as it is easily found). The ritual will wash the community (the people/village/region) of the sin so that a malediction doesn’t come upon them.

Motherly Wisdom:

A baby in the womb often results in bending backwards slightly to reset your center of balance. After the baby is born it is attached to the back, which results in the mother bending slightly forward, which will stretch the muscles the other way and balance out the tired back muscles. Also, wearing the baby on the back is important because it keeps the baby close enough to feel and hear the mother’s heartbeat and body, which is familiar.