Foie Gras and Fried Chicken: Eating Habits in Old and New France

Written in 2006 as part of the Europe in the World international journalism program.

French culinary history is a tradition that dates back 400 years, its gastronomic roots a part of French identity.

Marion and Anna, authors from Blaise Pascal University say Louis XIV aka the “Sun King” would eat large glamorous meals alone but in public to show France’s prestige with original and sophisticated cooking as visitors watched him from behind bars.

But signs point to a thinning of the famed food customs. Frozen food profits are on the rise. McDonald’s is bigger here than anywhere else in Europe. The food company Findus reported that the traditional family meal, which 25 years ago lasted 88 minutes today is only 33. But nothing has changed in the Vilmorin’s house.

Caroline Vilmorin lives in the Colombes suburb outside Paris with her husband Alban and four children. She spent the first part of her children’s lives at home but a few years ago went back to work. She works full time now but her routine hasn’t changed, devoting the same amount of time to cooking as when she was a homemaker.

“First thing I do in the morning before going to work is prepare meals for the kids,” said Vilmorin.

In France some children, including Vilmorin’s, come home for lunch and when her children do their food has already been made.

She goes shopping once a week for groceries which means she can still buy fresh food like meat from the butcher, bread from the baker and fresh cheese. She goes to the local supermarket to pick up other items but because she goes once a week she has to buy frozen vegetables, the only thing her family eats that isn’t fresh.

She cooks a traditional multi-coursed meal every night.

First the soup or salad, then the main dish and finally some cheese and bread with a dessert of yogurt or maybe ice cream.

Dinner, an important daily ritual at the Vilmorin house, is on at 9 p.m. every night.

“It’s important because it’s the only time of day we get to see each other,” Vilmorin said.

Because of her job she’s had to begin cooking more frozen foods and buying take out, things she deems “survival food,” but never fast food.

Pizza delivery is still expensive so most families stay away from it including the Vilmorins but she does pick up freshly baked pizza from the market every week.

And though it wasn’t a concern for her three older children, she wants her 12-year-old son Pieter to see a nutritionist.

“I think it’s because he’s growing but he eats too many sugars and sweets,” said Vilmorin. “He’s not fat but I think he needs a little bit of help.”

Pieter, her youngest son, is very active. He has four hours of P.E. every week in school and another four hours of exercise from rugby and fencing. But, she says, it’s not enough.

He snacks a lot, buying fast food like fried chicken and french fries on the way home from school and snacking at home in between meals.

“He’s bored,” said Vilmorin. “He’s too young so he doesn’t go out with friends or others at school and is alone when he comes home.”

“If I don’t look after him he won’t have good habits,” said Vilmorin. “He’s getting used to the junk food.”

Her friend Virginie Fouquet can relate. Both women have a lot in common. They live down the street from each other, work in neighboring buildings and their kids are friends. Fouquet has three girls and one boy, Vilmorin three boys and one girl.

They eat traditional French food in a traditionally French way.

Dinner’s at 9 p.m. in her house too and like the Vilmorins, they treat it as a special part of the day.

Like Vilmorin, she shops once a week, picking up fresh food, only buying frozen vegetables and potatoes and rarely getting take-out.

And like Caroline Vilmorin her older kids didn’t have weight problems, but she brought her youngest daughters Sarah, 18, and Héloïse, 17, to visit a nutritionist when they were 15.

Sarah was growing and eventually filled out but Héloïse was eating the wrong things. She liked sweet things like cake and cookies and often stopped to pick things up on the way home from school.

Neither Pieter nor Heloise’ story is new to Stacy Chat-Yung.

She is an American dietician who has been working and living in France for the past year. Though she’s only been here a short while she is aware in her work for a French public health organization and in French society of the changes happening around her.

“Children and young adults are being effected most by rising obesity rates,” Chat-Yung said.

“In my opinion it’s the influence of ready made, prepared meals. Going to the big grocery stores the row of ready-made meals is big and keeps growing.”

Market tracking company Euromonitor International reports that the frozen food market of France is due to grow nearly 30 percent in the next four years, a bad omen considering a fast food market, lead by the biggest chain McDonald’s France, which has grown substantially and shows no signs of slowing.

Food servings here are much smaller than American ones and “a tradition of quality over quantity has kept this in check.”

But it hasn’t stopped change in other realms of French eating.

French tradition says that you don’t eat between your three daily meals but kids are aloud snacks. The choices of snacks, she says, not the snacking itself, is becoming more and more unhealthy.

“The habit of three daily meals is less common for young people,” said Chat-Yung. “While eating at odd times, whenever you’re hungry, is.”

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