French Women Don’t Get Fat

An excerpt from the new book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 2005.


There were no strawberries at the first Thanksgiving. Wild New England cranberries, perhaps. Strawberries, no. The Pilgrims naturally worked with local produce and what was in season. So did our grandparents and more remote ancestors. Tomatoes in December? Try South America. Canning and mass global distribution of produce have conditioned us to expect all foods all year round. I myself have been beguiled by the engineered good looks of off-season produce, but one taste of cardboard is enought to send me reaching for my napkin to expel the offending counterfeit. Nothing is more flavourless than a supermarket tomato in winter, but a true vine-ripened specimen in summer is nothing short of divine.

There is a reason to have pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving turkey and not with Fourth of July hot dogs. Seasonality is all about adapting your eating to what is available at markets for a short time during specific months of the year. The rhythm of the season is a vital part of tuning our bodies to their equilibrium, cultivating well-being. In summer, for example, our bodies naturally welcome a salad composed of the freshest greens, the most fragrant tomatoes; fresh corn and succulent berries delight us — each full of nutrients but also cooling water, which we lose faster in warm weather. In fall and winter, we will naturally yearn for more concentrated energy to keep warm and on the move. We want more proteins, and so happily begins the season for oysters, seafood, warm hearty soups, dried beans and lentils, and more meat.

In the end, seasonality is the key to the French woman’s psychological pleasure in food — the natural pleasure of anticipation, change, the poignant joy we take in something we know we shall soon lose and cannot take for granted. Such heightened awareness of what we put in our mouths is the opposite of routine, mindless eating that promotes boredom and weight gain. The first soft-shell crabs of the season are a singular treat. The first strawberries can trigger a precious memory, as we hearken back to seasons past. And this applies to things we make as well as to produce. As I write this passage, it is Christmas Eve. From the window of our Paris apartment, we can see a famous pastry shop, Mulot, where about sixty people under umbrellas are patiently lined up in the rainy street, waiting to collect their bûche de Noel, the Yule log cake. Believe me, they are not annoyed to be there — au contraire! (Only in France, you might say, and unfortunately, you’d be right.) The cake is rich and fattening and delicious . . . and no French woman would do without a slice or two. Made to be eaten only a few days a year, it is a tradition no one skips. And with a cultivated sense of balance, no one needs to.


Whether in the French provincial villages, cities, or Paris itself, on certain days of the week you can always see the trucks in the local squares and lining the streets. This caravan is hauling fresh produce, the best of the season, from meat and game to fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices. Have you ever seen twenty-seven varieties of olives in as many barrels? Market day is a tradition dating back centuries, since before France was Gaul. Why does it persist in the twenty-first century even as French conglomerates have erected hypermarchés (supermarkets that could rival any American ones in size)? Why do people of all walks of life brave the cold and heat, rain or shine, to choose among three varieties of string beans, seven types of potatoes, various shapes of bread, quail eggs, organic hens, wild boar, forty-three varieties of cheese, untold numbers of herbs, fish, and, of course, fresh-cut flowers?

The term artisanal lately creeping into American restaurants and markets provides a clue. Handcrafted quality has always been at the heart of French gastronomy and culture. French women live by it. It encompasses handling as well as production: eggs that are hours, not months, old, the yolks not pale yellow, but orange and exploding with flavor. It means white peaches picked early that morning, oozing with juices and destined to live at peak intensity for but a day before slowly dying.

Faire son marché (to do one’s food shopping) remains a vital French institution, here to stay despite the proliferation of the hypermarkets (now, mercifully, limited by law). It’s a vital social occasion. We see our neighbours, compare notes, and crucially, get to know the producers, the farmers who come to recognize you and whom you learn to trust. It’s critically important, because in France one does not dare squeeze the merchandise; rather, the trusted purveyors pick among the produce for you according to when you plan to eat something, how, and with what. This discussion can go on a bit, and the next in line waits quite patiently, respecting the seriousness of her neighbour’s business.

I was at a fruit stand in the Marché Saint-Germain, planning meals to follow Edward’s imminent arrival from New York. Like a trained psychoanalyst, a wonderful vendor there probed me: “C’est pour ce soir?” (“Is it for tonight?”) “Yes, the white peaches are, but the yellow ones are for tomorrow night.” She looked and picked thoughtfully. I usually buy what I need for the same evening, but I knew I’d be at the office that day past market time, and I wanted to treat Edward to a melon (de Cavaillon), one of his favourite French fruits, for his first lunch in Paris on Saturday. As I turned to the melon bushel, she inquired, “C’est pour quand?” I told her and she went to work, weighing a few, considering the stems and scents; then, having narrowed it down to two, she finally said with a smile of certainty, “Dans ce cas, c’est celui-ci.” She presented the one in her right hand, having calculated that the one in her left wouldn’t be perfect until Sunday. Of course, one never stores fruit in the refrigerator, so I left her selection in the basket on the kitchen counter and forgot about it. On Saturday morning, excited with anticipation of Edward’s arrival, I awoke to the most intoxicating fragrance permeating the apartment. The melon was crying, “Eat me,” and when Edward showed up from the airport there was no way to keep it a surprise. He just said, “Wow,” as he passed the kitchen.

If my market visits in New York are not quite as intense as those in Paris or Provence, they are still rich expriences in meeting and greeting produce and people; one can see and taste what’s in season and learn how to prepare the season’s local best with respect. Farmers universally love to share recipes, and Americans, being a curious and friendly bunch, are naturally unafraid to ask what to do with one foodstuff or another, be it skate, zucchini flowers, sorrel, or shallots. (Here you are at an advantage: sometimes French pride and fear of seeming ignorant restrain us, but one should never be discreet where food information is concerned.) Today the thrill of outdoor markets is sweeping American cities from San Francisco to Santa Monica, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and beyond. Chances are there is one near you. New York’s nationally famous Union Square market is open four days a week. Naturally, the countryside is no less rich in opportunity, and far from dying out, the traditional farm stand is thriving from Long Island to Pennsylvania to California to Wisconsin.

Once you’ve bought fruit and vegetables in an open-air market, not to mention bread, eggs, chicken, and fish, it’s hard to face the supermarket as anything more than a dry goods store. Obviously you must learn the market’s rhythm. In France, we are spoiled by daily markets, but there are weekly ones as well. In Provence, for instance, the famous daily ones are in the cities of Nice, Aix, and Avignon, while among smaller towns a weekly one rotates. So if it’s Tuesday, it’s Vai-Ménerbes; Saint Rémy de Provence; Uzès; and so on. Keeping track of when and where to go isn’t a bother, it’s almost a sport we enjoy. The effort is repaid tenfold in the kitchen. The best cook in the world can’t make good food from poor ingredients; and it takes some perverse genius to turn great ingredients into bad food. Good food in season responds best to the simplest preparation; you really can’t go wrong when you start with quality.

The last twenty years have seen astonishing strides in American cooking, with a heartwarming new respect for cuisine du terroir, bringing the best of the earth onto the restaurant and home kitchen table. American apostles of this faith like Alice Waters were the first to get Americans thinking seriously about ingredients and markets, and there is nothing short of a revolution under way as more and more Americans are converted to the satisfactions of making it themselves.

One difference between America and France remains a bit of a paradox. America, the paragon of egalitarian values, somehow suffers from a gastronomic class system unknown in France. The right and the opportunity to enjoy the earth’s seasonal best seems to be monopolized by an elite. Outside their ranks, the great majority of Americans are conditioned to demand and accept bland, processed, chemically treated, generally unnatural foods, which through packaging and marketing have been made to seem wholesome. I have no doubt that any people made to eat this way would in time grow fat. Among the French, by contrast, a love of good, natural food is part of the universal patrimony. Not that the French don’t pay more for quality. On average, they spend a much greater proportion of their income on food. But what seems like a luxury to Americans is a necessity to the French. Of course, not all luxury is within reach of everyone (the beluga appetizer is not a universal right), but the French do live by one principle that Americans sometimes forget, despite having coined it most eloquently: Garbage in, garbage out. The key to cooking, and therefore living well, is the best of ingredients.

Part of living like a French woman, then, will mean searching out and paying a bit more for quality, whether at the open-air market or at least a good grocery shop with market suppliers. This is now within the means of a great many more American women. French women live on budgets, too, but they also understand the value of quality over quantity.

Another issue, or course, is availability. And though the market in America has yet to become what it is in France, only a few are beyond the reach of quality on account of where people live. New markets and specialty food shops are cropping up everywhere across the country, especially with a surging demand for organically grown produce. One must take the trouble to find them. And thanks to the Internet, many quality foods not in driving (or better, walking) distance are but a mouse click away.

This excerpt from French Women Don’t Get Fat is reprinted with permission from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York. The book is available in bookstores across Canada.

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