You met and married a Frenchman a few years ago, and your story was the subject of your wonderful book: Lunch in Paris. What has most surprised you (or inspired you) about readers’ responses to the book?
I’m thrilled that so many readers have been inspired to try the recipes. I wanted Lunch in Paris to be a book that you read in bed (or, if you’re like me, in the bathtub) – and then take directly to the kitchen. I think French cuisine has an undeserved reputation for being complicated, heavy, fussy; I’ve found exactly the opposite. The ingredients, cooking methods and eating rituals I’ve discovered here have completely transformed my relationship with food. I wanted that process of discovery to be part of the experience of the book. I love the fact that I can continue to share stories, recipes and photos with readers through the blog, Facebook and Twitter.
When and why did you decide to move to the small village in Provence where you’re now living?
Fate, chance – and a leap of faith, really. My husband is a great admirer of the French poet and WWII Resistance leader René Char. In 2009, when I was 6 months pregnant and wary to fly, we decided to take our Easter holidays in the Luberon – to see the landscapes that inspired Char’s most famous poems. A chance encounter led us to the house where he lived during the war – and where he buried his most famous manuscript. In what felt like a brush with fate, the house was for sale. Something about it felt perfect – inevitable. We made the decision overnight. It’s been two years now, and somehow this sushi-loving, museum-going, window-shopping city girl has never looked back…
The full story of how we found the house is here.
What are some of your local food favourites?
The tomatoes in Provence make you remember that a tomato is actually a fruit. Because Provence is the fruit basket of France; because things don’t have to travel, we get perfectly ripe peaches, fresh picked strawberries, plump figs. I experienced cherry picking for the first time. Provence is sheep country. I make a lot of lamb. The olive oil is fabulous; I use it for everything – even my cakes. I was surprised at some of the local ingredients. They grow a lot of épautre (spelt), that they use like barley for soups and side dishes, and ground into flour. In the States, I’d only come across it as health-nut food. Then again, the Provencal diet is full of things that would impress a health-nut.
What have you noticed about how French families eat that is different from your experience growing up in the United States?
I grew up in the US in the 70s and 80s – aka: industrial everything. I loved florescent orange mac ‘n‘ cheese and studied for my final exams hopped up on Pillsbury vanilla frosting mainlined with a plastic spoon.
In my experience, from a very young age French kids know what real food tastes like: seasonal vegetables, fish with a head, strong cheeses, plain yogurt with just a sprinkle of sugar. We all love the foods of our childhood – I think these pure “baseline” tastes stay with the French, and give individuals and families healthier eating habits throughout their lives.
The togetherness of French meals also makes a tremendous difference. Eating is a social activity, not just an opportunity to fill up the fuel tank. French families still make it a priority to sit down at dinner together. Even small kids eat later, which encourages them to eat the same food as the adults. There are no short order cooks in French households.
The most striking difference is lack of snacking. When I go back to the US, I find I’m never hungry because I’m constantly eating. The French don’t eat between meals – even very small children are on a regular schedule of breakfast, lunch, gouter (afternoon snack) and dinner. This discipline takes some getting used to. Americans, in particular, are somehow terrified of their kids being hungry. I think being hungry is a good thing. It wakes up your appétit, your senses – and again, it encourages kids to eat the healthy food you put in front of them at mealtimes, rather than the sweet snacks grabbed in between. It even makes it easier to potty train them, because they are eating and drinking at regular times.
How do you think living in France has changed the way you eat? The way your son eats?
France has made me a braver cook. I find that when you start with great ingredients, you need to do very little to make them taste great. My idea of a portion has changed drastically. I come from a household of Jewish cooks: If you don’t have leftovers, you didn’t make enough. I don’t want that stuffed turkey feeling anymore. Quality food is expensive in France. My mother still gasps when I buy only one serving of protein per person – but she never leaves my table hungry.
I think France has introduced me to the pleasure of eating less, tasting more. As I mentioned, I now really enjoy the mild frisson of hunger before a meal. It’s the pleasure of anticipation. Like many Americans, I still struggle with occasional stress or “boredom” eating. But the peer pressure to stick to a social eating schedule is enormous – and I find it quite positive. It’s simply unacceptable to use food as that kind of solo crutch. (I still don’t really know what the French do when they’re stressed out…Smoke? Sex? Tranquilizers?)
As for my son, I recently tried to serve him a square white fish fillet – and he refused. I’m amazed at his French palate. For him, a fish is something with a head and a beady little eye. Don’t get me wrong, like any child, my son has his meltdowns and his plain pasta evenings. I can’t take full credit for his expansive eating habits; it’s largely a matter of socialization. He eats his 4 course meal every day at the crèche with his peers. Yesterday was grated carrot salad, daube Provencal (braised beef) with tagliatelli, cheese and rice pudding.
For people interested in learning about how as well as what the French eat, what are some of your top tips?
Reading Karen’s book is a great start! French eating is a lot about pleasure – the pleasure of wonderful ingredients, beautiful colors and textures and spending time with family and friends. If you’ve never seen the flim Babette’s Feast – it’s a perfect example of this culinary “pleasure principal”.
I really discovered French cuisine at my local outdoor markets. These kinds of farmers markets are popping up all over North America. My best advice would be to make the market a weekly family outing. Stop for a cup of coffee, let the kids pick out their own fruits and veggies. And buy one thing you’re afraid of – a hairy celery root, a shiny, slippery whole fish. Then go home, put the kids to work on the Internet finding out what you can do with it, and get the whole family involved in preparing dinner.
Your blog is full of wonderful recipes. Would you be willing to share a kid-friendly recipe?
One of my son’s first sentences was “Me tourne.” That’s Frenglish for “Let me stir.” He loves baking simple cakes and quickbreads. I’m flattered that he has christened my Pear Spice Cake simply “Gateau Maman” (Mommy Cake). This is great recipe to make with kids because they can participate in every step – scooping flour and sugar, grating pears, cracking eggs, and of course, the all important stirring.
The cake uses whole wheat flour, a mix of vegetable and olive oil, and a minimum of sugar; the grated pears give it extra moisture and sweetness. I usually have all the ingredients around the house. You can make it with grated apples – even drained canned pears would probably do in a pinch. Best of all, the recipe makes two cakes. I bake one right way and stick the other in the freezer. I use silicon loaf pans. No need to defrost, you can bake straight from the freezer at 350F for a slightly longer cooking time (50 min – 1 hour).
What is your next project?
I’m currently working on a book about life and cooking in Provence…lots of adventures (culinary and otherwise) ahead.
Merci, Karen – and bon appétit everyone!
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