France is full of historical landmarks staunchly and tirelessly protected by governing bodies, ensuring both preservation and appreciation for years to come. Try to mess with these spots by installing a modern super-chain coffee shop and you’ll be kicked back to Seattle headquarters faster than you can say Half-Skim Caramel Macchiato.
Some of these well-protected areas include the palace of Versailles, the banks of the Seine, the Chartres Cathedral – and now the French meal?
A world heritage organization called UNESCO classifies and protects monuments, architecture, and other culturally significant locations around the world. In 2003 they added to this a “world intangible heritage” list, which instead of concrete structures documents traditions: the art of Flamenco in Spain, Chinese calligraphy, and carpet weaving in Iran for example. As of late 2010 we can now add the “gastronomic meal of the French” to that list. Amen and pass the heavy cream.
I should clarify it’s not exactly French food that’s getting the award here; it’s more the overall tradition of the multi-course meal. It’s an acknowledgement of the role that dining plays in daily life, particularly the art of setting the table, the presentation of successive courses, and the pairing of food and wine. Or in UNESCO’s words, “a customary social practice designed to celebrate the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups”. Right now somewhere there’s a Parisian maître d’in an upscale hotel measuring how many centimeters a plate is from the edge of the table, checking the position of a water glass, making sure the tines of each fork are facing down against the table rather than up. (Side note: I learned this fork placement is a leftover tradition from when the aristocracy had their insignia placed on the back side of the handle, and what good is an embossed fork if it doesn’t induce cutlery envy in your guests?)
If that’s not proof enough of the French respect for the table, consider this: there actually exist table-setting competitions, like the one I recently saw a report on, wherein contestants are given a bare table and a stock of various plates, glasses, flowers, and fabrics to choose from. It’s a veritable Martha Stewart-fest. While all this can sometimes seem like excess, when viewed simply as a byproduct of culinary respect you’ve got to admire the reverence to tradition. Plus it’s this same attention to detail and aesthetic equilibrium that makes those French gardens so gorgeous you wanna eat them with one of those shiny embossed forks.
Even in non-fancy everyday meals (yes they happen all the time) you notice little things, like how they put their bread on the table or position their cutlery on the plate when they’ve finished. Try to run errands in the middle of the day in any small French town and you’ll find most places closed for 2 hours so employees can have a proper lunch. Brown-bagging is foreign to them, and I once had to explain to Charlotte what a lunchbox is.
Around here you can be following century-old customs without even knowing it, and I love France for that. Being so woven into the fabric of life, it seems more than logical for the French meal to be labelled as an art form worth protecting. And at this rate, surely French blogging isn’t far behind?