“Alors…qu’est-ce qu’on fait? ” (So…what do we do?)
Our three dinner guests eyed their plates inquisitively with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. What was this oddity – so otherworldly and thoroughly unFrench – rolling to and fro in front of them? The small edible pieces were familiar enough as a canned food, but this delivery system was definitely a first. The American had some explaining to do.
First a small knob of butter, then salt, then pepper – all while maintaining a slow steady rotation to ensure even seasoning – and eaten with a hands-on approach that can be described, at best, as a muskrat gnawing on a fresh slab of driftwood. Follow with copious amounts of greasy napkin-wiping and teeth-picking and you’re good to go. Bon appétit and God Bless America!
For the French, the concept of holding one’s food isn’t a terribly comforting one. While convenient handhelds like sandwiches and crêpes-to-go have their place on the streets, they seem to be viewed as a reluctant Plan B — a temporary succumbing to the modernization of European city life and to be endured only as long as it takes to get to the next proper meal at a proper table. There’s a consistent pattern of dining etiquette here: Pizza? Cutlery. French fries? Cutlery. Burgers? Yes, even a burger in a restaurant dinner setting will get the more sophisticated treatment around half the time, depending on the person. So why the hands-free hang-up?
As in most cases, chalking it up to something as simple as snootiness would be taking the easy route. Instead of naively and arrogantly blaming the French culture, I prefer to take a higher road. I blame the Italians.
Or more specifically the Italian influence that bombarded 16th century France, a.k.a the Renaissance. Much more than simple cultural bleed over, this was a complete overhaul of European society. For proof of the how the French viewed its impact on their world you need go only as far as the word itself: re- meaning “again”, and naissance meaning “birth”. France embraced a foreign flood of refinements in every facet of life: art, science, literature – and forks.
Hard to believe now, but it took well over a thousand years for most of civilized Europe to realize that everything — from clothing, to hands, to the wigs on their heads — could be kept more sanitary by using a utensil to pick up their food. This idea of distancing themselves from the preceding nastiness of the Middle Ages was a common motivation during the Renaissance, and the advent of this simple two-tined fork would be followed by a floodgate of revised table etiquette starting in the royal court and trickling down to commoners. Being fierce believers and protectors of their cultural past, the modern Frenchman sees tradition as a form of patriotism, table manners included. I’ve talked a bit about this before here.
To anyone thinking Geez frenchies, let go of the past already, I’d say be careful what you wish for: the tendency to protect the old first and consider the new second is frankly the reason why this is still such a beautiful city. While other places were embracing architectural and culinary fads during industrial booms, Parisians were much more calculated about saving and restoring vestiges of the past. I’ve had this opinion backed up by Londoners themselves who admit their city is much more of an architectural hodgepodge than Paris. Not that there isn’t a nobility in the acceptance of progress – just saying it’s not really how the French roll. Often modernity tends to enter the system, bounce around for a little while, only to be expelled without really getting absorbed a whole lot. Not unlike certain food products…
Back to the corn-on-the-cob on our dinner table, thankfully our guests were game for shedding those centuries of convention in favor of diving incisors-first into an American summer staple, which for them had only been the stuff of old Mickey Mouse cartoons. And I have to say it was a pretty big hit, offering me a moment of proud ambassadorship. My foodie sister-in-law even asked for seconds, prompting dreams of how I could rock their cultural foundations next time. Did someone say Sloppy Joe’s?