Aside from learning how to be fashionably late and take pleasure in friendly debate, the 10 years I've spent living and working in France have greatly informed my habits and values. The most notable impact has been on my relationship with and approach to food (for which I am extremely grateful). Here are five ways living in France has shaped my culinary values.
1. I eat everything in moderation.
This oft-bandied-about platitude is, for many, a means of assuaging feelings of guilt after overindulgence. In France, it's heeded the way it was intended. And for me, it meant radically shifting the way I ate.
Within a couple months of moving to France 10 years ago, I quickly gained 10 pounds. It was entirely the result of succumbing to temptation one too many times — several times a day. Everything was novel and enticing, and my brain was operating under the eventuality that my stay would be short-lived. Plus, I needed a break from my eating habits in the States, influenced, consciously or not, by women's magazines, celebrity culture, and a widespread emphasis on dieting.
Eventually, I got my early 20-something self off the croissant-chocolate-steak diet (which flatters no one) and I put un peu de tout (a little of everything) into practice. Thanks in part to living with a Frenchman who lived by that philosophy innately, I barred the word "sacrifice" from my food vocabulary.
These days, chocolate, butter, salt, and cream are as fundamental to my diet as vegetables, fruit, legumes and meat — and I can't imagine it any other way.
2. I'm more discerning about where I source my food.
Call it snobbery or call it appreciating what I consume — either way, you will no longer find me noshing on mediocre bread, sweets, snacks, or anything just because it's readily available or more convenient. Now, not even nostalgia can make Hersey's chocolate taste good again — especially when I have the work of talented chocolate masters at arm's reach (I'm looking at you, Nicolas Cloiseau, La Maison du Chocolat).
I learned this directly from my mother-in-law, who would only buy her cheese from a specific cheesemonger at her local farmers market and would travel to the other side of town for top-quality bread.
I've also spent enough time speaking with food artisans, chefs, and restaurateurs for my work to have an awareness of the impact of making a more discerning choice. Buying cheese from an affineur, a local baker who upholds artisanal traditions, or a greengrocer who is transparent about her sourcing and knowledgeable about her products means making a conscious decision to support small businesses and champion savoir-faire and craftsmanship.
3. I take the time to eat, à table.
While the two-hour lunch break may soon be a thing of legend, the emphasis on quality time around the table outside of work hours has never been more valued. Almost all of my food memories in France have been tied to the table and the joy of being with the people seated around it.
Those epic, all-day weekend lunches or late-night dinners were daunting initially, but I've come to treat them as escapes (from email, from work, from everything that can and should be put on hold) and necessary reminders to slow down and enjoy what I'm eating and who I am with. And it's from those moments that I'm best able to recall particular dishes and flavors.
4. I shop more often and eat fresher.
My husband and I stock up on non-perishables and basics, but always make several stops throughout the week for everything else, from produce to fish and meat. And it's not because our refrigerator in Paris is only marginally larger than the one I had in my dorm room in college; my in-laws, who have a standard-size refrigerator, also make several trips throughout the week (a habit my husband says he remembers as a kid, even when both of his parents held full-time jobs).
We do it for optimal freshness and also to reduce waste. When I learned that nearly 10 million tons of food waste are produced in France per year, a large portion of which come from unopened, still-consumable products, I wanted to be sure that our household wasn't contributing to the problem.
5. I eat and enjoy foods that I would never have eaten before.
While my family in the United States bemoan the distance between us, they can't help but applaud my decision to move to and stay in France. To describe my eating habits and food proclivities in the first 20 years of my life as fussy or myopic would be doing me a kindness. I was evidently bad enough that not even my parents managed to enforce change.
In coming to Paris, where diving headfirst into gastronomy was key to immersing myself in the local culture (and impressing the man I would later marry), I had no choice but to shake off my issues. From a range of vegetables (you name it, I probably didn't eat it before) to meats, fish, sauces, herbs, spices and grains, I discovered everything I was missing in life before and with the best school possible.
The ingredients in France are largely what attract foreign chefs from all corners of the world to come train and work in the country. Between putting my plate in the hands of some of the country's most talented chefs and trying new (to me) foods in the comfort of friends and family, my palate truly came alive in France. And in no time, food (and pastry) became the object of my enduring fascination.