THE BLOG

In France, They Cherish Lunch and Liberte

Both France and the United States celebrate their national holidays in the month of July. Yet that's where the similarities end. As the French prepare to celebrate Bastille Day on July 14, it's hard to think of another nation where food and freedom are so equally cherished.

"I eat with fury, ferocity, lyricism," French avant-garde writer Andre Gide once confessed to a friend. During the 1940s, the feminist and writer Simone de Beauvoir declared, "I found a feast of blueberries and I ate till my skin was blue." In 1882, a sickly Pierre-Auguste Renoir felt reinvigorated by eating a brandade -- a puree of cod and potatoes -- and wondered if he had "rediscovered the Ambrosia of the gods."

It's not surprising that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew illustrations for many of the recipes he collected, but he added some strange notes to his recipes. One note instructed a cook to tenderize the chicken's meat by chasing the animal around the farmyard before shooting it.

After hearing that the library in the French town of Cavaillon couldn't afford to purchase his books, the novelist-playwright Alexandre Dumas struck a deal with the town. In exchange for the nearly two-hundred volumes Dumas had written by then, Cavaillon officials sent him a dozen of their prized, local melons each year.

When the French confront a question on almost any subject, food is often part of the reply. After Jean Gabin was asked why he decided to pursue an acting career, he quipped, "So I could eat meat every day." In 1962, France's president was asked about the country's political challenges. "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?" President Charles de Gaulle retorted.

Louis Pasteur probed some of science's most perplexing questions, but he once found himself distracted by a food-related mystery: Why were his children constantly dropping their toast on the carpet with the buttered side down? Pasteur investigated and discovered that his children were buttering both sides of their bread.

The French have taken their meals seriously for a long time. The marquise du Deffand, a friend of Voltaire, declared that "the stomach is the seat of the soul."

In 2003, Bernard Loiseau shot himself in the head soon after a leading French dining guide lowered the rating of his restaurant in the small town of Saulieu. The chef's suicide prompted an intense debate among elite restaurateurs over the stress created by the constant pursuit of culinary perfection. Loiseau's wife, Dominique, could have engaged in hand-wringing, soul-searching, and mourning. Being French, she did nothing of the kind.

Mrs. Loiseau insisted on keeping the restaurant open on the night of her husband's suicide. She worked closely with the restaurant's staff to ensure that the establishment received the coveted three-star rating the following year. "Bernard would have been so proud of us," she told a newspaper.

However, the French haven't always been fussy and refined diners.

Even though many European nobles were eating with forks by the mid-1700s, King Louis XIV of France continued to dine without one. When the Duke of Burgundy and his brothers arrived at the king's court for a meal, they brought their own forks with them, but Louis refused to let them use those utensils in his presence.

Napoleon Bonaparte ate his meals quickly and silently, always finishing in less than twenty minutes. Although Henri Matisse enjoyed eating, the artist made it a rule never to eat any food after he had used it as a model for a painting.

Yet some famous French have been willing to break the rules.

Several days before he died in 1996, the terminally ill French President Francois Mitterrand gathered with friends at his home and enjoyed his legendary "last supper" by devouring an illegal delicacy: ortolan. The small, endangered songbird is typically drowned in brandy, its feathers plucked, and then it is roasted and eaten whole, bones and all. A friend of Mitterrand described the dying man's expression -- "capsized with happiness, his eyes sparkling."

Ordinary French people aren't eating such exotic fare. In fact, each year about half of the nation's population visits a McDonald's outlet at least once. Yet the French can enter one of their McDonald's and order a beverage with le Big Mac that Americans cannot order: wine.