“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Thus Charles Dickens began his Tale of Two Cities a century and a half ago. The cities he imagined were Paris and London. The countries he was contrasting were revolutionary France and late-eighteenth-century England. Two opposing worlds, two points of view. And two divergent destinies. When I wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat, I had in mind two disparate worlds of eating: the French and the American. Also, to a lesser extent, two cities, Paris and New York. What I did not realize at the time was that I was in fact writing a tale of two global cultures increasingly without borders. For better and worse, where you live no longer dictates how you eat. It’s up to you.
Even in our ever more complex world, it is still possible to have our cake and eat it too, to enjoy our days to the fullest in many ways while embracing a time-tested, back-to-basics approach to life–one filled with quality, sensitivity, seasonal foods, and pleasure. I don’t want to live in the past, but I do want to learn from it, and I believe that the culture of moderation, painstaking attention to taste, and healthy eating and living that I absorbed growing up in France can be adapted to today’s world and pursued just about anywhere. This is not to say I don’t understand or appreciate firsthand the challenges women these days face: the pressures of too much to do in too little time, of mega portions and industrially-produced food often eaten on the run.
For a long time, this clash of cultural and lifestyle perspectives and outcomes took shape in my mind as a contrast between on the one hand fundamental elements of French culture and on the other behaviors I learned in America. But with the appearance of French Women Don’t Get Fat in language after language, I have come to understand that what I thought of as a national divide is really only an emblem for a conflict of two world orders. While I certainly don’t think I have all the solutions to this conflict, or any highly specialized expertise–I try not to take myself too seriously–I still have more experiences and secrets (and many more recipes and weekly menus) to share that will help people enjoy a better quality of life–and almost certainly lose weight.
Last fall a French reporter followed me through the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, where we encountered a class of eight-year-olds with their teacher. The kids were participating in a program called Spoons Across America, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating children, teachers, and families about the benefits of healthy eating and the value of supporting local farmers and sharing meals around the family table. As it was fall, apples of many varieties were abundantly available. But when the reporter, half kidding, picked one up and asked a little boy what it was, the child drew a blank. Forget the variety; he did not know it was an apple. This city kid had apparently never seen one in real life. It gives one pause. I would bet, though, that he could recognize the packaged apple pie at the McDonald’s just opposite the greenmarket.
The world where I grew up–and my experience of apples–in Alsace-Lorraine could not have been farther from this little boy’s in New York City. As I recall it, all our neighbors had at least one fruit tree, and we had numerous apple trees in our garden. Come apple-picking time, my job was to place the different varieties we grew into little flat crates called cagettes, which we put into the cold cellar for winter storage–a centuries-old practice now mostly gone. What sweet and glorious aromas filled that cellar when I deposited all those baskets! (Tellingly, in French the word for smell, sentir, also means feel.) Today I recall the apple smell even more powerfully than the old footage of that autumn ritual I carry around in my head. And, of course, the harvest meant my mother would once again make an apple pie, une tarte aux pommes alsacienne.
In our garden we also had bushes of groseilles, tart red currants that are a regional specialty. My mother and I loved to make pies with these tiny berries. The season for red currants is short, and we quickly made jam (confiture) or jelly (gelée) or pies, and sometimes a sauce (coulis). And oh, how we looked forward to this once-a-year treat, which somehow exemplifies for me the French woman’s psychological pleasure in food. It is the anticipation and joy that we gain from a pleasure we cannot take for granted and know we will soon lose. Tasting such seasonal bounty heightens our awareness of what we put into our mouths and contrasts with routine, mindless eating that provides little pleasure and often unwanted pounds.
Excerpted from French Women for All Seasons by Mireille Guiliano Copyright © 2006 by Mireille Guiliano. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.