Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Defending French Cuisine...

I've been mulling over this topic for awhile now, but would finally like to address the very common opinion that cooking/eating a lot of French food is categorically a bad idea. I've felt this way at times myself, as I dump tablespoon after tablespoon of butter or cream into some delectable sauce that I then enjoy immensely, and I actually haven't cooked any recipes out of Julia's tome in the past several weeks--partly due to lack of time, but partly due to my slight fear that I really am setting myself up for a heart attack if I keep enjoying my food too much.

But then, I did a little research...

First thing's first. Julia Child lived to just shy of 92 years old, and plainly stated that her recipes were for those "who can be unconcerned on occasion with . . . waistlines," but she clearly lived by the principle of enjoying all things in moderation. Enjoy fine wines and the decadence of your food, but don't stuff yourself to the point of gluttony, and make sure to eat healthy things too, and get your ass off the couch sometimes. Makes sense, right? And from my experience with French food so far, it's so rich and flavorful that you don't end up eating the huge portions that are, in my opinion, really at the root of the obesity problem in this country. Leah Zerbe, at Rodale.com (a green website), says it better:

It’s no secret Julia Child loved butter, and she used it liberally in her meals...But fat, used in the right way and in the right quantity, is a good thing. "Take a tip from the French. The better the food, the less you need to be satisfied," says Judith Hill, food director at Prevention magazine. "If an extra tablespoon of butter makes something so good that a small portion is satisfying, you’re ahead of the game in taste and waist size." And by savoring every bite, you're relishing in one of the joys of life—and you’re avoiding the weight-gain trap of eating so fast that your appetite can’t keep up with the volume of food your eating.
Well said.

I also appreciate what Jennifer Huget, writing for the Washington Post, has to say about this whole thing:

Whether those heavy sauces in fact pose much of a health risk remains uncertain. The "French paradox," in which it was observed in the early 1990s that French people stayed slimmer and were less likely to die of heart disease than Americans, despite the former's high intake of fat, has not turned out to be much of a mystery, Bachmann says. Instead, it's now believed that the French consume fewer calories overall than we do and burn more through greater physical activity such as walking, both of which contribute to their better cardiovascular health. We've also learned that consuming dietary cholesterol (as in egg yolks) in moderation doesn't necessarily elevate levels of "bad" cholesterol in the blood (though saturated fat, as in cream, cheese and many cuts of red meat, clearly does). And many nutrition experts now say that eating small quantities of really satisfying, lightly processed foods (even if that means more fat and calories per bite) may be better for us than pigging out on processed and packaged foods. (Think: a few slices of full-fat cheese instead of a jar of Cheez Whiz.)

So what to make of "Mastering the Art"? Well, there's this: At the end of her year-long experiment, Julie Powell noted that she'd gained some weight, but she wasn't willing to attribute that solely to Julia Child's cuisine -- especially since her skinny husband remained skinny throughout, despite eating his wife's French food.

As for Julia Child herself, nobody would accuse her of having been skinny (not that she was fat, either). But she lived to within a whisker of her 92nd birthday. And, by all accounts, she enjoyed just about every minute.

Finally, I stumbled upon an article by British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, who I think is kind of the JC for our generation (though I don't really know much about her--I plan to remedy this by getting her first cookbook, Nigella Bites), from the NY Times in 2002. The article is long, so I'll just include a few snippets here. I suggest reading the whole thing, though, if you're interested--I feel like she hits the nail right on the head, at least from where I'm sitting:

I have never quite understood why there is among us such disproportionate fear of fat and dairy. For one thing, the jury is still out on whether these foodstuffs are indeed harmful to us. (I rather suspect that if we were such fragile creatures, so minutely susceptible to the fuel we choose to run on, we would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long, long time ago.)

And for another, the crucial element must be portion size. Ever notice how chic Parisiennes eat pastry for dessert and still fit into their size 6 tailleurs?

They eat a slice of cake at dinner and that's it. They do not, as many of the rest of us do, skip dessert and then, back at home, mooching about the house at midnight, devour half a cake.

Meanwhile, a recipe stipulates a quarter of a cup of heavy cream and every non-Français has a fainting fit. But this recipe may make enough to feed eight ? and really, how much harm could a couple of teaspoonfuls of cream do?

So, after doing all this reading, and accepting that, damn it, I like good food, I think I'm comfortable with cooking and eating rich foods and enjoying every bite. Besides, I do have that gym membership on hand to cancel out some of that butter!

What do you think, dear reader? I'm really interested in what people think about this, so please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Hi Alicia,
    I love your blog and I feel like we think the same to a certain degree. I loved Julia Child back in her early days when I was a new wife and was learning to cook. I have fallen in love with her all over again since the movie "Julie & Julia" or vice versa. I think it's partly because of the charm of Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, and the wonderful videos of Julia's old shows. But, I really like what YOU have to say and I'm looking forward to following your blog. Also I like Bejeweled too and didn't know about the one on FB so now I'll have to go searching for it as I also have a FB account.

    Keep writing, it's wonderful.

  2. There is even a culinary difference in France between North And South with Cuisine au Beurre (butter) and Cuisine à l'huile (oil). As you mention, You just need to enjoy food or wine in moderation.