Preface: An Amuse-Bouche from the Editor
If you’re French, you love your cabbage. I don’t mean the cruciform vegetable that lends an acrid reek to the grittier parts of town. I mean that classic French term of endearment, Mon petit chou, “My little cabbage.” For those of us not lucky enough to be French, this is more than a linguistic oddity. It’s a key to national character.
With the possible exception of the Chinese, there are few other peoples on Earth for whom food is more important. The French spend more than two hours a day eating and drinking, nearly twice as much time as Americans. A U.S. household spends 8 percent of its budget on food; a French one, 14 percent.
Food makes history in France, in legend and in fact. Marie-Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat brioche.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau made that up. But when Charles de Gaulle radioed the French underground that the D-Day invasion was imminent, his message included the key phrase Les carottes sont cuites. Literally, this means “the carrots are cooked,” and metaphorically, “it’s all over.” What other nation marches to war in the glow of beta carotene?
If you aren’t convinced of the intimate link between food and the French language, try to describe cooking without it. France practically invented our lexicon: entrée, quiche, escargot, crêpe, hors d’oeuvre, petit fours, Béarnaise, baguette, croque-monsieur, vinaigrette, paté, maitre d’, sous chef, even the word cuisine itself! Not to mention French fries, French toast, and French onion soup.
Far from the kitchen, French food words pop up in the most unexpected places. Here are two of my favorites. First: If you’re a besotted lover gazing helplessly at the object of your affections, you’re said to regarder avec des yeux de merlan frit, “looking with the eyes of a fried whiting,” a fish otherwise absent from romantic literature. (Anglo-Saxons make “cow eyes” at each other.) Second: When the French mean, “Who do you think you’re kidding?” they might say, Et mon cul, c’est du poulet? How a Frenchman’s ass came to be made of chicken is a topic best left for another day.
Even when language fails, food finds a way. For years my friend Toby Golick and her husband used to spend part of every summer in a village in the south of France. Despite her rudimentary French, Toby and the local butcher found an enjoyable way to communicate when she went shopping. She would point to a cut of meat and the boucher would make the sound of the animal it came from. For fans of French onomatopoeia, I offer the following list:
For this and many other reasons, I dedicate this collection of stories to Toby Golick. Food really speaks to her.
Posted on 22 July 2011