Slow Food Nation

May 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

An hour a day. That’s how much more time the French spend à table compared with Americans.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The title on the chart (it’s from the OECD) is misleading. It’s not that the French need the extra time because they actually eat so much food. In fact, they eat less. French visitors to the US are often surprised (if not appalled or overwhelmed) by the huge portions in American restaurants. What the French are doing is not so much eating as having a meal. (OECD spreadsheets often provide the same data on two different sheets, one in English, the other in French. The French title for this same chart is, “Durée quotidienne moyenne des repas.” Eating is a necessary activity for getting nutrients into your body. A meal is an occasion, an end in itself.)

Americans seem to take a utilitarian view of eating. It’s something to be done as quickly as possible so that you can get on to more important things. Better yet, eat while you’re doing those other things. The great advantage of the Egg McMuffin is that you can hold your entire breakfast (egg, cheese, bacon, English muffin) in one hand while you drive to work. Your coffee rests securely in the cup holder – a device as indispensable in American cars as the automatic transmission. In New York, I see people walking down the sidewalk eating – a slice of pizza, a sandwich, a bag of fries – something you just don’t see in France. There, you sit down with others and have a meal.

It’s not just a matter of individual preferences. Americans who want “slow food” run into cultural and structural obstacles. It starts in school, where lunch period is usually less than a half hour, and the last kids in line may have less than ten minutes before their next class starts. And for adult workers, how many workers get a “lunch hour” that’s really sixty minutes? How many eat a sandwich at their desks while continuing to work?

But in France . . . On my first trip to Paris, I would sometimes compare notes with other Americans I met. Often, they were infuriated by the “fermature,” the midday closing of stores for two hours or more. They couldn’t understand why a commercial establishment would forgo a chance to make money just so that the owner and employees could eat a leisurely lunch. It was downright inconsiderate, not to mention inconvenient for Americans, who didn’t want to spend two hours in a restaurant.

(HT - PollyVousFrancais, who also prints the chart showing that the French sleep more than do people in other countries. And as with the repas, they may also pay more attention to who they are doing it with.)

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