Actually, I’m not going to talk about cake in this post, despite the title. I am going to talk about eating like a French person and how I lost weight and built muscle mass on a diet which included croissants, hot chocolate, espresso, wine and plenty of bread and cheese.
Some of you may remember when I came back from an earlier meditation retreat suggesting that you try to chew each bite thirty times to help you slow down and pay attention to the tastes and textures of what you were eating, to be present for your meal and to improve your digestion. Well, the French have another method for making meals slower and more enjoyable: some of it is in the meal service and much of it resides in the use of the knife and fork.
I am an American. I grew up in a culture where we eat with our fingers and turn even pieces of meat into unrecognizable finger foods (Chicken McNuggets, anyone?). Fourth of July aka Independence Day just passed: how many of you ate fried chicken, barbecued ribs, corn on the cob with your fingers? Raise those sticky hands and now wipe them on your napkins. But the list goes on. Who eats fruit by picking it up and taking a bite, perhaps over the sink, if it is juicy? How do you eat pizza, French fries, hamburgers?
At Villefavard, the first thing that appeared at dinner was a cold soup in a narrow glass (My favorite incorporated bacon, melon and cream). Sometimes there was a platter of prosciutto. Lunches began with plates of roasted vegetables, sliced tomatoes or salads and we had food shortages for a few days when the first twenty people through the line thought that that was all they were going to get and filled their plates while those of us further back in the line watched the last roasted peppers, the last tiny green beans, disappear, and saw that we would be eating shredded carrots again. We wrote notes to our teacher and to the administrative team, asking that people be more mindful and moderate in their consumption so that others could eat. I wrote notes.
The problem was a cultural one. Les Américains, not used to eating in courses, assumed that the first food out was all they were going to get and they needed to store up calories for the winter. Our hostess, Justine, spoke to us by the third night. She told us that the French eat in courses, that the chef would put out starters and salads and that later he would bring out the main course, then a cheese course and, finally, dessert. Natalie encouraged us all to try eating the French way — to serve ourselves limited amounts of the first course, go back to our tables, eat that, and then bring our plates back for meat or fish, paella or French lasagna. Meals began to look less like eminent food shortages once everyone realized that there would be more food, but there would not be more salad or crudites after the first service.
I conducted a further experiment beyond eating in courses: I decided that I would carve my food with my knife and fork the way the French did. This led to amusing incidents when we were served roast chicken and I was presented with a piece including a bit of breast, a leg portion and a wing. Only my kitchen skills at disjointing chickens saved me — I knew there was a joint and that I could cut through it to tease the bones apart. Even so, that meal took me a long time to eat, using a knife to remove meat from bones. Because the French method caused me to eat more slowly I had time to fully taste the food I loosed from the carcass and time to notice when I was full. As I cut pears and peaches with a knife and fork, cutting small pieces of goat cheese to eat in between slices of fruit, I remembered that my Irish grandmother always cut apples into slices for me and that apples tasted better that way (We ate the slices with our fingers though in my Grandmother’s kitchen).
A week of eating this way was enough to convince me that it was beneficial. I still ate clafouti, cheese, fruit tart, but I no longer picked them up and absentmindedly stuffed them into my mouth. When I moved on to Paris the next week, I felt more comfortable with my knife skills and did not feel self-conscious eating pommes frites with a knife and fork. I ate pizza with a knife and fork in the Marais and I enjoyed it more than I would have had I picked it up. Many times, after making my way through an apertif and salad I had no room for further food. Other times I ate three courses and coffee. I did revert to outdoor picnics of bread, cheese, fruit and olives sans knife and fork, but only because airline regulations prohibit travel with a handy Swiss Army knife (I do not like to buy things I already own one of).
Eating French-style allowed me to eat a croissant and a hot chocolate for breakfast each morning. I stayed a few blocks away from the Eric Kayser bakery on the Rue de Bac. Each morning I put on my only pair of pretty shoes, walked to the boulangerie after it opened at seven, sat at a small square table facing a window and ordered my chocolate chaud and un croissant. Un croissant, not deux or trois. Eric Kayser’s croissants are light with an airy interior, stretched strands of yeast dough with the freshest, sweetest butter flavor. The crust shatters slightly, but does not produce a plate full of crumbs. The chocolate is rich and dark, served with optional sugar, which I never added or missed. I looked forward to my petite dejeuner and was sorry to leave Eric Kayser behind when I moved to the Bastille for my last two nights, but I found one other bakery with fabulous croissants by noticing a man carrying a small sack of bakery goods on a Sunday when many boulangeries are closed.
I came back from Paris trimmer and more fit, despite all of the wine, cheese and patisserie. Of course, I walked everywhere, often several hours a day, but that is another story.
P.S. Writing Practice Classes in the San Francisco Bay Area: I am contemplating teaching one of my rare writing practice classes this summer. If you would like to learn writing practice as developed by Natalie Goldberg (set forth in Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind and many other books), please contact me.