For the Love of Eating

French passions that go hand in hand.

For us French, Colette put it best when she described the table as un rendez-vous d’amour et d’amitié (a date with love and friendship). And it’s not a purely figurative description, because we tend to see our pleasures as being interconnected. We can’t imagine anything more boring than to live with someone who doesn’t care about food or eating or sharing meals. One passion goes hand in hand with another. Of course, it’s a two-way street. The actor Omar Sharif captivated a generation of French females not only with his dark good looks in Dr. Zhivago but also by declaring he could not desire a woman who didn’t love to eat. Certainly French women, suckers though we may be for the intellectual type, could hardly care for a man indifferent to sensuality.

Sensuality is vital to our ideas of seduction, and seduction figures prominently in the French woman’s sense of herself. We have always known one doesn’t have to be a great beauty to seduce, but one does have to be sensual. A mannequin may catch a man’s eye, but a sensually abstinent woman won’t hold him for long. Style, a sense of taste and elegance can go far, too, but pure arm candy is an unsatisfying supper. It’s not that French women are not assaulted with as many unnatural ideals of womanhood presented in glossy magazines; we just don’t take it personally. No matter how well turned out or fit, if one is not bien dans sa peau, one can never project that certain état de grâce. This is something every woman can learn to achieve, and French women channel more intuitively than most. For all her attention to what she wears and what she eats, a French woman is most defined by ease in being herself and the attractiveness of taking her pleasures. It has little to do with weighing a certain amount. And it doesn’t come upon you through avoiding food.

Au contraire, the meal itself, in all its splendor, has been a scene of seduction since the grand court dinners of Versailles. French women seduce with the way they order and savor food, with the sly complicity of stealing a taste from the other’s plate or feeding our lover a particularly choice morsel. And just as certain formalities at the table can heighten the psychic zing of the food, so, too, can setting, presentation and ambiance intensify the mood of dining together. A surprise dish or unplanned dinner out can pique the curiosity more than the loveliest routine supper. I always recommend throwing in a bottle of Champagne as the clincher. For the French, the sex appeal of eating is second nature. Perhaps this is why so many erotic blandishments refer to food: mon petit canard (my little duck), mon chou (cabbage), ma tourterelle (dove), ma caille (quail)…