Connie’s case was a bit more complicated than those of Camille and Caroline. Connie was in her early twenties and very much unaware of what she was eating. She had grown up in the suburban Midwest, where food shopping was a twice monthly affair, when her mother would load the fridge, the pantry and especially the freezer with provisions for the next two weeks. Foodstuffs were just other items on a shopping list that included toilet paper and soap. On her own, Connie was buying the same brands of frozen entrées that were her mother’s tried and true. Home-cooked dinner back home had been a Sunday ritual, the only meal shared en famille. During the week everyone ate according to his or her busy schedule (both parents were lawyers).
Connie’s mother had a handful of recipes she used again and again. They represented the comforts of home, and so they became the only things Connie ever attempted to cook when she entertained friends in her studio walk-up. Otherwise, she had an unapologetic love of some all-America staples: burgers, pizzas, cheddar cheese, Stouffer’s lasagna. Supermarket cookies and pints of ice cream were always on hand, but nary a fresh vegetable or fruit. The drinks were soda, encore soda, toujours soda. Not a pretty scenario. The fridge was packed with giant-size soda bottles, both regular and diet. So when she wasn’t pouring sugar into her body, she was imbibing an awful concoction of chemicals.
When we met she was starting her career in New York and for the first time desperately trying to lose weight—a good 15 pounds. Oddly she didn’t feel so overweight in college-girl clothes, which, as one may notice, have been much more revealing in the past 5 years. But in more demure professional attire, she never felt soignée (my word, admittedly; I can’t remember hers.) I got to know her working on a project with another firm and when I took her out to lunch, she watched me with obvious puzzlement as I ate everything and sipped a glass of Veuve Clicquot. When they brought the coffee, she said rather sweetly, “May I ask you a very personal question?” I knew what was coming and encouraged her to dish.
Like many young women, Connie had tried lots of deprivation diets without lasting success. On her last venture, a strict no-carb affair, she had eaten unprecedented portions of eggs, bacon and cheese—some of her favorites. Finally she would go off whatever diet it was and without fail, the only lasting result being a bigger appetite for the things the diet had allowed her to have. She had also tried and failed to burn off weight through punishing workouts. Someone had told her that if she spent one hour a day on some machine her eating habits wouldn’t matter. Connie had just bought a 3-month membership to a gym, with every cent she wasn’t spending on her New York rent. I never fail to marvel at the willingness of Americans to pound away at a StairMaster for hours rather than make a few relatively painless adjustments. Connie had lost a couple of pounds, but her daily machine regimen was like working on a chain gang, and she quit after two weeks, gaining the weight back.
My French Prescriptions for Connie
I suggested she continue going to the gym, since she had paid for it and would probably hate herself for bagging it altogether. But I counseled moderation: a half hour of something aerobic three times a week, no more, and not the same three things every week. She would also have to change some of her eating habits ASAP. As it was the dead of winter, the “magic leek soup” kick-off seemed absolutely de rigueur. It would be tougher on someone who lived on her kind of food, I thought, but it would be good for her morale to get a quick start.
By the following Monday morning she had achieved what had taken two weeks of forced labor at the gym. Two pounds—mostly water, true, but nevertheless two pounds—were gone. It was indeed a boost to her spirits, but something even more remarkable happened: she had discovered a new pleasure: “I can’t believe how delicious leeks are! I just love them!” Even I was a bit surprised. In fact, long after her first weekend of eating like a French woman, Connie would from time to time gladly have leek soup for lunch.
Connie described her first 3 months as almost effortless, practically entertaining. The kind of cooking I introduced her to was a deliciously diverting novelty. Winter is a wonderful time for hearty fare, and she especially enjoyed the luxury of my easy Champagne Chicken. But the fruits and vegetables are also great: she loved to poach pears—she couldn’t believe a fat-free dessert you can make in 8-10 minutes could be this good! (Just place pears in a pot of boiling water with red wine and a touch of cinnamon and sugar and let cool.) She even served it to friends, who went gaga.
Because her diet had been as bland and fattening as any I’ve seen, the substitutions she made were quick to take effect. According to the rules, she never allowed herself to be hungry—for maximum satisfaction, we tried to confine the high-fat foods to snacks: nutritious and satisfying handfuls of nuts and small cubes of cheese. As for her new adventures in the kitchen, these were much lower in fat but much higher in previously unfamiliar flavors. (Anise, hazelnut oil instead of olive oil on mesclun.) And so, lucky girl, she didn’t even miss burgers and pizza. She still had them once or twice week when eating out, but with her growing awareness of possibilities, they began to seem too dull to eat more often. And in time, the portion control even of those varied offenders was automatic: after a month, two slices of pizza for lunch, formerly her “usual,” just seemed too heavy and greasy. Her diet sodas were no asset, but not an immediate problem either. I let her wean herself off them, replacing them with a little fresh fruit juice diluted in seltzer. (Sometimes, it’s healthier overall to add a few calories for the sake of quality!)
Connie was fortunate in terms of how easily she could switch off her offenders and make substitutions. Her case shows the importance of assessing yourself as an individual rather than following a diet. Each of us has strengths and weakness. What is relatively easy for you may be hard for someone else, and vice versa. And of course, what tickles your fancy may not tickle another’s as much: à chacun son goût!
One thing that really tickled Connie as she developed her sense of food was presentation. Over the summer she had worked for a very fancy caterer, whose creations for weddings and other events had to be not just delicious but gorgeous to behold. The attention to detail appealed to Connie’s meticulous personality and it opened her eyes to what the French mean by the word “menu,” not just a list of options, but a selection of little dishes. The order of food, the arrangement of food on the plate can often dramatically affect our experience, especially our sense of a proper portion. A tuna carpaccio artfully formed can be much more satisfying to eat than the same amount scattered on a plate like the dog’s supper. This is part of “les rites de la table” I discuss in another article.
After her first three weeks, Connie had lost 4 pounds and was already full of new energy. Her mood had changed too. Four pounds on the average woman’s frame is significant, and she felt herself starting to slide in her clothes. She immediately wanted to buy something in the next size down, but I convinced her to wait. If experience was any indication, she’d be down another size before long.