Il Faut des Rites: The French Art and Ritual of the Meal

Creating Rituals Creates a Vital Life

Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is a book all French people know well. It can be read in an hour but is packed with timeless wisdom. In Le Petite Prince, the fox explains to the little prince, “il faut des rites” (we need rituals). As the French know well, ritual is how we give meaning to different aspects of being alive, including the most elemental: birth, marriage, death, and through it all, until the end, eating. There are of course holiday rituals, like the galette des rois eaten on the Twelth Night of Christmas to commemorate the three kings. But there are also rites quotidiens, the rituals of everyday life by which a civilization defines itself, like le pain quotidian, our daily bread, or even brushing our teeth. Whether aware of it or not, we spend 90% of our waking hours performing our daily rituals.

In a world in which everything continues to change ever faster, these rituals are a frame of reference as well as a source of comfort and reassurance. They are also key to our well-being, part of our cultural programming about what is right and good, the norms around which we form our own tastes. Americans have some superb gastronomic rituals. Nothing French can quite compete with a hamburger barbecued on a Sunday afternoon in summer. But America is a relatively young country by European standards and still lags in developing the sort of coherent principles of eating that only a thousand years of history could achieve. Even among the oldest nations of Europe, France is distinguished in the evolution of its gastronomic rituals. Where else might you be drawn into heated debates over whether the best coffee macaroons are to be found at the patisserie Ladurée or at Fauchon or Pierre Hermé? The intensity still brings an impish smirk to the face of my American husband, Edward. Quality is a passion, even a compulsion.

Few Americans, even Michelin-guided gastrotourists, really appreciate the extent to which our cooking is like our couture. For all our insistence on the permanence and perfection of the classics, eating would become unbearably dull if we did not remain committed to renewing and enlivening it continually. This value has often been lost at American French restaurants, in which the same old horses of cuisine bourgeoise and the bistro are typically trotted out year after year. The French enjoy eating out in a special way, knowing that what they savor today may never again appear on the menu. They treat every meal as something special, and this is what you must learn to do, too!

Three meals a day, three-course dinners

The traditional French meal is still a three-course affair, often with an additional course of cheese before the dessert. In a grand restaurant, it is not strange to have several more courses! Why don’t French women, or men for that matter, get fat? The reason is that we have adapted traditional eating to modern living, which typically includes less than traditional levels of exertion. We eat grandly on occasion, not regularly. Our courses are greater in number but smaller in size. Very important, even an ordinary meal partakes to a degree of the formality of tradition.

In the recasting section I preach the importance of not multitasking while you eat—no TV, newspaper or eating at the wheel or on the subway. I also suggest that some formalities can enhance the dining experience and make eating less seem more meaningful. This is the power of presentation, which includes the use of china, glassware and table linens. Candlelight is a nice touch, too, really an American tradition that is now all the rage in France. If the added bother strikes you as senseless extra effort, you are missing the point: setting one’s table can be nearly as important as preparing the food. It focuses the mind on what lies ahead, whets the appetite, opening it to a fuller experience.

What defines a meal?

The French word “menu” not only means “bill of fare,” for which la carte is the more common term in France, but also “little,” and by its use in relation to food, we mean to suggest our sense of small offerings. The essence of French gastronomy is to have a little of several things, rather than a lot of one or two. This is the exact opposite of the American sense of portion (remember Camille’s huge dish of pasta!).

Let us consider the French plate. It’s strange to us to have a whole meal on one dish, stranger still to see any plate covered with food. The arrangement of a course in the center of the plate is part of French enjoyment. Changing plates not only compels you to concentrate on what you are enjoying at that moment, it slows the meal down, improving digestion and promoting contentment. The faster you eat, the more you’ll need. If washing an extra plate seems a bother, how does it compare with getting fat?

Our menus servings are what allow us to enjoy now and then the full production of haute cuisine, including amuse bouche, starter, first course, main course, cheese course, dessert, petits fours—the works! But these are not Louis XIV-style affairs. If the courses were not “menu” we would never survive them. Even rising from the most elaborate meal, the French feel content, never stuffed.

Nowadays many French still eat the main meal at lunch. This may not be practical for you. Nevertheless, three meals a day are a must to set the body’s metabolism at a steady rate. Snacking, which results mainly from not having three proper meals, is generally an unhelpful expedient that confuses us, body and mind.

If you are not especially hungry in the morning, don’t be deceived into thinking you can get away with a faux breakfast. You’ll only eat out of proportion later in the day. I’ve seen lots of young women who have nothing but coffee in the morning and work through lunch with an eye to an indulgent night out with friends. It might seem they are compensating earlier for pleasures to be taken later (in fact, as a rule, pleasure should precede compensation), but in fact, the one-meal-a-day gals are only fooling themselves, and not in a good way. They are famished by dinner time, when the party often begins with a “colored drink”: hard liquor, sugary syrup. (Empty calories that dull the senses: these cocktails should carry the Surgeon General’s warning!) Then comes the typical restaurant meal, featuring oversized portions of dishes made with all the tricks of the bad chef: too much salt and fat, and sugar hidden even in the savory courses. How much? Who knows—we can’t send dinner to the lab for analysis. The takeout option can be the same mystery grab bag. Save dining out for occasions and choose quality. Good restaurants are exeptional. Eat at home otherwise. Manger bien et juste. Know thy food and know thyself!