The Changing Face — and Pace — of a French Meal

IMG_0884When Kathy and I lived in Aix-en-Provence for a semester seven years ago, we developed two standing rules for eating out.

1) Never plan on dinner and a movie or concert in the same evening, and (2) always leave a half-hour window to get the check for any meal.

How times have changed.

In 2007, we had reasons for our rules.  A decent dinner always demanded a bare minimum of two hours. Restaurants took time between courses.  Eating was an experience, not merely a meal. And so we ate many meals that began at 7:30 p.m.  and ended at 10:30.

Our second rule admittedly was a bit more whimsical. But we arrived at it through experience. No self-respecting waiter, even at lunchtime, would bring the check unless we had been seated for well over an hour. I recall one restaurant near the waterfront in the city of La Ciotat at which I politely waved at the waiter three times  before walking to the register. We had no choice; we were with a school group and had a bus to catch.

Seven years later our rules are out the window. More and more restaurants here have signs out front that boast of “Formule Express,” more or less the same thing as a “fast-service lunch.”  The formule is typically a lunchtime combo of either an appetizer and main dish or a main dish and dessert.  We passed one restaurant last week that boasted on a chalkboard out front that it could get lunchtime clients in and out in 40 minutes.

In the United States, that’s no big deal. In France, until very recently, it would have been considered a disgraceful boast in anything but a fast-food joint. And yet, we noticed just today that  even La Tomate Verte, an excellent restaurant where we and another couple dawdled over one of those three-hour dinners a few weeks back, boasts of a lunchtime formule express.

As for the check, no one dawdles any more in providing it.

But then, this is the year in which  the Associated Press reported that more French are eating some form of fast-food than anything else.  Wrote the AP, “According to a 2011 study, the French midday break is down to an average of 22 minutes, compared with nearly 90 minutes two decades ago.”

Even bakery bread, a sacrosanct staple of the French diet appears to be under siege.  More and more, bakeries are posting signs offering a free baguette to anyone who buys three. They clearly are looking to draw more business. Though I can’t find the source to confirm it, my French teacher, Juliette, this week told me she had seen a documentary that said a sizable majority of French are buying packaged and processed bread instead of the real deal at boulangeries.

Noted an article in The New York Times three weeks ago, “Even though France is renowned as a world capital of gastronomy, these days, odds have grown that a savory-looking entree or dessert — especially at establishments near tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame or Montmartre — may have been at least partly prepared by an industrial food giant, frozen, then reheated in a kitchen. Even the bread, the French bread, may have been made in an industrial bakery.”

All this leads me to sigh (it’s one way, you must understand, of practicing French).  What will happen to the quality of food in  France — the global capital of cuisine, the center of gastronomie — when more and more people are eating on the run and when restaurants are following suit in their preparations?

For now, thank goodness, much in the slower south of France remains the same as it has been.  Most stores remain closed on Sunday.  Our fabulous butcher in Place Precheurs, Boucherie du Palais, closes from 1 to 4 on those days it even bothers opening after lunch. (The owners are shutting down during the upcoming, two-week school vacation).  People still read: Aix has far more newspaper stands and bookstores than any comparably sized city I’ve visited in the States. More beauty salons and fancy shoe stores, too.

But it nonetheless saddens me that bit by bit, France seems to be losing some of what’s made it exceptional: Not merely the quality of its food but the importance of a meal in bringing fiends and family together.  I can only hope this observation is proven wrong by time.

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