Foreigner's Guide to Dining in Paris
in Paris is one of the most exquisite adventures as any Parisian or frequent
traveler to the City of Lights will tell you; a well-done repas is a refined
form of art. Each course--hors-d'hoeuvre, entrée, plat, salade, fromage,
dessert--has its purpose and function within the meal and must be carefully
complimented with the apéritif, vin and digestif. Codes, social
mores and customs guide conversation and etiquette; the food determines
and dictates the type of communication throughout the meal. With many
faux pas possible, this guide explains traditional French dining, customs
that accompany French communiqué and includes a map to la crème
de la crème of cafés, restaurants and brasseries throughout
the city of Paris.
The French are quite fond of their multi-course meals with small portions of each offered in a very particular order. Restaurants often offer a menu set at a certain price, which usually includes two or three choices for each course and provides a sample of the best the chef has to offer. In contrast to the American smorgasbord serving style, the courses are presented separately, with much care and thought given to the way they are served. For example, "usually they are very elaborate in the way they pass the dishes, the men giving each dish to the lady next to him before he serves himself, and the platter traveling thus twice around the table, to every woman before any man is served. Also, the dishes seem to start with the oldest lady guest" (Johnson 119).
While some of these customs might be dropped at less formal occasions, they are instilled in children even today, demonstrating the extent France still acts as a primarily patriarchal society. Along with care and attention to serving women first, there is also the idea that a lady should never have to pour her own water or wine. Not only does this force the men present to be diligently regarding the level of liquid in both glasses at all times, it also passes the power of how much a woman has to drink in the hands of her escort. Though these traditions could paint France in an outdated light of chivalrous control, it is more interesting to see this instead as the indication of the amount of attention to detail the French put on simple act of eating.
The cheese course, or le fromage, is perhaps what makes French dining so different and so well known. General Charles de Gaulle once made a comment about the difficulty in serving a country that has 365 different types of cheese. The cheese course is essential for ending any meal correctly; " 'the end of la civilisation française?' says l' oncle Edgar. 'I suppose it when it became fromage ou dessert instead of fromage et dessert.' " (40). The French can discuss and will discuss cheese as if it is their first-born son. One must always procure their cheese from a certain fromagerie (a store with huge wheels of all different kinds of cheeses, all sold by the kilo) in order to establish a working relationship with the fromager which will assure them that they will then only be offered the finest and freshest.
With le fromage comes a completely different set of secret rituals and customs unbeknownst to any foreigner but absolutely essential for successful dining with the French. Though seconds may be offered, it is considered rude to take from the cheese plate more than once. To enjoy the flavors to the fullest, the cheeses must be eaten in order, starting with the mildest, progressing to the strongest-flavored option. Children, and possible a few weak-stomached adults, may butter their bread with the stronger cheeses to help cut the intensity of the cheese. Certain staples will always appear but the variety will vary depending on the region, the season and the type of cuisine served.
Beyond the act of eating, the French dine to converse, gossip, argue and debate. Sunday afternoon dinners usually start around two in the afternoon and can last well into the evening, with extended family often invited along with close friends or neighbors. The conversation, like the courses, follows a strict order that cannot be violated no matter how formal or informal the meal may be. Light topics, for example comments that could pertain to the meal itself, are only discussed throughout the first courses. As guests, this is the time to use an infinity seeking type of communication to show your host and hostess you are a grateful guest and are enjoying both the food and the company. Argumentative communication must be saved for later, almost as a way of showing reverence towards what you are consuming. It is as if the French believe any heated deliberations or discussions would somehow damper the tastes and experience of the meal.
Only after the cheese has been served can the real conversation begin. While self-presentation goals and relationship goals can be covered during the entrée and plat, in order to get something accomplished you must wait until the cheese and bread have been passed to all guests. Stick to safe topics and let your hosts lead the way and the conversation. As the courses and wine progress, you will naturally feel more comfortable and be able to perceive much about them before real conversation begins. Let them get to know you and you will get to know them; no matter how well you might think you know a person, you will be amazed at how much you learn by simply having the occasion to share a dinner with them.
Intimacy grows between the diners as the meal moves on, allowing all to be able to reach a point of comfort just as digestion begins to kick in. Self-disclosure must wait until this point--the French are not interested in hearing about your health, your good or bad news, your new projects or your future plans earlier in the mea--and this can be frustrating for American diners who throw out conversation as casually and haphazardly as they desire. Conversations and topics brought to the table along with the cheese will be the result of building interests and perceptions from both you and your hosts throughout the meal, so the communicative event will be richer, fuller, more interesting and more in-depth than any topic breezily discussed and passed over at an American dinner table. Timing is literally everything for communication to occur effectively at a French feast.
With these insights and this advice, you are armed to go out in the city and enjoy the feast Paris has to offer! Should you have the pleasure and unique experience of dining with the French, you will be equipped to attain their admiration and acceptance, as you now know the intricate secrets that will help you achieve success. Ignore stereotypes, try everything and do not be surprised if you end up at the table for hours, having the best conversation of your life. Use these suggestions in dining, conversation, etiquette and conversation and try one of the restaurants on the map. Soon you too will be in on the rest of their secrets including perhaps the most important one of all: contrary to the general belief that French are rude and stuck up, they are actually as enjoyable as the baguettes they are famous for: slightly crusty and tough on the outside, but warm, soft and full of flavor on the inside.