Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

French Domestic Life

Just as “much of French history is simply Paris history presented as a fait accompli to the provinces,” so the French lessons of life are simply the family viewpoint presented as indisputable fact to the child. The principles of a sense of “belonging” and “favoritism” are inculcated early. In many ways, French mothers teach their children suspicion of lifestyles outside the family circle; schools teach a wariness of that which may be new; from families to schools to organizations the “French way” is carefully taught so that one will not “go astray” In some ways the French mother is as important a symbol to the family as Paris is to France herself: the occupation of Paris by a foreign power means defeat for the nation, while the liberation of Paris represents a victory for every French person in the entire world!

There is little question of maman’s importance in the French family. She is often characterized as being hardworking and frugal. While all of this may or may not be true, what is irrefutable is her skill with food and every aspect of it. If she can afford to hire servants to do the work of marketing, preparing, cooking, and serving, there is no doubt that she will nonetheless be astutely knowledgeable about every detail and be able to offer criticism as well as advice. If she must do the chores alone, she will consider it her duty to rise early and shop almost daily for small quantities of the freshest and best herbs, bread, meats. fish, fruits and vegetables she can procure. Freezers and supermarkets and many brightly packaged quick-mixes are found in Paris, but there will always be a place for the farmer’s and fisherman’s market and for the small refrigerator. For the French there is no substitute for the freshest, the seasonable, the local, and the best.

In a French kitchen nothing is ever wasted. Bits of stale bread, the last of vegetables, the trimmings from the meat or the fish, all will find a place as stuffing, garnishes, sauces, or soups. French kitchens are frequently small and seemingly inefficient, but the miracles of cuisine they produce are never disappointing. The batterie de cuisine usually begins with a gas stove, although many have both gas and electricity just as in the “old days” the large country-estate kitchens used gas ranges for fast cookery but the old reliable woodstoves were preferred for slow simmering.

Quality pots, pans, skillets, double boilers, and casseroles are important to the French cook. Purchased once, they should last a lifetime (if not longer). A battery of sharp specialty knives, wooden spoons and wire whisks, the tamis (drum sieve), food mills and graters, and mortar and pestles to pound, grate, and puree foods are also found. More recently the electric blender has taken the place of some of the older utensils, and the food processor combines many kitchen functions in one unit.

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