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by Carole Carson, AARP, November 21, 2008
Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.
—Rabbi Abraham Heschel
The law correlating the amount of food consumed and the size of the person seemed to be suspended in France. My French daughter-in-law wore size two, but only after a big meal. Her mother, approaching 50, wore size four.
Moreover, they did not appear to be the exception. Everywhere I went in southern France, I saw trim, slender men and women. I was twice the size of most of them.
A typical day's eating in the home of my French relatives began with a chocolate croissant, some fruit, yogurt, and coffee or tea, a deceptively simple beginning.
Lunch became more serious. It started with a hot dish of scalloped potatoes with onions and cheese, accompanied by grilled pork tenderloin steaks, garnished with roasted red peppers marinated in olive oil flavored with garlic. All of the food was washed down with copious glasses of rosé wine.
The second course was a green salad lightly dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The third course consisted of assorted cheeses with baguettes and fruit. Then we were served almond cake, a cream-filled pastry covered with sliced, rum-flavored, sugared almonds.
Finally, to stay awake for the afternoon, we had small-but-strong cups of coffee sweetened with sugar and hunks of chocolate that were slowly melted on the tongue by the hot coffee.
I was in heaven—except for needing to watch closely how much I ate. I assumed that lunch was the big meal of the day, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. About 9 p.m., after cocktails with various finger foods—mussels steamed over a grill in a white wine–based broth, eggplant pâté on bread, puff pastries filled with meat, and marinated olives—we began the serious eating.
Small slices of pizza were served on fluffy pastry layered with mustard, creamy white cheese, sliced fresh tomatoes, and black olives. Baked only until the top ingredients melted, the pizza dissolved in the mouth.
Bow-tie pasta surrounded by hunks of fresh, red tomatoes and other vegetables plus a green salad gave color to the table. Our last major course was grilled tuna steaks with a tomato-based, white wine–onion sauce with various herbs and seasonings.
Again the baguettes and cheese. Then we enjoyed ice cream with real whipped-cream topping and broken chocolate pieces scattered on top with a cookie buried in each dessert. Each course was washed down with red, rosé, or white wine until we switched to a sweeter wine to accompany dessert.
When we finished after midnight, my petite hosts commended my discipline in limiting my intake, as they delicately continued to munch away.
With all this food, how in the world did they stay so trim?
Their Mediterranean diet, I noticed, focused on grains, fish, many colorful vegetables and fruits, and olive oil. Adults ate yogurt and cheese but did not drink milk. Except for chocolates and fancy desserts on special occasions, sugar was seldom consumed, except in coffee. The heavier meats, such as beef, were eaten sparingly.
Everywhere, people grew and ate organic food. "Food is life," I heard repeatedly. The good life meant cooking, presenting, and enjoying leisurely meals, accompanied by wine-inspired lively conversation.
As a result, French parents and grandparents frown on the American fast-food restaurants that have invaded the region in recent years. Increasingly popular with the young French, these restaurants are retraining appetites and tastes wholesale. Fast food is also eroding the tradition of enjoying meals with friends and family. Snacking, formerly reserved for small children, is working its way into French eating patterns. All of this was unheard of only a decade ago.
Full-time working people also have time to exercise, since the work week is legendarily short. For example, teachers work 25 hours a week with 11 weeks paid vacation plus holidays. Fitness centers are uncommon except in bigger cities, so people typically take a leisurely walk or go hiking.
The paths and trails were safe and well marked everywhere I went. I hiked every day, hoping to offset the results of heavier eating. I also used the swimming pool at our rented house daily, reveling in the cooling plunge after the hundred-degree heat of midday.
The cuisine, however healthy, was a challenge. Since I would have to choose wisely wherever I went in life, I thought I might as well practice in France. What a delightful challenge!
Next: Carole encounters the lull before the storm.
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