Monday, September 26, 2011

Week of Food, day 1: France and Savannah

This week I am going to talk about food, cooking, eating and drinking.

One of the groups I follow on Yahoo has been talking about all things French, and one of the constant points of conversation is the difference between the American and French notion of food. This is a great topic, and a very rich one, but the focus of the online discussion always veers into weight, overweight, overeating, and the idea that the French and Americans eat so very differently. American women mourning their bodies, sadly.

I agree that the French and Americans view food differently, but the focus on weight and diets in this discussion is too often on some magical idea about French cuisine and doesn't recognise some basic facts about French habits of eating or the fact that not every French woman is thin.

First, portions. The French (and nearly everyone else in the world) simply eat smaller portions of everything. In France you cannot buy a Big Gulp or a Venti or a SuperSize or Buckets of whatever. There are no all-you-can-eat buffets and endless helpings. They do not think of dining out as a Value Meal. They do not have fast food--or not in the sense we mean.

Instead, they eat less. Servings come in 4 or 6 ounces, not Big as Your Head. This is especially true for meat: in grocery stores and restaurant, a 4-ounce serving of meat is ample. Side dishes come in at about the same size. Salads are big, but if ordered in a cafe, they constitute a meal. My favorite salad is the warm goat's-cheese salad, which usually comes with four toasted rounds of goat cheese on half slices of bread, plus greens. Puh-lenty of food, and never leaves one groggy and overwhelmed post-dining.

Great meals, like in the restaurant Le Grand Vefour, come in courses, allowing ample opportunity for conversation, enjoying the food, and leaving something on the plate.

Second, no multi-tasking at meals. You don't drive through, or watch tv, or work. You might read, or listen to music, but primary attention must be paid to the food on your plate, whether home or in a restaurant. Yes, the French are constantly on their phones, but not during a meal. And you sit: you don't get something to go and walkabout with it, eating on the street.

Third, a light hand with sugar and frying. The French cuisine is not based on covering everything with batter and deep-frying it. Ergo, fewer calories. It is similarly not based on infusing everything with sugar, corn syrup, and sweeteners. Seriously, if you want to be alarmed, start reading labels not for fat or calories, but for sugar content. All American processed foods, including yogurt and juice, contain some form of sugar, and diet items contain those nasty faux-sugar substitutes.

Fourth, simply great ingredients. French cooks--home or restaurant--do not skimp on quality in produce, meat, and in fact everything. They expect and buy fresh materials, keeping ingredients only 1-3 days before cooking them. Again, this requires more time spent on preparation, but results in the most delightful product.

That said, the meal I had at the Olde Pink House in Savannah on Friday night last was not controlled. Oh my goodness, I set out to have a spectacular meal, and I did: a four-course feast of Low Country cooking, dressed up in a sparkly purple gown.

My starter was a plate of Blackened Oysters, six of them, wearing three different relishes: watermelon relish, pear & apricot chutney, and green tomato chow chow. The last one was the best, to die for. The other two weren't sad, however. My waiter gave me a taste of the Riesling with this, just a mouthful, that he recommended.

Then I had the BLT salad: fried green tomatoes and sweet bacon with black pepper thyme buttermilk dressing, which came in a little tower or sandwich. I knocked it over and ate it all. With this I had a small glass of champagne.

For my main course I had an off-the-menu item, Jumbo Shrimp and Grits. Recipe? Here it is. I ate about half of this, as it came with a delicious mess of collard greens. With this I had a glass of California chardonnay.

For dessert, I had key lime pie... real, authentic key lime pie. And coffee.

It was all great. It took me close to three hours to enjoy it all, from starter to coffee, and then I walked back to the hotel--about a quarter mile. I should say that I had a martini before dinner, one of the best I've had in a while.  Delightfully full--not groggy, not swollen--after. Beautiful presentation, excellent waiter.

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