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Mastering the Art of French Eating

Julie and Julia has re-popularized French cooking. Here’s how to survive all that butter.

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
February 14, 2012
Episode #059

Mastering the Art of French Eating

French Cooking Makes a Comeback

With the popularity of the new movie Julie and Julia, there’s been a big revival of interest in French cooking. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the classic text by the late, great Julia Child, is headed for the top of the bestseller’s list— almost 48 years after its original publication!

Those discovering haute cuisine for the first time are going to be shocked, shocked, to discover just how much butter and cream is involved. Yup, if you’re going to get in on this trend you’re going to have to make peace with butterfat, and fast.

When I went to culinary school, the entire first year focused on traditional French technique. That means we cooked with a pound of butter in one hand and a liter of cream in the other. Personally, I wouldn’t want to eat this way 100% of the time but there’s a reason that these techniques are considered the foundation of modern cooking.

Perhaps more than any other culture, the French developed and codified culinary science and elevated cooking to a fine art. You won’t find Eggs Benedict or Lobster Bisque on a menu with the little “heart healthy” icons next to them, that’s for sure. But, oh, what a way to go.

Is French Cooking Bad For You?

Most of my instructors knew I was also a nutritionist, and it made them sort of nervous. I guess they expected me to make a fuss every time they threw a wad of butter into a sauté pan…which was about every 35 seconds. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had the stamina to sustain the protest, even if I’d wanted to.

But I understood why they were so defensive. This style of food is exactly what health experts are constantly warning us to avoid. First, it’s very high in fat. Fat is more calorie-dense than either carbohydrates or protein. That means that high-fat foods pack more calories into less space. Eating too many calories can make you gain weight.

Secondly, butter and cream contain saturated fat, which is thought to increase cholesterol levels and promote heart disease. I say it’s “thought to” do these things because this is actually an area of some controversy. I touched on that in my recent episode on coconut oil and it’s something that we’re constantly debating on my blog on NutritionData.com. Nonetheless, all that saturated fat has given French cuisine a pretty bad reputation, health-wise.

But the French, they don’t care about saturated fat or calories. They care about food. And you cannot produce a perfect flaky croissant or a velvety Béarnaise sauce without plenty of butter, OK?

Do French Women Really Not Get Fat?

And here’s the maddening thing: despite all that butter and cream, obesity rates in France are about a third what they are in the United States. To add insult to injury, they also have the lowest rates of heart disease in Europe. That is what we call the French paradox. The French put butter on their steaks, for God’s sake, and stay thin. Meanwhile, over here in America, we guzzle diet sodas and eat fat-free muffins, and get fat. It just ain’t fair.

Scientists have been puzzling over the French paradox for twenty years. Is it the wine? The coffee? Genetics? Well, Mireille Guiliano has a theory. You might remember her 2004 book French Women Don’t Get FatI predict it will be rising through the best-seller ranks again, right behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Mastering the Art of French Eating

Guiliano argues that French women don’t get fat in part because they prize quality rather than quantity. Exquisitely rich food is to be savored, but in small quantities. In other words, you can have your croissant and eat it too, as long as you follow three simple rules: 

  1. no snacking

  2. no seconds

  3. no sitting around

The French do not snack. Ever. They do not keep energy bars in their desk drawers. They don’t sit in front of the TV with a bag of chips. And they certainly don’t stroll around Le Bon Marché clutching a giant, greasy pretzel.

Here in the States, on the other hand, we’ve gotten it into our heads that we must eat every couple of hours, or risk total metabolic collapse or a hypoglycemic coma. This is ridiculous, for reasons I explained in episodes #31 and #32. Nonetheless, it’s gotten to the point that we now eat pretty much constantly…in the car, at our desks, at the movies, while shopping. I’ve even seen people eat during their workouts at the gym!

Not surprisingly, the French make a big deal out of meals. Unlike us, it’s the only time of day when they eat! So they take their time. They pay attention. They savor their decadent food in portions that we might find absurdly small. And then they stop eating. And take a walk. It seems to be working for them.

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So, if you’re tempted to try your hand at some French cooking, go for it. Just try to adopt a little of the French sensibility about food as well: Skip the snacks, eat smaller portions, and instead of reaching for seconds, take a nice long stroll after dinner.

Also, to be fair, not all French food is swimming in butter and cream. Some regions of France, particularly the Provençe, have culinary traditions that are actually quite similar to the vaunted Mediterranean diet, featuring fresh fish, beans, vegetables, herbs, and olive oil. What could be healthier?

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French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guliano
 
 
French flag photo, O. Ortelpa at Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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