Miracle Food

I recently went out to dinner with a number of other American and British women. We are all moms who stay home full time so a night out was fun albeit full of talking about our children. But it was warm and we ate outside in a trendier part of Geneva- a nice break from hot dogs and chicken nuggets in my kitchen.

The food itself was great and fresh but it was not what stuck out to me at this dinner. I was surprised by the conversation. Not the main topics- of course we covered parenting issues, our upcoming summer trips, current events but the entire evening was laced with this narrative about food that seems to be specific to women. I rarely (if ever) hear this dialogue from men but cannot go out with women and not hear it.

“Someone take this bread basket away! I can’t stop myself.”

“I would love to get the caprese salad but I shouldn’t. I didn’t go to spin class today.”

“I guess I can let myself cheat just this once.”

One American woman told me that she has gained so much more weight in Switzerland because of all the fresh bread. I asked about her time in the States since Americans tend to be much heavier than Europeans. She said that the amount of carbs available here meant she ate way too much. So I explained that the French approach to this is much more measured. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat (which is not an entirely true assertion but fairly accurate) the author, Mireille Guiliano, explains that women in France approach food as something to be enjoyed and savored. They eat smaller portions. They eat all kinds of food, mostly fresh. They would never cut out an entire food group or overdo it on any one. That chapter was my favorite section- the one where she addressed protein overloading: “Half a pound of anything in one sitting is probably not good for you.” When I explained this to my friend she whined, “Yes, but Swiss women walk everywhere and are always moving!” Only in America would we rather cut out an entire (miraculous*) food group than walk to the grocery store. My favorite suggestion from the book was the “pick two” idea. Instead of eating bread, drinking wine and ordering dessert, maybe just pick two. That is a healthier approach to life- maybe don’t overdo it in all areas. Don’t eat all the things, all the time. Wise woman.

Now, there is a deeper issue of course. Society has ridiculous standards for women that it does not have for men. Women talk about diet and appearance because we are told we are valued for that. I understand that. By no means am I trying to gloss over major issues with food. I have several friends who have had serious struggles with anorexia and bulimia. This is not meant to diminish those experiences. But my point is this- in general, we waste so much time talking about food and our relationship to it. We could accomplish, share, create so much more if we just gave up the script about food.

French and Swiss women don’t discuss food while they are eating except to say something is “Cela a un meilleur goût” (This tastes good). They don’t have this need to share their diet with one another. There is so much shame hovering around a table of American women eating. And we do not help each other out. If you don’t want to eat the bread, fine. But try to help your friends out by not disparaging them for eating bread. American women (maybe all Western women) see being anything less than skinny as a moral failure. Another woman here told me about her friend who adopted several children. “She’s a saint. I mean, she’s overweight but she’s a saint.” I almost spit out my food. Which would have been a tragedy because it was delicious.

I don’t know what the answer is. I am not a model of this. In fact, while I am writing this blog post, I am simultaneously ordering a lot of Indian food. But I hope we can figure it out. Ask more questions, worry less about people judging you for eating bread. Please see my note below. Help your fellow American women out and don’t mention carbs or protein. And quit talking about your diet. It’s the kind (and European) thing to do.

* On a side note, I think bread has gotten a really bum rap. I am currently reading At Home by Bill Bryson and one chapter is devoted to the development of city and community living. He wisely points out just how miraculous it is that we discovered that not only could we eat grain but at some point, we had to thresh it, grind it into flour, combine it with other ingredients, put it in a oven and hope it all worked out. Bread is an incredible feat of human persistence. I think it should be celebrated. We should all be dancing when the bread basket arrives not bemoaning its existence.