French Culture: A Study of Comparisons

(by Eric)

I asked a question on facebook:  If I say "Swiss", you could follow with "cheese, chocolate, army knives, banks..."  If I say "French", what comes to mind?

The responses were interesting and varied.  The most frequent answer was probably "kiss", and I won't endeavor to provide a cultural exposition of that at this time.  Other notables included Braid, Onion Soup, Silk Pie, Fries, Revolution, Tips, Cuisine, Horn and Dip.

A few such answers make for a good comparison, or can use some background information.

pain perdu
1.  French Toast:  This was a very popular answer.  From what I have thus far seen, the American version of this is not so very different from the reality in France.  One might ask the question:  "They obviously don't call it 'French Toast', so what do they call it?  They don't call it 'le toast', right?"  Good question.  The French term for this is pain perdu or literally "lost bread", referring to how it is used for bread that have gone stale.  It's a fairly nice redemptive picture, actually.  Which brings us to...

2.  French Bread:  We picture a long, crusty white roll, thicker than a baguette, with a nice fluffy inside.  And though there are many varieties available, this is indeed the classic.  And indeed, one just calls it pain or "bread".  Just like that.  You walk into the store and ask for "two breads", and you can get two such delicious batons.  

La Mie Caline, a popular bakery
The French are quite hardcore on their bread.  There are labor laws restricting which businesses are allowed to be open on Sundays, and bakeries are one of the exceptions (along with pharmacies and hospitals, but not usually grocery stores).  It is remarkable how delicious French Bread is on day 1, and how quickly it goes stale, so I guess I can't argue with them.

3.  French Mustard:  I enjoy mustard, and I like dijon in particular.  Some of you may know that Dijon is actually a city in France.  Thus we look here for the authentic.  And what we find is very good, and amazingly strong (!) dijon.  And it is used for many things.  It is a bit of a challenge to find mayonnaise that does not have dijon added to it.  And it seems to be a frequent favorite for a salad dressing ingredient.
the real deal

4.  French Press or French Roast:  I haven't yet figured out all the coffee lingo.  Generally speaking, you "take" a coffee at the end of a meal, and that is referring to a small cup of espresso without milk, +/- sugar.  Cafe au lait (coffee with milk) seems to be treated as an utterly different beverage, rather than a variation of the above, and is usually taken with breakfast, in a bowl (bol) not a cup (tasse).

5.  French Dressing:  Cards on the table, I have never much liked this stuff.  And I'm not sure what it is, and I'm pretty certain the French don't recognize it either.  Salad dressing here is nothing like American "French" dressing, but usually an extremely tasty vinaigrette, often with a hint of dijon, as mentioned above.  In my experience, salads are simpler, often just lettuce with dressing, but somehow amazingly good.

1 comment:

tscarlet said...

I forgot to let you know how useful this post is when it comes to answering kids' questions. Now I have something intelligent to say when they ask why it's called "french toast" or some such thing. As parents, I'm sure you can relate to the value of having an actual answer instead of "just because," or "I don't know but someday let's look it up." Many thanks for a seemingly trivial but oh-so-pertinent blog post. :)