La pause déjeuner has always been a veritable sacré moment in every Frenchman and Frenchwoman's day. I was introduced to and initiated into this ritual before I married into a French family; every day at noon, my future husband's parents would see out their last client, lock up the shop and climb upstairs for a hot meal eaten en famille, the whole family gathering around a well-dressed table for a long, comforting meal of starter, a stew or a platter of roasted meat and vegetables, followed by a salad and cheese course. And, of course, all of it washed down with a glass or two of red. The meal was never rushed, no interruption was allowed, food and conversation filled up an hour or two before either a quick nap or heading back to work. It was a much-needed break in the middle of a hectic day, which usually began before dawn, a time set aside for family. And unlike what I was used to in the States, the heavy meal was reserved for midday rather than the evening, lighter fare reserved for the end of the day before heading to bed.
Throughout the years, my husband always made a point to return home for lunch, creating a wonderful tradition and routine in our own home, giving each of us a break from work or play and allowing my husband to return to the office and me to my work refreshed and well fed. His occasional business lunch fit in well with this French practice, as this period of the day, considered by all to be "free time from work" and a good lunch a necessary part of a working day, it was the ideal meeting spot to talk while introducing a client or employee to a favorite dining spot and doing business in a relaxed atmosphere.
A 2009 article written for the website dossierfamilial.com declares that this time out for lunch is an essential element in the quality of one's workday and work life. How can any employee produce quality work and be an effective cog in the wheel of an organization without that lunch period? This break was seen as more than just a time for sustenance, it was always viewed as a time to evacuate stress and re-center one's thoughts, a precious time to either be alone and away from the office, with one's family or to bond with colleagues outside of the workplace. And in a country where the cuisine is part of their national patrimony and mealtime is a national treasure, that leisurely hot meal in the middle of the day was crucial to the well being of an entire country.
So needless to say, the news that this lunchtime ritual has drastically changed, that workplace constraints and shorter working hours (thanks to the 35-hour workweek) have forced the French to cut back on their lunch hour was indeed a shock, creating waves across the country! Who would have thought that it was even possible? This now-famous pause déjeuner has decreased from a national average of 1 hour and 38 minutes twenty years ago to, on the average, a mere 22 minutes today. Less French have the time to dine at a restaurant or make the trip home for a hot meal; more and more are grabbing a sandwich or even le fast food and eating on the run or at their desk. And some are not eating at all: many young parents are working straight through their lunch hour in order to be able to leave the office earlier to get home to children and dinner preparations and more workers are turning what is left of their lunch hour into a workout at the gym. The whole lunchtime tradition is being turned on its head.
Poor French, you're thinking! Yes, you will say that they are lucky to have a job and money to eat lunch at all. But this social tradition is part of a culture that is eroding away, a way of life that is falling to the wayside, victim to a changing economy and a world collapsing under the pressures of business. And I'm not talking about just the management classes either. White collar and blue, directors to factory workers and artisans, whether a 35-hour workweek or a 60-hour workweek, there was always the same traditional lunch break. I mean, if the French are skipping lunch, changing a well-known and loved tradition, practically the cornerstone of the French family (well, that may just be my opinion), what hope is there for the rest of us? How much time do you take out for lunch? Do you prepare a hot, sit-down meal for the whole family? I fell in love with this French tradition of a mealtime: a family gathered around the table together over a hot meal, work put aside, worries forgotten; just an everyday lunch shared, the air filled with succulent odors wafting from a home-cooked, from-scratch pot au feu or blanquette simmering on the stove, laughter and conversation. Or something lighter, cooler in these more modern times: a salad passed around the table, cold meat or cheese platter followed by fruit and dessert, mealtime is a powerful force in a family, a tradition that brings us together as a family creating a space and time when differences are forgotten, arguments left behind, worries shut out. A calm oasis in the middle of the day.
But as ever, the French still try and eat in style. Lunch still remains a moment sacré, a sacred moment, and still as important, if not more important, than dinner: although the time consecrated to eating has been drastically reduced, the French still enjoy a main course followed by dessert and coffee - although they now tend to forgo the glass of wine! And eating on the run isn't always synonymous with malbouffe, unhealthy eating: while 28% now bring a sack lunch with them to work, they use this as a way to control what they eat, replacing those heavy restaurant or home meals with lighter, healthier fare. They watch their nutritional intake, their calories and their pocketbooks.
But it's not all fun and games, so to speak. Take out is taking over; more French are leaving those restaurant or home-cooked meals behind and grabbing food on the run, from sandwiches to fast food. If they are skipping lunch or eating less, are they snacking more in between meals? I was always shocked at the cultural differences, attitudes and habits of the French compared to those I grew up with in the States: the French always enjoyed 3 square meals a day, long, calm, patient, balanced meals that left little room or desire for between-meal snacking; a cup of coffee and a slim slice of cake at ten and four was the most they enjoyed. And they never ate after dinner; no bowl of ice cream in front of the television after the evening meal. And once I adapted, I slimmed down fast and never put it back on. But is this, too, changing? And if the lunchtime tradition is broken, are the French now replacing the big, hot, family meal at noon with their heavy meal at night? A poll from early this year found that 53% of the French eat a family meal almost every day, over 90% one or more times a week. Now put these two together and one wonders if this all has something to do with the increase in obesity in this country known for its slim population: the French, once having the lowest obesity rate in all of Europe, now claim 40% of the population is overweight and an astonishing 10% are obese.
I have lived in France for 25 years and have watched and experienced the evolution of these family and dining habits. I have watched as fast food chains and kabob restaurants have popped up all over the country, up and down so many city streets, even as traditional restaurants suffer. I have observed the balance of weight difference in populations from the city to the country shifting. But I have also seen the government (yes, those meddling Socialist Frenchies!) get involved by banning junk food in schools and replacing vending machine candy bars with fruit. I notice very few tv commercials for fast food chains and any food related commercials have a notice about balanced diets and exercise that scroll by on the bottom of the screen. Just to name a few of the actions the government has taken to combat malbouffe and obesity. As fast as the eating habits evolve and as fast as the rate of obesity grows, the faster the reaction of the government and the population to try and counteract this negative evolution. But as far as I am concerned, it all starts with those old fashioned family rituals of mealtime. Lunch and dinner create a rhythm in the day, healthy eating habits and the best place for a family to bond. Am I an idealist? Maybe. But for all that, maybe I moved to France because of the slow, calm pace of the society, a culture rich with food traditions, a country where family always took precedence over work. But it seems that the French have finally caught up with American society and much too quickly, you ask me. And for all the wrong reasons: between the long school hours and hectic after-school schedules, the longer working hours or the press to keep on working throughout the day, our fast paced lives and faster paced free time, the family and our health suffer. Globalization has come to France in more ways than one and it is taking its toll, as in the US, on health, family and culture.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.