Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cuisine That Speaks for Itself: The French let the food do the talking

Former French President and General Charles de Gaulle once lamented the difficulty of governing a country that produces 246 different kinds of cheese.

During the Second World War, while exiled in England where he led the French Resistance, a famous radio broadcast featured the military man calling upon his countrymen to continue fighting against the German occupation of France. To him, it was only a matter of time before the deal was sealed and the French would regain their freedom. “Les carottes sont cuites,” de Gaulle announced, on this occasion using cooked vegetables, instead of milk-based food products, to punctuate his discourse.

Foreigners living in France often joke that the French can’t go two hours without talking about food. They are either recounting what they ate for dinner earlier that evening, pondering what they should buy at the market the next morning, debating whether the latest restaurant in the area really respects the true art of culinary preparation, or planning what they will eat when lunchtime rolls around. To the newcomer, this obsession for discussing the most minute details of one of life’s basic necessities can seem, at times, pornographic, but to the French (who value pleasure as much as Anglophones feel guilty about taking part in it), deriving le plaisir from food is just common sense. To live, we must eat. If we must eat, we might as well enjoy it. If we enjoy it, we should share this nice experience with those around us.

And, like de Gaulle and his cooked carrots, even when the French aren’t talking about food, they really are.

Critics who pan the latest Gerard Depardieu movie might opt to call the film “un navet” (turnip) instead of a flop. In France, a “lemon” doesn’t refer to a poorly built car; “citron” is an affectionate term for “brain.” Got into a bar brawl Saturday night? If you did, it’s possible you emerged with “un oeil au beurre noir” – an eye of black butter – instead of a plain old black one. (Especially if faced with someone who had mustard climbing up his nose – “la moutarde lui monte au nez” – because people in that situation are so angry they are about to explode.) And the French don’t “floor it;” they prefer to “appuyer sur le champignon” (push on the mushroom) when putting the pedal to the metal.

War men like de Gaulle are continuously criticized for the death that ensues the battles they lead. One can imagine how a soldier’s family would feel if their sacrifice was explained in this way: “On ne fait pas l’omelette sans casser un oeuf.” (We don’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.)

A headstrong de Gaulle was criticized by those who helped to free his country from the Germans for some of his methods, but he would have probably argued that he liked to do things, “à sa sauce,” or in his own way. Former French President François Mitterrand also created many a stir – especially when, after his death, it was discovered that he had maintained a secret love affair that produced a daughter outside his marriage. Had journalists revealed this before he died, Mitterrand could have argued that he was just trying to “mettre du piment dans la vie” (put some spice into life).

Or, he could have simply proclaimed: “Ce n’est pas vos oignons.” (It’s not your onions or, as we Anglophones would declare: it’s none of your business.) Faced with this situation, he would have tried to refrain from putting his feet in his plate (“mettre les pieds dans le plat”), or putting his foot in his mouth.

More often than not, French politicians are criticized for their dirty dealings related to money rather than love. This is when the country’s most famous food-related product – wine – makes headlines. Though the French may consume many throughout the course of any given day, it’s “la fin des haricots” (the end of the beans, or the end of the story) for anyone caught taking a “pot-de-vin” (pot of wine, or bribe) in any government-related matter.

Wine doesn’t always carry negative connotations in the lexicon of French food-related expressions, however. While the act of cutting wine with water is a major faux pas everywhere, someone who figuratively puts water in his wine (“mettre de l’eau dans son vin”) is one who has softened up on his previously inflexible convictions. One who takes the bottle (“prendre de la bouteille”) hasn’t fallen off the wagon; they’ve aged gracefully and wisely – a bit like the legendary beverage itself.

There are a number of French expressions similar to those used in the English-speaking world. At any given time, we might have a lot on our plates; the French have a lot of bread on the cutting board (“avoir du pain sur la planche”) – presumably to go with all that cheese. “C’est la tarte” means it’s as easy as pie. Ever heard of a tempest in a teapot? In France, the teapot is substituted with a glass of water. (“Une tempête dans un verre d’eau.”) If tea isn’t your thing, you could cleverly declare, “Ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé.”

One could argue the number of expressions involving food contributes to France’s obsession with gastronomy…or that the country’s emphasis on meals has created enough phrases to fill a book. At any rate, it leaves one so hungry that they may find their stomach in their heels (or, “l’estomac dans les talons.”).

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or