I couldn’t believe my luck the first time I had a proper home-cooked French meal. Not only are there numerous courses of the meal, but it’s also paired with delicious wines from around Europe, supplemented with a glorious plate of cheese. It was a cliche come true.
While the foods I’ve eaten in Paris have been the stuff of every foodie’s dreams, there’s something special about sharing a home-cooked meal. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t picture a better day spent than sampling the parade of good eats that grace these streets, but I’ve also fallen in love with the decadent evening meals that I share with my French parents twice a week.
I have a firm belief that the best way of getting to know a city is through tasting the food it has to offer. Though dining in restaurants is one way to do this, home-cooked meals achieve the same result — and sometimes surpass it. The ingredients are lovingly plucked from grocery stores and farmers’ markets in the neighborhood, while the cooking and dining traditions of my French family heavily influence the taste of the meal.
My French parents are fantastic cooks who not only prepare all their meals at home, but they also put an equal importance in the presentation. The amount of love, creativity and thoughtfulness put into every meal showed me how big of a role food plays in French culture. It also showed me a different perspective on America’s relationship with food.
Every night my French parents come home around 7:30 p.m. and start preparing dinner. By 8:00 p.m. the rickety dining table has been gorgeously plated with glittering silverware and polished porcelain dinner plates. Cloth napkins rest neatly on the plates, while a wicker basket of fresh baguette slices sits next to a newly uncorked wine bottle. Every meal I’ve had with my French parents has been an absolute treat, because it’s a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
Dinner starts with my French dad pouring wine into sparkling glasses sitting just to the upper right corner of the dinner plate. My French mom starts serving some sort of entree, usually in the form of fuchsia turnips, a crisp green salad or steamed vegetables. I wait until everyone has been served before digging in.
In contrast to the dinners spent in the company of my laptop, dinner at my French family’s house consists of nourishing your brain as well as your stomach. The dinner table serves the dual purpose of hosting meals as well as debates. It’s at this very dinner table that I explored the topics of politics, economy, current events, grammar and French culture purely in French. It’s also at this table that I overcame my fear of speaking and really made strides with the French language.
After the first course is finished, my French mom dips into the kitchen to pluck a large crockpot off the stove. She returns, lifts the lid and serves me a portion of the meat or fish she prepared. The main course is usually accompanied by more vegetables and always paired with the correct corresponding wine — whites for light meals and reds for heavier ones.
The cheese plate arrives next, with an assortment of different tastes, textures and smells to choose from. There’s the usual chunk of my preferred choice of Comté, a sharp cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, as well as three petite wheels of softer cheese. I slice off a little bit of each and sandwich them between pieces of crusty baguette.
Of course, I learned quickly the importance of pacing myself, because there is much food to be had. It’s amusing to see the expression on my French parents’ faces when they witness the herculean amounts of food I manage to tuck away at each meal.
While I usually eat just a bite too much, there’s always room for dessert. The day of the week and the tone of the meal, usually dictates the kind of dessert served. If it’s a normal weekday night, dessert is a ripe piece of fruit and tea. If it’s a more formal meal or a Sunday night, dessert means a freshly baked tart served with a mountain of whipped cream.
As I share more and more meals with my French parents, my vocabulary and initiative to speak French grow exponentially. The worn dictionary sitting within reach of the dinner table has become less and less necessary in our dinner conversations as I learn to navigate the subtleties of French conversation.
Despite living thousands of miles away from home this year, I’ve discovered a second home in Paris by indulging in familiar foods from back home, as well as experimenting with new foods that have enriched my palette and expanded the possibilities of future meals. Even though returning home will be a bittersweet experience, I’ll smile every time I see a freshly baked baguette or a hearty slice of cheese.