These days in New York, parents have an inferiority complex: The French, we keep on thinking, are doing it better than us. Their kids grow up to be smarter, better behaved, more adventurous eaters, and why the hell can’t ours be more like theirs?
A couple of weeks ago, for example, Karen Le Billon wrote in the Times Magazine about her first encounter with these well-bred enfants at a dinner party:
Other children were already gathered at a respectful distance. Their eyes were on the crackers, but no one dared touch them. Later, a French friend hinted at how this self-control is achieved. Starting at age 3, all the children at her maternelle (preschool) had to sit still with their hands on their knees while the lunchtime dessert was served. Only when the maîtresse gave permission could they begin to eat; anyone who gave into temptation had her dessert promptly removed.
But my girls hadn’t had the benefit of maternelle training. Before we could stop her, my toddler, Claire, grabbed a cracker from the table, stuffing it into her mouth. I chided her: “That’s the adults’ table! Don’t be rude!” “Mais non!” replied our host, Virginie, smiling. “That’s the children’s table!” I looked more closely and saw that the wineglasses were miniature versions of adult ones, as was the cutlery. I couldn’t have imagined that such a beautiful table was intended for children.
Then, the other day, Jennifer Anne Conlin (whom I know a little bit) wrote in the Sunday Review about how her life had become increasingly child-focused since her family moved back to the States from Europe:
Before, they always enjoyed a healthy extracurricular life of sports and school clubs, but never one that overtly conflicted with my career or social life — on the contrary, in Brussels I did some of my best networking at the local playground cafe, which served chilled bottles of Pouilly-Fumé and Stella Artois to half-watching parents. (Why push a swing when you could sip a drink?). … I now look back appreciatively at my daughter’s early morning field-hockey schedule in London. The team practiced three mornings a week from 8 to 8:30 a.m., with the odd game taking place from 4 to 5 p.m. every other week, weather permitting (it usually rained).
Now our entire adult life revolves around the children’s activities. The last two weekends alone, my daughter was in three performances of the school musical, had softball practice, a state solo ensemble competition (that ended at 12:30 p.m., a 40-minute drive from the musical, which started at 2 p.m.) and a forensics tournament. My son had the musical (he manned the spotlight), a baseball practice and a Science Olympiad contest (with a 6:30 a.m. bus departure).
Now, the Motherlode blog tried to rescue American parenting approaches from the gutter by trying to say our child-obsession is a good thing, but I’d like to go a different way. No, I’m not going to launch into a discussion of the economics of European vs American parenting, and how having widely available, free (or simply cheap?) state preschools is a huge advantage in the uniform socialization of young children.
Actually, all I want to say is this: as great as their native cuisine is, the French are terrible eaters. Yes, they are enthusiastic aesthetes when it comes to three-course meals, and they cherish the wines of their native villages with great affection, and they certainly know their breads, cheeses, and cured meats. And oh, the table manners!
But put them outside a French context, and they’re often at a loss, especially if the cuisine involves any kind of spice. Have you ever been to an Asian restaurant in Paris? They’re pathetic in terms of flavor, and the chaotic fun of the “bring it out when it’s ready” approach is often sacrificed to a stately French procession of dishes. They suck, and that’s because French people can’t handle anything but French food. And don’t get me started on fusion food. Whenever a cuisine gets Frenchified, it loses the oomph that makes it special.
Okay, that’s maybe an overly broad generalization. There are certainly French people who don’t fear foreign flavors, who understand that the French style of dinner (actually imported from Russia, I believe) is not the ne plus ultra of dining, who joyously eat with chopsticks or their fingers, cramming fat-dripping burgers in their baguette-accustomed mouths. But they are the minority.
So, next time you hear someone crowing about how well-behaved little French diners are, tell them to go fuck themselves. (But be polite—use vous.) And next time your kid demands nothing but hot dogs or white rice, give it to them, guilt-free. Kids can be as dismally timid as grown-up French people, and anyway, they’re just kids. I didn’t eat live, squirming octopus tentacles till my mid-thirties, you know.