Saturday, August 15, 2015

what am I reading?

School starts in a little more than a week (ahhhhh!), so I've been taking advantage of the fact that I have a lot done (seriously! my syllabi are almost finished!) to read and read and read. And read some more.

One set of books I've been reading for both fun and a research project are any food memoirs I can get my hands on. Two I read this week are French Kids Eat Anything by Karen Le Billon (not really a food memoir, just tangentially related) and Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris. Morris keeps a blog of the same name ( and is more in line with the food memoirs I've been reading--the tale of a person outside of the restaurant biz who just wants to make food, eat it, and share it with us all as readers.

The research project is a discussion for another day, so I'll just share my general impressions with these books.

I picked up Le Billon's book, French Kids Eat Anything not because I have some big secret that I'm not telling anyone (other than how very much wine and coffee I've consumed since I graduated. The answer? A LOT--about TWO PANTS SIZE'S WORTH) but because I'm fascinated by the North American (Canadian and American) tendency to put the French on some sort of food pedestal. Look at the French! They have all their (food) shit together! They can eat raw cheeses and no one thinks they might get listeria (that's for Jessica)! Their bread is amazing! Everyone takes long, leisurely lunches and dinners with wine, and everyone is SO THIN! Also, they have great medical care for new moms AND they get all that vacation! Okay, so it's easy to see why everyone thinks France is so great, but at the same time I'm SKEPTICAL. Because, yeah, we should always be skeptical.

In my skepticism, I picked up this book in which Le Billon promises to share how (to quote the cover) "our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters." Huh. Well, that's a lofty claim for a book. However, the book is more than a worship of French culture--it's an examination of what they do that works and why it works. And Le Billon is not completely accepting of all aspects of French culture, and is in fact critical of some elements, addressing many of the questions readers themselves might raise.

Le Billon decides to move her family (French husband, two young PICKY daughters) to France for a year from Vancouver to see what it's like. They live in a small village in Breton, and there she learns that there are a lot of cultural differences, namely that her kids are looked at reprovingly by all the French people they interact with because they are picky, they snack, and they don't know how to eat right. Because of these clashes (especially with her French in-laws), she sets out to try to eat more French-like at home, including introducing new foods, overcoming picky habits, and cutting out snacking that is so endemic to North American parenting.

What she realizes is that it's not that the French have magical rules--they have an ingrained culture that makes things like snacking seem bizarre and out of the ordinary that it elicits stunned glances on the streets (or outspoken criticism), and they consider taste-training to be a part of a child's education. Which means that from an early age (like, from the first foods children eat), the French have culturally accepted and passed down methods to introduce a variety of foods and their eating habits. When Le Billon begins implementing these strategies (at first disastrously, then more slowly with good results), she realizes that good eating must be modeled and taught as much as anything else. And, most of all, it should be pleasurable.

I enjoyed this book a lot because Le Billon recognizes that environment is as big a factor in this process as individual effort; in fact, she soon realizes that maintaining this culture is nearly impossible when she returns to Vancouver, though she finds a middle-road that continues to encourage her kids to eat vegetables and enjoy their food. In the prologue, she notes:
In France, schools, governments, and communities, have worked together to create food and education systems that support parents in feeding their children well. In North America, it seems as if the opposite is true. So we urgently need to have a collective conversation about how to reinvent kids' food culture--in homes and schools, on farms and in stores via market and governmental reform. My hope is that this story (which is not about haute cuisine, but rather about how ordinary French families re empowered to feed their children well) will inspire you to join in that conversation.
In the end, she of course does provide guidelines (she's assuming the reader is looking for ways to cure their own children of their dependency on white bread and Goldfish crackers), but they are more of aspects of a philosophy rather than rigid rules. And I think that's where the value of this book lies for me: it's not a cure-all, but rather opens the door to a conversation to better ways of eating and enjoying our lives (Rule 10: "Remember: eating is joyful--RELAX!") through food, for both ourselves as adults and for our kids.

And now I've taken up too much of my space to talk about Amelia Morris's lovely memoir, Bon Appetempt. So I'll talk about it and some of the other memoirs I'm reading later.


Shannon said...

My biggest critique with the French is that they don't allow homeschooling. I've thus been forever soured against them.

However, I see the point she's making here. There's give and take. My children have both been adventurous eaters though Eli's have settled somewhat as he heads towards double digits. I remember at 18 months he ate curry and thought it delicious. Jack adores a vegetable soup I make with onion and garlic (and loves raw onion). I'll add an interesting science to this - whatever a woman eats during pregnancy, the amniotic fluid takes on that flavor. I eat a variety of flavorful foods. I don't know if that plays a part or not.

I do hesitate to judge parents though. It's important to remember the children are also people with individual tastes and desires. You can train them to taste something but you can't train them to like it. Eli has tasted everything he dislikes and he still dislikes it :) And when my toddler is hungry, he's a nonstop mantra of "Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat." He'll grab my hand, get right in my face and go, "Hey. Eat."

Baby carrots and ranch dressing followed by Goldfish crackers it is :)

Jenn said...

Yeah, I think that parents are under a lot of pressure, and one things she does point out is how the French practices are supported by culture, the government, etc, whereas we North Americans don't have those same supports. Which means that we are sort of on our own when it comes to trying to feed our kids well. And I think that's the basic principle that Le Billon also began saying for her kids: you don't have to like it, but you do have to try it. Getting kids to try things without making a big deal about it seems to be the best practice. As is feeding them Goldfish crackers every now and then. :)