Unplugging From Fast Food Culture, French Style
In the US, it’s hard to resist the convenience of the 24-hour grocery store, instant foods, pre-chopped fruits and vegetables, measured meal ingredients delivered to your door, etc. This consumer-driven world has become woven into our expectations, such that stepping out of this paradigm seems nigh to impossible; it’s just what everybody does, right? It took me living overseas to realize that you can step out. You don’t have to live by the rules of consumer marketing.
In my case, living overseas, and especially in France, helped me to escape the modern barrage of marketing messages and find a rhythm of life attuned to more timeless patterns. This involved buying food fresh rather than packaged, and often at the outdoor market rather than at the chain supermarket. It meant embracing full-fat animal products from quality sources rather than fearing rich foods. I learned that it’s worth the time to procure and prepare the whole, nutrient-dense foods that my family needs rather than to buy easily-accessible, highly-palatable foods that they might want. It was not easy at first, but this ancestrally-minded way of life eventually became routine. It also had clear results for my health and that of my family: fewer digestive problems, more stable moods, better concentration at work and school. This lifestyle worked much better than following the dubious guidance of ubiquitous branding and calculated messaging that is all around us in the U.S.
During my three years in Bordeaux, I actively sought to learn about French food (and wine) to broaden my repertoire and feed my family more than just chicken breasts and salmon steaks. I asked neighbors about their grandmothers’ recipes, followed winemakers through the seasons, visited nearby farmers and markets and found a common theme—the availability, quality, and nutrient value of foods and drink are determined by the seasons, soil, microbiome, and the type the inputs (grass or corn; organic or conventional; etc). How you procure, prepare, and consume the food or wine was also important. Going to farmer’s markets by foot or bike, savoring meals and wine with family and friends, seeking out seasonal and organic vegetables, artisanal cheeses, grass-fed meats, and local wines, as a means of connecting with a place – all of this mattered. At the same time, I was seeking answers to my own health issues and discovered the ancestral, primal, and Paleo health movements. I came to see that many culinary and cultural traditions of France were more in synch with these movements and ancestral rhythms than what I had known growing up in suburban America.
As I explored the mismatch between tradition and our modern day lives, questions came to me: What if the producing, procuring, preparing, cooking, and sharing of our food is just as important as the act of eating the food itself, whether we’re French, Korean, or American? Could our sense of community and connection be even more vital than getting that errand of “food shopping” checked off of our list? And how could I focus on feeding my family the most nutrient dense food, while supporting a sustainable food system and ignoring the irresistible tug of consumerism?
Honing a Sense of Purpose
More questions came to me, but so did a few answers: First, I prioritized (and still do) what was most important: Family time? Nutrient-dense food? A sustainable future for my children? I articulated the priority, then committed to looking at my time as economists look at money: What is the opportunity cost of everything I do that is not my top priority? I was determined to only spend money in ways that aligned with these values. Now, still, when it comes to food, I look at my choices thus: I will only put things in my body (or feed my family) with unrefined, whole, organic, seasonal foods, and/or, I will only support the kinds of farmers and agriculture that I believe in. While it may sound over-simplified, thinking in this way can have a profound impact on your life, as each choice you make adds up to create your lifestyle. It also has the nice side effect of honing your sense of purpose.
How I Did It
If I went to a large grocery store, I limited myself to the organic aisles or bins and only bought packaged goods that I couldn’t make at home myself: olive oil, certain dried herbs, vinegar, chocolate, certain vegetables. For raw milk, butter, cheese, and other vegetables, I relied on farmers markets or the neighborhood organic store with seasonal selection standards. We tended to buy wine directly from the wine makers, since we were in Bordeaux, after all.
Most people, including me, cannot buy food only from one farmer or completely avoid supermarkets, but fall somewhere on the spectrum between growing your own food 100% on one end, and patronizing the big box stores 100% on the other end. Your commitment to your top priority will determine your outcome and your expectations, not to mention the expectations of those around you. By being deliberate in your choices, and setting up the consequent expectations, you are not only going to help your own well-being, but also help to nudge society toward a more sustainable food system, as you vote with your dollar. And you can do this wherever you are right now. Get to know your local butcher, visit farmer’s markets, make your own fermented vegetables and bone broths, and try to buy the less sought-after cuts of meat: slow-cooked chuck beef, fatty pork shoulder, nutrient-dense organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidneys. (You will find recipes for all of these in The Bordeaux Kitchen.)
To Market, To Market
The French seem know all of this intuitively: They have prepared and eaten traditional foods like offal and slow-cooked meat cuts, sharing meals with friends and relatives – sometimes over a glass of wine – for generations. And they know that going to the market may take a bit more time and might even cost a bit more than a chain grocery store. But they are also aware that they have the choice, with every Euro, either to spend it at the market stall as loyal customers to a local farmer, or as a nameless consumer at a large grocery store chain. They know that the vibrancy of their community depends on their support of local farmers, wine growers, butchers, and cheese makers. At the same time, they know they will see their friends and neighbors at the market and be able catch up on the latest gossip and news, or just reconnect. Speaking with vendors, sampling sausages, and discussing the current crop of mushrooms or selection of seasonal fish is central to the experience. They walk, bike, carry groceries, move from stall to stall, from home to market and back. It is a deliberate ritual, repeated weekly, if not more frequently.
As I discuss in The Bordeaux Kitchen, in France, going to the “farmer’s market” is part and parcel to life. The French relish in this communal ritual of gathering at their local market for social connection as well as for buying fresh food. Living in Europe, and particularly living in the center of Bordeaux, I have had the great privilege of having the option to walk or bike to markets and organic grocery stores to do my shopping. As I recount in the book, I would come home feeling robbed of energy after a trip by car to the chain supermarket, but would come home feeling refreshed, if a bit shorter on time, after a visit to the nearby market on foot, having run into a friend, and chatted with the butcher about a recipe, or with the organic produce vendor about his business.
Besides walking more and driving less, disengaging with colorful packaging and the ubiquitous marketing paradigm has helped me to focus on the real food and the real issues with respect to health. So has not watching television: If we don’t watch TV, we don’t see the stuff we didn’t need in the first place. Also, by not watching TV shows, my children also miss the commercials about cartoon character cereals, drive-through meals, and pop-up screen options in gas-guzzling mini-vans. We have so little time as it is, why should we let the entrancing colors of modern branding and repetitive marketing lead us into distraction from the real priorities in our lives? Had I not lived in France, I’m not sure that I would have discovered that children can use knives at a young age to cut their own steaks or duck breast, or that it is possible to walk to a store and feel more fulfilled than driving on the highway, just to get eggs and butter, or that getting to know my local wine maker, farmer, butcher, or vegetable vendor is a joy in itself, a cultural exchange of ideas that weaves our social fabric and is the foundation of a meaningful healthy life, yesterday, today, and beyond.
People Over Packaging
This narrowing of focus, stepping away from the colorful packaging, and ignoring messaging with dubious health claims, leads one instead to focus on Nature (the seasons) and people (connection). As I argue in The Bordeaux Kitchen, farmers and even butchers live by the seasons, and indeed none of us is exempt from these rhythms. The traditions handed down to us from past generations have been vital to survival, such as the disappearing culinary arts of rendering fats, butchering meats, growing food according to the seasons, eating animals nose-to-tail, remembering to slow down and share meals with family and friends.
Looking to our recent ancestors, we can better understand that nourishing one’s body is something much more sacred than grabbing a package, box, or bottle off of a store shelf. Indeed, the acts of procuring, preparing, cooking, eating, and sharing are all much more important than we give them credit: Anything that goes into our body ought to be more of a conscious ritual rather than just a mechanical habit. Regularly slowing down to share and savor each step in the process of a meal (I would call this the traditional French interpretation of “farm to table”) helps us rely less on the packaging and more on our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, our health, each other, our communities, our tribes, our families.
As we delve deeper into ancestral traditions and lifestyle practices, it is helpful to realize to what extent we are surrounded by a plastic world of marketing and packaging. In opposition to this marketing are our communal ties to each other in which we can find real meaning and true connection, love, health, and support.
Living in France helped me step out of that plastic paradigm and understand that our connections with each other are more important than the tasks at hand and how we get them done is more important than actually doing them.
In my book, The Bordeaux Kitchen, I address the kinds of issues discussed here, while also supplying the reader with traditional French recipes for everything from beef, fish, pork, and lamb to organ meats, to step-by-step procedures on how to butcher a whole chicken, fillet a whole fish, and render animal fats to use in cooking. In The Bordeaux Kitchen, I set out to show how you can procure, prepare, and enjoy real, nutrient-dense food by preparing things yourself that you might never have thought possible.
The Bordeaux Kitchen shows you how to understand food, to live, eat, and share, all in synch with the seasons and our natural rhythms. I show you how to make your own bacon and reveal some of the secrets to French cooking, such as having the right herbs or stocks available for flavoring, what utensils to use, and how to whip up sauces that seem so difficult but are not hard to make. I bring you into the homes of French cooks, or describe how they cooked in my kitchen, showing me their tips and tricks. I take you through a butchery apprenticeship, an exploration of the wines of France and their descriptors, and I give you loads of wine and food pairing tips. I explain how families can refocus their priorities, how to throw a wine tasting party, or how to cut, serve and enjoy cheese. There is so much to discover when you make the decision to do things yourself and not be swallowed up by the advertising madness that surrounds us.
What we can learn from the French, we can learn from all traditional cultures: surround yourself with your friends and family and eat food that you have prepared yourself and either grown yourself or sourced from farmers and vendors whose sustainable agricultural methods and business practices match your own values and priorities. The Bordeaux Kitchen stands at the intersection of ancestral tradition and modern life, providing founding principles to a rich life, not a quick-fix diet. Join me on this journey, and let The Bordeaux Kitchen be your guide.
A big thank you to Tania for sharing more of her experience behind the book in today’s post. The subtitle, An Immersion Into French Food and Wine, Inspired by Ancestral Traditions, describes the reading experience very well. This is a true immersion into arguably the richest gastronomic culture in the world. The Bordeaux Kitchen should be required reading for learning to savor life through cuisine.
Thanks for reading today. I’m thrilled for this book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the personal significance of ancestral eating traditions for you and your Primal lifestyle. Enjoy a couple of my favorite recipes from The Bordeaux Kitchen below. Be (and eat) well, everyone.