Demystifying French Cuisine

By Michael Young

Michael participated in API’s Language and Culture Studies program in Grenoble, France and serves as a Peer Mentor at the University of Pittsburgh.


Host family's kitchen

In the United States, stereotypes of French cuisine conjure up images of frog legs, snails, and unpleasantly smelly cheeses, foods that most Americans would never want to find on their plates come dinner time. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Just like American cooking, French cooking encompasses a wide variety of foods, from the simple and quotidian to the extravagant and rare.

Upon returning from my study abroad trip in Grenoble, France, in May of 2010, one question that I heard time and time again was “What did you eat over there?” I could practically see the snails and frogs that lurched about in the minds of each person that asked me that leading question, half intrigued and half concerned that I had spent a semester digging snails out of their shells and sucking the meat off of frog legs. I decided to make it my personal mission to demystify French cooking by using stories and recipes from my personal experiences in France.

After a semester helping to prepare and enjoy many of the delicious meals that la cuisine française has to offer, I came to know quite well the ins-and-outs of French dining. I spent countless hours in the kitchen with my host mom, Anne, a woman that took cooking courses just to ensure that her American students would be enjoying what they ate at her table. She certainly succeeded. I looked forward to dinner in France, always knowing that whatever Anne had prepared for the day would be delicious.

Me and my host mom, Anne

Most of the meals I enjoyed in France were rather simple. Anne’s typical meal consisted of soup, a salad, a vegetable, a grain, and sometimes a serving of meat. The key concept in French cooking is balance. While we harp about the food pyramid in the States, the truth of the matter is that most Americans don’t get all the nutrients that they need. Anne would explain to me what vitamins were in each food that she prepared and what health benefits they had. “Have some more,” she would explain, handing me the serving spoon which I would scoop deeply into the vegetable medley du jour. “They’ll keep your eyes sharp!”

However, the fact is unavoidable that some ingredients that the French cook up find no place in American cuisine. I admit that some of the foods that Anne offered me were strange, but I imagined a French person would feel the same way I did upon being handed a deep-fried Oreo or a jar of SPAM. I realized that there’s a reason that the French prefer frog legs and pungent, artisan cheese while Americans prefer Oscar Meyer prepackaged meats and Kraft Singles. It all comes down to cultural differences.

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