Excerpt from

Cave Life in France

 Excerpt from Chapter XX Festival of Fat

23 October 1999

We are fortunate to live in the Loir et Cher because the Mayor of our capital city is the former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang. Even though he is no longer the Minister of Culture he still wields great influence in the art world . Many say that he is the minister to the minister and that he is still consulted in all important matters. The result of this influence and his obvious love for the arts is that this region gets more than its share of cultural events. I went to Blois to see what was going on with an exposition that I had seen advertised in the paper. It was called Nourritures Terrestres and was three days of seminars, conferences, debates, demonstrations and a replicas of ancien markets. It was basically a three day conference on the subject of food and wine. However the speakers were not what you might ordinarily expect to hear at a conference on food and wine. There were no chefs speaking on subjects like the best way to make crème brûlée or wine experts talking about legs, nose or bouquet. These speakers were all university professors who were speaking about history, culture and the anthropological significance of food and drink. The seminars started mid morning and lasted until 10:00 p.m. and there were three or four different seminars going on at the same time. If you wanted to hear the seminar on the subject of "Absinthe under the Third Republic", you might have to miss the seminar on "Food and Colonization." Examples of other titles are "Do the people of Provence really like olive oil?", "Food for travel in the 19th Century", "Jewish Food in Provence in the Middle Ages", Famines of yesterday and today" etc. When I arrived at the Conference Hall, I had a choice between the lectures on "Chocolate from the seventeenth to the nineteenth Century" , "Funeral Meals in Savoie in the Middle Ages" and "American Thanksgiving." I really wanted to hear the other two lectures but I could not pass up the chance to hear what the French thought of our Thanksgiving celebration.

The seminar was presented by a scholar name Monsieur Bernard Sinsheimer who spoke slowly and clearly so I understood most of what he was saying. He started by describing the Thanksgiving holiday as a festival of fat that is unique in American culture not because of the fatty food but more so because it is a holiday uniquely revered by Americans. He first described how Americans generally have little respect for their holidays. He said Americans will take a holiday like a former President' s birthday and move it to a day that is more convenient like a Monday so that everybody can have a long weekend. Or even worse, Americans might combine all the birthdays of their presidents into one day that is convenient and have only one celebration. His point was that Americans don't revere the day or the event as much as the long weekend off from work. He said that it is this general lack of respect that makes the Thanksgiving celebration so unique. Thanksgiving is devoutly and universally revered in America. It is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday even though Friday is a work day for many Americans. In addition to this unique respect that Americans have for Thanksgiving, he also pointed out that it is the one day of the year where American families gather even from great distances to be together, and it is celebrated by everyone regardless of race, religion or creed. The professor also went into some detail about our unusual eating habits and he describe the traditional dishes like sweet potatoes, squash, corn, pumpkin pie, stuffing in the turkey and giblet gravy. However the thing that brought gasps of surprise to this small but intensely interested audience was his description of placing the whole turkey on the table and someone trying to carve it in front of everyone waiting to eat. I don't really understand why carving the turkey on the table was such a horrendous idea but it seemed to draw excited murmurs from our group. However, the thing that really brought gasps of horror from the audience was his description of what we drink with our Thanksgiving meal. He said wine is rare but growing in popularity. Of course this alone is enough to convince the French of our savagery but for those not yet convinced, the coup de grâce was the revelation that we drink iced tea and even Coca Cola with the meal. After revealing this horror to us he said after a dramatic pause "Some people even drink coffee with the meal." The words "Quel horreur!" pealed from the audience.

The audience was intently interested in the American Thanksgiving feast and many told stories of their experience in America and how much they liked the food, especially the oyster stuffing from New England. Others talked of the pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes with Marshmallows on top. However the most humorous thing that I heard was the description of everybody falling asleep after dinner watching a football game.

I asked Professor Sinsheimer for a copy of his lecture but he only had hand written notes and did not think the lecture would be printed. I was fascinated and amused to hear this description of America from the French point of view. The lecture also gave me a better understanding of why my French friends are so fascinated by my observations of their habits and customs. It is one of those things where you say "Yeah, that's true but I just never thought about it like that."



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