- Honestly, Dara -

Family Values à la Française

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Family Values á la Francaise

Food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on why perhaps it’s time we stopped obsessing about how the French eat, and started emulating the way they live.

I am so sick of French kids.

Not the real ones, mind you. I’m sure they’re fine, using baguettes to bat escargot over the Eiffel Tower and whatnot.

What I’m sick of is those perfect little French kids in bestsellers like Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé and Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything. Kids who swoon for three-course meals of spinach purée and sautéed fish, kids who moan in misery when denied fava beans — kids who are used as examples of everything that American moms do wrong.

You would think we American moms do nothing but coddle our little American cowards. We American moms are weak and lazy and have never had a meaningful thought in our materialistic noggins. And so we have doomed our American kids to pass their formative years turning up their noses at anything except chicken fingers, Jell-O, and candy on their way to lives of obesity and, one presumes, moral turpitude and failure.

But back to French kids — the ones I’m so sick of.

I’m sick of them because these French youngsters are held up to us as examples entirely out of context.

Here are a couple of crazy French facts for you. French women are guaranteed a four-month paid maternity leave. They can leave their jobs for three years upon having a baby, with the legal guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them upon their return.

At age 3, French children may enter government-subsidized full-time daycare, where, as in the country’s free preschools, it’s traditional for all children to enjoy three-course meals prepared by teams of full-time chefs.

The French tax code is so supportive of in-home childcare that two-thirds of all French families with children employ nannies. French lunch hours, by the by, are typically 60 to 90 minutes long. Oh, and the French work 1,476 hours a year while the average American works around 1,700 hours. The French take an average of 31 vacation days a year.

What’s it like to be a French kid? Sounds to me like you’re surrounded by people devoted to your care, people devoted to feeding you, people secure in their careers, people enjoying loads of vacation time. It must be très jolie.

Meanwhile, here in the good old États-Unis, we’re one of the last countries in the world not to guarantee any maternity leave at all (just like Swaziland).

Annually, the average American works five 40-hour weeks more than a French worker. And we typically get all of 13 days off a year.

More than half of American food dollars are spent on food consumed on the go, in restaurants, or from convenience stores; 17 percent of our restaurant meals are consumed in the car; 8 percent of American workers report eating at least one lunch a week from a vending machine.

So what is it like to be an American kid? Your parents are running as fast as they can and tossing you a granola bar in the back seat of the car when you start squawking.

I mean, I’m sure that the French have many things to teach us about food. They’re good at food. Simple herb dressings on beautiful salads and so on.

But I’m tired of the conversation portraying food as an action, a decision, a substance entirely divorced from the rest of our lives. A long, leisurely, vegetable-filled lunch doesn’t come out of nothing; it comes out of a day, a week, a life that supports lunch.

Isn’t it time we stop looking to the French for their moral rigor about food and start looking to them for their moral rigor about time and family values?

On second thought, I guess I’m not so much sick of French kids as I am sick of French kids being held up as anything but kids. And kids, as anyone who’s ever been around them knows, need time and adults who aren’t stressed out of their gourds — even more than they need a salade.

 

is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Tom Kaczynski

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