Spend some time eating, drinking and walking as the French do, and the “French paradox” may not seem like such a mystery after all.
Earlier this year, I was in Bordeaux, France, wearing my wine-writer hat, there to check out the new breed of organic vineyards. I’d never been there before, though I’d written about it extensively (it’s the birthplace of modern wine, after all, and could be argued to be the birthplace of modern Europe).
Going somewhere you’ve written about but have never visited can be an uneasy affair, like checking your homework on a stage. I was happy to find that I’d been right in my wine writing, but unnerved to find that I’d really never given too much thought to the native cuisine of the land of Cabernet Sauvignon. I mean, in the United States, we typically serve a steak with Cabernet Sauvignon and call it one of the world’s great food pairings, but was it what the Bordelaise really did with their famous wine? I set out through the twisty, sand-colored, medieval alleyways to find out.
What I discovered shocked and amazed me: They eat steak with their wine. A lot of steak.
When you go to a foreign country you expect explorations both physical and mental — you expect to be challenged, to eat strange things, to be out of your comfort zone. But in Bordeaux? Not so.
Want steak and French fries for every meal? Then journey to Bordeaux, the land where everything Americans are not supposed to eat is served joyfully, and to the max!
Really, steak and French fries — and plenty of red wine. And white wine. And in the summer, rosé. Lots of wine, the better to wash down the French fries, which aren’t just any French fries — typically they are potatoes cooked in duck fat. Sparkling with sea salt, they are served next to a big rib-eye steak cooked over a crackling wood fire.
Of course, the good people of Bordeaux eat more than steak. They eat vegetables, too — but they also indulge in all kinds of saturated-fat-laden delights most American dietitians tell us to avoid. For an elaborate meal, you’ll start with duck-liver foie gras; a platter of salami, ham, or other charcuterie; and a bit of cheese. Then there’s beef steak and fries, followed by more cheese and little golden butter-soaked cakes for dessert. All, of course, washed down with plenty of wine.
It wasn’t like I had never heard of the French paradox — that phenomenon in which French people eat saturated animal fat but avoid becoming obese and developing cardiovascular disease. But seeing the dynamic in person, frankly, was shocking.
Scientists have lots of ideas of the whys and wherefores of what makes the French paradox work. Some think it has to do with magical components in wine: perhaps a micronutrient from grapes called resveratrol, or maybe antioxidant compounds from grape skins that end up in the final wine, or the tannins that migrate into the wine when it is aged in oak barrels.
Some think it is because the French don’t eat processed foods the way Americans do. They eat real foods: steak instead of a Big Mac, for example, and from-scratch desserts instead of Twinkies.
Some think it’s the actual ritual of eating in the French way that lends a benefit: You never snack in front of the television; you have dinner with ceremony, in a group, and the very act of dining with pleasure and intention limits your food intake, allowing you to more clearly identify when you’re actually full.
Still, knowing about the French paradox and the scientific debate around it is very different from seeing it in living color. Look at the natives: They’re so thin! If I believed everything, or really anything, I read in typical American magazines, I’d think that a daily diet based on so much meat, fat and cheese would create a society in which everyone is the size of a piano box.
Looking for Real Food
Perplexed, I put on my thinking cap. Perhaps I was just being shown the tourist spots. Perhaps the real Bordelaise were eating something else. Something wholesome, made by virtuous hippies, that tasted like twigs.
After walking through vineyards all day, I’d head out at night to talk to the real Bordelaise, who were happy to advise me on where I should eat next. They’d begin by asking, “Where have you gone, for steak?”
And I’d say: “No, no, I want the real food, the stuff real French people around here eat, the not-steak.”
Which is how I found the places that served the rest of the animal. Like blood bean stew. And tripe. But it was all meat in one form or another. These were the delicacies of the older generations, my native Bordelaise contacts explained, not really typical fare. They advised me to stick with the steak.
How could this be, I wondered? Was everyone in the United States being lied to? Or were we just crazy — or both?
I wondered if maybe I was seeing so much meat because I was in the ritzy part of town. Surely in the middle-class part, it wasn’t like this. What I found, however, was just that the steaks there were cheaper, and the wine was included with the price of the meal.
Where did all this come from? In the United States, the past and present seem like completely separate entities. In the past, people ate apple butter while quilting in front of the wood-burning stove; in the present, people eat yuzu foam and play Angry Birds on their phones.
But in France, it’s a little easier to get a sense of the continuum of past and present.
At one vineyard I visited, Château Coutet in St. Emilion, the owner, Xavier David Beaulieu, explained to me that this little corner of the world had been farmed the exact same way, pesticide-free, herbicide-free, since the Roman era.
“For 2,000 years,” he said, “wine was grown the same way here: by managing the grass, managing the badgers and the foxes.”
As an American, the idea of doing anything for 2,000 years seems impossibly romantic and unrealistic. I say sustainable, you say greenwashing; I say organic, you say people will starve — the endless disagreements make many of us call the whole thing off.
But when you see these old vineyards bordered by Roman walls, you see a sustainable system, one that resulted in a sustainable culture. It’s not something open to debate, it’s not something that can be parsed into a left-right, I-won’t-listen-to-you-so-you-won’t-listen-to-me debate.
As scientific-minded Americans we can argue the scientific basis for the French paradox, but we can’t deny their record of health, happiness, stability and longevity. We can’t debate that they’re doing something right.
Steps in the Right Direction
I paced the streets, walking and thinking and walking some more. I was happy I had brought good walking shoes. I fit right in.
I passed chic Bordelaise women as I walked, and I began to notice a theme: All wore shoes for walking, not heels. Flats and low leather shoes and every manner of boot, but almost never heels. With all those cobbles, all that walking, heels made no sense. It seemed simple enough, but it counteracted the stereotype in my mind of French women, chic and ballerina-like, up on their toes. In real life, the women of Bordeaux are avid urban hikers.
On my final night in Bordeaux, I puzzled over what exactly this unfathomably gorgeous, wine-drenched city was trying to tell me. I packed for the plane, and as I emptied my pockets and purse, I found my pedometer, the half-dollar-sized one I got hoping it would inspire me to walk more.
At home, it’s always a challenge to get to 10,000 steps, which is the equivalent of five miles. There rarely seems to be any practical or permissible time to walk. I think I should be at my desk. How can I keep up with reader feedback on Facebook if I’m not at my desk? How can I answer the hundred daily emails if I’m not planted in front of my computer?
I’m especially embarrassed on the days I don’t even make 5,000 steps. I’m washed in shame the days I don’t break 3,000 steps. But my life is very conveniently arranged for maximum production with minimum movement. And my city is arranged by the rules of real-estate development, so there are very few things I can do without driving.
Oh, my little pedometer. I had forgotten I had brought it. It was buried at the bottom of my purse all week, but it was turned on and recording my steps each day. I scrolled through my week in Bordeaux: 21,000 steps, 23,000, almost 29,000 one day — practically 15 miles.
I slid the pedometer into my checked luggage. Perhaps one day I’ll figure out what the French know that we don’t. Perhaps.