The French table conversation should always be light, never too serious, slightly frivolous, rarely erudite, or a least not more than a sentence and a half long.
Looking upon France lagging behind Britain in the early 19th century, Mme de Staël, maybe Napoleon’s greatest enemy, ventured to say that the French could indulge in a minimum of science when gathering in their famed salons, not just in wit and le bon mot.
This allergy to anything too vulgar and named without a minimum of allegory, though coming from aristocratic times, still holds sway today with variants such as the intellectual incapable of talking in layman’s terms, the dandy dangling in his wit or goofy perpetually joking as though afraid of offering a hint of serious conversation and especially of himself.
So, the French, believe it or not, do have have their weak spots.
But then, at the other end of the spectrum, at the antipode of french frivolousness lies table accounting, the most interesting variant of which is calorie counting.
In France, this is mostly unheard of. When in a restaurant, we never see a hint of how many calories there are per serving - at least not in any place serious about gastronomy. Neither menus nor table mats will carry any mention of how many calories your steak, fish or cassoulet will invite you to ingest and potentially store on your hips or belly.
Why is this?
Maybe because noontime lunch which would be the first target of such gastronomic heresy is a place to STOP being efficient, rational and organized, to leave one’s mind rest and enjoy the pleasures of a good meal.
Though the modern world has been built on measurement, an excess thereof, as with anything, causes health hazards. Too much measurement in a company kills motivation. Too much measurement in eating kills the pleasure.
Let’s not forget, hedonism is essential to gastronomy and probably fundamental in a healthy diet. A field such as gastronomy, liberated to hedonism, can only offer immensity for research, discovery, comparison and critical evaluation, thus leading to meaningful and thoughtful enjoyment. And we’re not talking reptilian brain dopamine pleasure stemming from fat, sugar and salt, but more discrete pleasures such as sensing freshness, new savors, scents and textures.
During a meal, the mind needs to be liberated from excessively serious considerations such as calorie accounting if it is to achieve full culinary consciousness.
Furthermore, there is a certain artfulness, almost panache, for a lady to gobble down a 300g (10oz) steak with fries and still offer the silhouette of Parisian lightness, whilst not even knowing she boxed the hell out of the calorie bell; the best part being that even if she did have a dog, it wouldn’t get an inkling of that delicious meal.
Because there are no doggy bags either. Counting doesn’t cut it, but not knowing to let go is worse. This is a fundamental mindset difference: save or leave with panache!
Some will say doggy bags are good for the planet, because we’re not wasting. At least the dog appreciates. But if we were given a reasonable portion in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t have wasted an opportunity to be smart.
Reducing portions might be a smarter solution. And pushes the focus on quality rather than quantity. Portions will be smaller, but they'll be tastier. Plus, we’ll be helping the planet as well as farmers focusing on sustainable agriculture.
As for focusing on something as complex as calorie burning, bearing in mind all the parameters that come into play, this makes the little time available for conversation get chewed up by the smartphone calculator.
And alas, a hunch - and a few nutritionists - tell me the science of measuring calories misses the point. An avocado contains as many calories as a croissant, but the calories in both won’t be absorbed and used in the same way. So, which one do you eat?
As they say, when one loves one doesn’t count. Love the food and the company and you won’t need counting, neither calories nor time.
Picture created using Dall-E, Prompt "Accountant counting beans in a chic restaurant, Andy Warhol style".