Friday, May 4, 2012

Fat Kids Don't Throw French Fries, a review of Pamela Druckerman's "French Children Don't Throw Food"

If there is a more provocative, inflammatory accusation towards women than poor childrearing, I don’t know what it is.  Yet in chapter after chapter this is precisely what American readers are subjected to in Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food.  
The author, a native New Yorker, relates a story of love, childrearing and culture shock as she marries a Brit, gets pregnant and raises her three children in Paris.  Not exactly a tale of infatuation with Paris and all things French, the book’s main theme concerns the stark contrast Druckerman sees between her own children’s behavior and the perfect little French children around her.  

Essentially, she and her husband would like to be able to dine at a restaurant with their pre-school aged children, have them sit still, eat le poisson and vegetables, not drop things on the floor and of course not throw any food as per the title, with a nod to Mireille Guiliano’s bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat.  How can Druckerman and her Anglo spouse get their children to be obedient in public and behave calmly while entertaining dinner guests? 

The answer is to imitate French parents, and their antics in attempting to do so make for an entertaining read; Druckerman has a good sense of humor, and I laughed out loud many times during the book.  The chapters on her pregnancy and marriage are especially funny, as is her description of her husband’s charming helplessness:

[Simon] can’t drive a car, blow up a balloon or fold clothes without using his teeth.  He fills our refrigerator with unopened tins of food.  For expediency’s sake, he cooks everything at the highest temperature.  (University friends later tell me he was known for serving drumsticks that were charred on the outside and still frozen on the inside.)  When I show him how to make salad dressing using oil and vinegar, he writes down the recipe, and still pulls it out years later when he makes dinner.

So what’s the trouble with this book?  First of all, in virtually every single aspect of childrearing -- night time parenting, nursing, discipline, nutrition, education, nurturing -- Druckerman presents French (more accurately, Parisian) methods as both the opposite of, and as superior to, American (more accurately, New York City) methods.  The same repetitive tune is sung throughout the whole book, even if occasionally there are intriguing aspects to Parisian parenting methods.  For example, French parents are, according to Druckerman, able to get their babies to sleep through the night by three months, by which point the baby is ‘Elle fait nuits,” “doing her nights.” After only six weeks, their babies have learned to eat at 8:00am, noon, 4:00pm and 8:00pm, and that’s it.  No snacking, no baggies of cereal, nothing to tide them over.  

Ultimately what Pamela Druckerman is doing is comparing a tiny sliver of a foreign culture to a tiny sliver of American culture.  Apparently, the American parents that she has spent time with do not possess the natural sense of authority which she sees French parents confidently wielding.  Plus she admittedly has spent all her time in Paris moving in circles that are not that of the majority of French population.  There is no reason to think the book’s vignettes are particularly representative of any wider “American” or “French” culture. 

Even though Druckerman’s anecdotes cannot be generalized, one can learn about upper-class Paris culture from this book.  One takeaway concerns eating habits.  Druckerman can’t help but notice the overall slimness of the mommies in Paris, and the shocking truth -- are you ready for this -- is that French women are slender because they don’t eat much food.  More interestingly, the healthy habits they teach their children seem to deter them from being picky eaters: a big protein lunch with a light veggie dinner, nothing after dinner, exposure to all sorts of flavors from babyhood, exposure to different flavors and textures of food as well as teaching children to bake and cook.  I myself have a picky eater.  If given the choice, my son would only eat American cheese, white bread and Honey Nut Cheerios; dinnertime often becomes dreadful when we force him to try new foods.  This book made me wonder if an opportunity was missed when he was an infant to expose him to a wide variety of flavors and textures.  Here was a conversation Druckerman witnessed between the chefs at her child’s pre-school as they discuss the school’s Christmas meal:

‘The foie gras, no?’ one chef suggests as an appetizer.  Another counters with the duck mousse.  At first I assume that they’re both joking, but no one laughs.  The group then debates whether to serve the children salmon or tuna for the main course (their first choice is monkfish, but [one chef] says it’s too expensive).  And what about the cheese course?  [One chef] vetoes goat’s cheese with herbs, because the kids had goat’s cheese at their autumn picnic.  The group finally settles on a menu that includes fish, broccoli mousse and two kinds of cow’s milk cheese.  

Interesting?  Check.  Amusing?  Also check.  The way normal French people live?  Surely not. 

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