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The way to a city’s heart is through its food

Maija Gustin | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, that mantra holds true for cities as well.

Museums and tourist attractions are fun, of course, but food (and drink) can tell us just as much about a city and its people.

“Studying” food, though, is not merely about eating and being done with it. Food is integral to any society — what people eat, why they eat it and how it fits into their normal day. Understanding that can give a glimpse into a culture that not even the oldest museum can do.

I learned this firsthand when spending my spring break in Paris, a city known for fine cuisine ranging from crepes to escargot. A day was not complete without exploring as many of these culinary treats as possible.

Paris has a very unique eating schedule, one that helps explain the subtleties of Parisian society. Take, for example, one particularly food-filled day in Paris.

I began my morning early, heading to a boulangerie to pick up a croissant for breakfast. The French, apparently, begin their days with a small breakfast, usually toast, yogurt, a croissant or something along those lines.

They then take a lengthy lunch break mid-day, where they often enjoy a massive meal to tie them over for the rest of the workday.

In what felt like a perfect slice of Paris, I found a café with outdoor seating on a beautiful afternoon. The café was situated near Sacre Coeur, an important basilica at the top of the hill in Montmartre, complete with stunning views of the city. With the requisite accordion player set up nearby, I feasted on a lunch of onion soup and beef bourguignon with a glass of red wine on the side.

Luckily, the hearty meal tied me over until dinner around 9:30 p.m. Many Parisians head to work around 10 a.m., going home around 7 p.m. because of that lengthy lunch break in the middle. It is therefore common for Parisians to eat dinner at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

I rounded out my day of French culinary exploring with a meal of crepes. The main dish featured ham, an incredibly popular meat in Paris, while my dessert crepe only reinforced my notion that ice cream is better in Paris.

Though I enjoyed what was probably more than a typical Parisian might eat in a day, one has to wonder how they can all stay thin with such incredible food around. Their eating schedule sheds some light on the subject — they get their metabolisms going right away with that light breakfast, but don’t gorge themselves on a heavy meal.

The lengthy lunch breaks might seem like overkill to many Americans, but by taking the time to savor the meal and eat it at the body’s normal pace, one feels perfectly satisfied with less food. Plus, spreading out a meal over that length of time seems better for digestion.

Historically, lunch was the largest meal of the day in Paris and dinners were often small and light. Though this is increasingly changing as Paris becomes more attuned with the rest of the world, which typically enjoys large dinners, a dinner is still spread out in the same way that Parisian lunches are. These meals typically include multiple courses of smaller portions, spread out so that you eat more of what your body needs, rather than what it wants.

Maybe I didn’t come to any deep revelations on Parisian culture through eating so much. But the food that fills the streets of Paris is something shared by that entire culture, and I feel like I understand the city a little better having tried everything I could get my hands on.

Other shout-outs go to Nutella crepes, pistachio macarons, oh-so-many baguettes and fondue with oil and beef.