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French eating

In France, the French social anthropologist Claude Fischler theorizes, a meal is considered a kind of communion, an intimate sharing of experience. In the States, he argues, it represents a contract, a negotiation over aversions, allergies and dietary needs.

"It is not looked upon highly, in France, to be on a diet," Valerie Bignon said. "Because, in principle, it's not really necessary." This sentiment surprised me, given that the company she worked for had purchased a diet company for $600 million. She explained to me how easy losing weight should be: "The main course is passed around on a big plate, and you take what you want. So if a French woman takes from the meat dish at all, she takes just a little. It is rather easy to do her diet without mentioning it to anyone." Bignon also serves on the advisory board of the corporate foundation for Nestlé France, a program interested, she explained, in "reviving the French culture of nourishment." She seemed torn between defending her country's food culture and promoting a product that offers a defense against the results of its erosion so far.

As is true in the United States, Jenny Craig clients in France are expected to meet, by phone or in person, once a week with a Jenny Craig consultant. In France, however, the consultants are all dietitians, whereas the American model relies on laypeople trained in the Jenny Craig technique. If the French take their food seriously, they also see dieting as a serious affair, something that could be hazardous to your health without appropriate supervision. The word "diet" has negative enough associations in France that Weight Watchers recently came up with a new marketing campaign there: "Stop the diets. Relearn how to eat."

Eating a full meal together at the table -- a first, light dish, then a cooked meat or fish with starch and a vegetable, followed by cheese or yogurt and possibly fruit -- provides enough sustenance, she suggested, to stave off that bête noire of American eating habits, snacking. She explained how the presence of others also ensures the social reinforcement of healthy dining habits, like helping yourself to only so much, and it builds the habit of discipline and moderation, as diners wait for all to be seated and served before beginning the meal.

"You know what I find totally crazy?" Bignon asked, momentarily sidetracked. "Le Self. You know this system? It's American. You take a plate, there's a line, you take some salad. . . ." She was referring to what we call self-serve, an option so neutral to me that Bignon might as well have been decrying the rise of the photocopy machine. "In school cafeterias, there used to be a gentleman who made the meal and a madame who served it, and everyone ate together at the table, as they do at home," she said. "But Americans hit on this system that is fast, it's cheap, you take what you want -- and now it's everywhere in France!" she said. "I am anti-Self. It's bad for rapport, and it's bad for health -- it's too individualistic."

During the presentation at Jenny Craig headquarters, a phrase appeared on the screen, an internal message for the diet counselors: "Keep a positive mind-set!" The sentiment did not strike me as terribly French, and Moreau assured me it was not. "The French are the most pessimistic people in the world," he said, citing a Gallup poll that was much discussed in France. The American Jenny Craig Web site urges dieters to "See What Success Tastes Like" and encourages them to "Feel Like New. Feel Like You." The French Web site is devoid of self-esteem-boosting sentiment, its motto more logic-based, almost Cartesian in construct: "I did the Jenny Craig solution. It works!" Mariah Carey tells them. "Why not you?"

Elaborate diet plans with chirpy self-help axioms are as American as gluten-free apple pie, part of a culture in which food is both the enemy and the cure. We overeat, we diet, we overeat some more -- and Nestlé is apparently betting that even the French will succumb to that same vicious cycle, needing American remedies for American habits.

Moreau had mentioned that the French are not only the most pessimistic people in the world but also the most depressed, at least as measured by consumption of antidepressants. I asked him why he thought the French were so down.

"Because we are French," he replied.


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