Scrap the picky diets, follow the French

The wine-loving French don’t make a big deal over diets and dietary restrictions.
The wine-loving French don’t make a big deal over diets and dietary restrictions. GETTY

My father-in-law, an anthropologist, likes to talk about the time he ate dog penis. He was visiting a remote town in South Korea, and the mayor invited him to lunch. Once they’d finished the dog soup (not a big deal), a waitress carried out the boiled penis. The mayor cut it lengthwise with scissors, then served half to each of them.

“It tasted exactly like tripe – intestine,” my father-in-law recalls.

Anthropologists are at the extreme end of what used to be a universal rule of hospitality: When a host offers you food, you eat it. It’s a show of trust, and a sign of belonging. Refuse his meal and you’re effectively rejecting him.

But as anyone who has recently tried to host a birthday party or a dinner in the English-speaking world knows, this rule no longer matters. Forget about dog penis; try offering visitors lasagna (it’s not vegan, not gluten-free, and it couldn’t have been cooked by a caveman).

Our increasingly choosy food habits are the subject of a French collection of academic essays, “Selective Eating: The Rise, Meaning and Sense of Personal Dietary Requirements,” edited by Claude Fischler, a social anthropologist.

Having lived in America and France, I’ve been on both sides of the picky-eating divide.

When I arrived in Paris about a decade ago, I was a vegetarian and on a low-carbohydrate diet. This had seemed reasonable in New York, but it baffled Parisians. Restaurants balked at making substitutions. Hostesses didn’t ask for my dietary requirements.

A Parisian academic told me she became incensed when an American dinner guest requested a vegetarian meal.

There are French vegetarians, of course, but people are low-key about their by-choice eating schemes.

Choosy eating interferes with another key aspect of French mealtimes: the shared experience of food. In France, “eating does not have the sole purpose of nourishing the biological body but also and above all of nourishing the social bond,” writes the social psychologist Estelle Masson in “Selective Eating.”

Fischler says that in his focus groups, Americans often described eating as part of an individual journey of self-discovery, in which each person tries to “find out over time and experience what my true nutritional self is, and satisfy it.”

But selective eating may not lead us to our best selves. Since I’ve lived in France, there’s been a march of studies pointing to the wisdom of what the French have been doing all along. Apparently it’s fine to eat some cheese, butter, chocolate and red meat; diets rarely work; and to lose weight, you should exercise more and eat less.

Eating among the French certainly affected me. After a few years here, I gave up most of my selective food habits. I still wouldn’t eat a dog’s penis, but I have tried oysters. It turns out that the best part of going with the food flow isn’t the health benefits or the cuisine, it’s the conversation. You can finally talk about something else.

Pamela Druckerman is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.