We are just back from a long-awaited vacation with our Indian family after the pandemic hiatus. Appa had a chance to visit them last fall but, for Minette and me, it had been more than two years since we last got together with her grandparents, Thatha and Aachi, and her aunt, uncle, and cousin. It was a joyful time filled with celebrations, conversations, and delicious Indian food.
One thing that struck me once again is how different the Indian and the French cultures are when it comes to meal habits. In my Indian family, we rarely sit all together to have meals. The usual format is that my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law is busy in the kitchen while everyone else rotates at the dining table to be served their freshly made food. The person in charge of the cooking usually sits to eat last.
Curries can be prepared in advance, but most of the accompanying flatbread variations (naan, dosa, paratha, chapati…) need to be made on the spot. That explains a lot of this rotational approach. For me, however, it means something is missing. My French brain is wired to associate meal and conversation and so not eating all together goes counter to my sense of connection.
Conversations are happening all the time in my Indian family, only not necessarily over meals. This dissociation is not problematic in itself, or hard to understand as a cultural difference, but it is still not so easy for me to get used to it. On the other hand, it is true that things would probably feel different to me if I were confident enough in my Indian cooking skills to switch roles and cook an Indian meal for my relatives.
As it turns out, eating meals together doesn’t seem to come naturally to many American families either, but for entirely different reasons. Sometime one or two generations ago, a lot of Americans started phasing out the tradition of the whole family sharing every night’s dinner. Conflicting schedules, snacking, reluctance to cook, different food tastes or diet requirements are some of the causes for the shift. The underlying reason, however, appears to be the increasing sense that each family member can operate independently of the others.
Family life commentators often point to this trend as concerning because they see the routine of taking meals together as a proven way to nurture interpersonal connections, especially when life is otherwise busy and fragmented. I recently came across an American blog post advocating for the return of meals taken together and recommending to start with realistic objectives, such as twice a week… To this French blogger, this is an astonishingly low aim.
As much as Americans tend to think the French can never be wrong when it comes to food, we are not immune to bad eating habits — otherwise why would fast food chains be so successful in France? But it is true that the tradition of eating together holds firm in my home country. For us meal times are almost always the occasion to enjoy other people’s company and to talk with them. My father-in-law noticed this more than 45 years ago when he was sent to France for a trimester of professional training. He still talks about the long work lunches he was invited to join at the canteen…
This everyday intimate connection between food and conversation is not unique to France but it is certainly a defining dimension of our way of life. So much so that this is probably the one I would choose to illustrate what it means to be French, if I had to pick just one of our traits. Come to think of it, it is also our way to share France with friends from other countries. Bon appétit!