Featured Student Research: A Slow Food Study and Photographic Documentary of French Gastronomy

Naomi Henry is from the class of 2014 and won Honors Summer Fellowships in 2012 and 2013.

Community. Whole food. Conviviality. As I became more interested in the Slow Food movement, I became equally disturbed with the US food system. Everywhere I looked, problematic laws were springing up, companies such as Monsanto were ruling our food, and our health as a whole was and is declining. In Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, the disturbing reality becomes clearer: “In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent…on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.” Our priorities have shifted and with it our health has declined. Society has demonized food creating all sorts of diets and evil nutrients that must be avoided at all costs. Our relationship with food, real food has crumbled under the weight of the food industry.

In the process of becoming more informed about food politics and sustainability and health issues, I discovered not only the problems but the solutions: individuals and groups who have risen up against the state of our food system. There were organizations and movements and forward looking thinkers such as Slow Food, Food Forward, Michael Pollan, Mark Bitteman, and Alice Waters. Surprisingly, as Americans we have consistently chosen the one diet/food tradition that “reliably makes us sick,” the Western diet. Research shows the existence of a wide variety of diets and food traditions in cultures all over the world that create healthy human beings, such as the Mediterranean and Japanese diets. However, removing a diet from its context is problematic. It’s not simply what we are eating but how we are eating it.

With all of this in mind, I set out to see what we as a culture could learn from the French. What habits and traditions in their food-obsessed culture can Americans appropriate to reform our harmful ways? The journey began in Paris, exploring foodie landmarks such as Ladurée, an incredibly famous patisserie, the oldest organic market, Les Enfants Rouges, and the pervasive cafe culture which epitomizes Paris living. What struck me the most was the specialization of each food group: l’epicerie (grocery store), le patisserie (pastry), le boulangerie (bread maker), le poissonerie (fish monger), and fromagerie (cheese monger) just to name a few. In combination with the sheer amount of restaurants and cafes, there was hardly space for anything else! This itself indicated an entirely different set of cultural values and priorities. The French consider quality products and the ability purchase food from specialists normal day to day activities; the daily baguette and croissant are ingrained traditions. This sort of reverence and sacredness surrounding everyday food traditions is much less prominent in the United States.

A visit to the King’s vegetable garden at Versailles demystified french gastronomic tradition: it stemmed from lavish, multi-course dinners held at court and the specialization grew out of the cohort of professional food specialists hired by the King. French epicurean culture stem directly from the history of France. In America, a sort of faux-appreciation for food traditions exists. Despite all of the media talk of heath, and dieting, and our host of cooking shows and blogs, our actions regarding the physical act of cooking, the art of convivial conversation, and the health and quality of our food do not match up. There is a deceptive amount of concern for minimal action.

Obsessive anxiety over health and eating are replacing any semblance of normalcy in Americans’ relationship with food. No longer an act of enjoyment, of communal sharing, eating has morphed into the enemy; instead of savoring and relishing in a croissant or a pastry, guilt feeds on any indulgences tainting the experience. As with any large city in a westernized country, France is far from perfect. Fast food and processed “imitation” food continue to spread as the pace of life speeds up. I easily discovered McDonalds, Subway, and other fast food restaurants on the streets of Paris and Lyon. However, the unhelpful level of obsessive fear regarding health lies fairly low in comparison. I bewilderedly wondered where all of the gyms and runners were, and quickly realized the American obsession with working out and being fit is cultural. It’s part of our cultural makeup which feeds into the broken chain from food production all the way to food consumption.

From Paris, I explored and absorbed french language and cuisine at École des Trois Ponts. Staying with the Depierre family during this time provided insight into daily life. The Depierres invited me to have Father’s Day lunch with them. The menu consisted of pureed asparagus with a bacon garnish, the traditional melon and prosciutto, roasted steak and french fries, and miniature pastries from the local patisserie. In the past, the mother said they had a foreign guest who could not manage to sit still for the entire meal and had to leave the table. This is part of the cultural context of the French diet: leisurely meals, with multiple courses. While the dishes are often heavy, the portions are small and time spent at the table is stretched out allowing the feeling of being full to register before one is completely stuffed. This also fosters a sense of community and face to face conversation. At the end of the week, I had completed 10 French recipes including crème brulée with caramelized apples, stuffed round zucchini, fresh fish breaded with hazelnuts, stuffed chicken legs and a vegetable gratin. This helped me appreciate the time, effort and transformation of fresh and whole ingredients into dishes bursting with flavor.

The next leg of the trip was spent at Terre Rouge, a sustainable, small farm that hosts artist residencies. Gille welcomed me into the large family of WWOOFers (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms) and I slipped right into the daily patterns of life: waking at 7:30 for Taoist movement, preparing communal breakfast, weeding and planting in the garden, creating lunch for 12 people, relaxing and exploring in the afternoon, and sharing a communal dinner. Living, cooking, eating, and breathing with these 10 other people from all over the world forged tight bonds. Each person brought different perspectives and ideas and recipes: Latvian, Mauritanian, Brazilian, American, French, Scottish, and English. Here I learned to create meals for large groups and the importance of eating fresh home cooked meals in a communal setting. This experience provided a perfect example of the French philosophy of conviviality surrounding meals. This is what I aim to bring back to America where more and more often people are eating alone, in less than thirty minutes with microwavable prepared plates.

The month after in Lyon at the Catholic University of Lyon contrasted sweetly with the rural experiences. I merged into the new rhythms of the Georges family, my third of the trip. Each family was quite different from the other, but I found underlying themes and ideas surrounding food and the food system. Madame Georges believed that the French brought a fundamentally different mentality to meals, no matter the type of sustenance. The importance placed on sharing meals leads them to say “Oh, le pauvre!” (an expression of pity translating directly as “the poor”) about anyone eating alone. The interest in quality as well as conviviality and shared meals was pervasive among all three families. Lyon is the gastronomic center of France with celebrity chefs such as Paul Bocuse gracing the city with brasseries (local cuisine) filled with gastronomic delights. As the Depierres’ grandmother told me, “Les français aiment bien boire et bien manger.” (The French love to drink well and eat well.) And it shows in the many restaurants, businesses, and cafes devoted to dining. Westernization, however, and industrialization of food also reveal themselves in the large grocery stores that threaten to take away business from the traditional farmers markets. The farmers I spoke with had varied opinions, but it is clear that fewer and fewer young people frequent the markets. The farmers markets in Los Angeles are not rooted in such tradition. There is a pervasive stigma surrounding citizens interested in knowing the origins of their food that lends an exclusive atmosphere to the farmers markets. Through photographic and interviewing work with farmers in LA, I am hoping to show the human side of the farmers market to facilitate the grower and buyer connections that take place there.

For the last leg of the journey, Dominique and Antoine Toupet welcomed me to their family farm and the organization of the days shifted again. Dominique showed me the ways of the garden, “un binage pour deux arrosages” (one hoeing for two waterings) and how to harvest the green beans. In addition to the farm work, Julie and Alexi, two other WOOFers, and I toured Terre Vivant, a sustainable gardening and building location that hosts workshops and internships in those fields. The guide showed us the intricate eco-systems of the ponds in the garden and of the composts that nourish the earth. Back at the farm, we watered the plants with homemade fermented nettle fertilizer, attached the tomato plants to their stakes and peeled the zucchini for a casserole. The cool mornings spent tilling the land and nestling the squash seeds into the dirt began to mend the broken connections within me. I felt my understanding deepen and my compassion for the work of a farmer increase ten-fold. Often when we are unfamiliar with the work involved, we easily undervalue and appreciate the time, effort, skill and knowledge that go into creating, growing, or being skilled in one’s field of choice.

These collective experiences instilled within me a curiosity to delve further into the food web through the garden club at LMU, cooking explorations, the creation of a Slow Food inspired cooking club, an independent multimedia photography project and continuing research through current literature, and volunteering for organizations like Food Forward who glean or harvest food from farmers markets or private orchards to give to homeless shelters and schools. I am also applying for a one year masters program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy through the Fulbright program. Masters students explore the theme of Food, Culture and Place in the context of the entire food web. My desire to be personally informed about my food choices has blended into a desire to share valuable information with others through varied visual media. As I embark into the foray of farmers markets, gardens, and culinary explorations the experiences from this summer inform the foundation from which I approach food.