In our politically-correct world, we are constantly admonished against the use of stereotypes. Even positive stereotypes such as assuming a Jewish person is good with money or an Asian person is good with math are offensive, we are told. Why anyone would be offended by being assumed to be good with money or math is never explained.
The dirty little secret of stereotypes is that many are based, at least to some extent, on observation. Different cultures develop different habits or values and these habits or values surface in their interactions with others. Here is a case in point. French people or, at least French-speaking cultures, have the reputation for being epicures and placing a high value of food and food preparation. Surely the fussy and perfectionist French chef is one of the oldest stereotypes, but is it based on fact? Well, maybe.
Several years ago, we traveled to a waterfront area in Maine, and stayed at a popular tourist motel. Because of the hotel’s proximity to the Canadian border, The clientele seemed to be evenly divided between Americans and French-Canadians from Quebec. (As evidenced by the license plates on the guests’ cars.) A central grassy area was equipped with picnic tables and barbecue grills for the guests to prepare basic outdoor meals. When dinner time came, the Americans broke out hot dogs and hamburgers for the grill and some beer and soft drinks in coolers, and let it go at that. Many didn’t even go that far, and sat at the picnic tables munching pizza out of cardboard boxes, or Big Macs out of a fast-food bag.
The French-Canadians, however, had other ideas of what roughing it should entail. They had come equipped. They covered their picnic tables with checkered tablecloths and candles and started unpacking china plates, silverware, and an impressive selection of wine bottles and long-stemmed wine glasses. Next came fondue pots, crepe pans, portable ovens, and an assortment of kitchen accouterments. Within minutes, the French-Canadians were in a Gaelic frenzy of preparing and cooking a variety of fragrant dishes. Soon, they were dining on shrimp, sauteed vegetables, soups, various grilled meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, and several types of freshly mixed sauces, all by candlelight and all accompanied by the appropriate wines. It was like someone had torn the roof off the Four Seasons to expose the diners within. Julia Child would have been proud. And this was practically a campground!
Flash forward to a few weeks ago in the Canadian part of the 1000 Islands. We were in a boat tied to a dock at Gordon Island, part of the Canadian National Parks. There was no running water, and no electricity. The boat on the other side of the dock had a couple from Montreal and their daughter. Dinner time came and the same thing happened. There on a wooden picnic table on a dock floating on the St Lawrence in the shade of the pine trees appeared a tablecloth, china and silverware, wine bottles and glasses, and portable cookers of various types until the table groaned under the weight of freshly prepared delicacies. (Meanwhile, we enjoyed our hot dogs)
So is the idea that French-speaking people are very particular about the enjoyment of food and fine dining just a stereotype? Maybe, but you couldn’t prove it by us.