It's 1999 and I am living in Pau, France where I am devouring Nord Perdu — Losing North in English — a memoir by Nancy Huston, a Canadian living in Paris. Having also lived as an American in France for nearly thirty years, I can relate to the story of her arrival in Germany as a little girl, where she went to meet the family of her soon-to-be stepmother.
Upon her arrival, she was treated to a copious dinner of German delicacies, none of which were appealing or familiar to this small and very tired little girl. With keen intuition, her stepmother's sister Wilma abruptly left the house and drove 50 kilometers at night and returned with a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, a familiar, soothing taste of home, which perked her up and provoked a sense of love and security, similar to what I remember from care packages I received as a college student from my parents.
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Instinctively, Wilma knew what nearly every culture in the world recognizes: The sharing of food, meals and holiday traditions represents hospitality, friendship and security. Food and culture are as inseparable as cheese and eggs in the lightest French soufflé. Our language, behavior, values, etiquette, family memories and obviously our health are all affected by our cultural and culinary upbringing. Yet, sometimes these differences become the source of conflict.
When my French fiancé and I got engaged, we knew that with enough wine and a convivial meal, our two families would communicate without words, and we were never wrong about that. After all, the French are known for food and celebrating the art of entertaining and dining. However, while our families' cultural differences disappeared at the dinner table, ours, as a couple, required a bit more work. Reconciling our culinary cultures called for communication skills so that both of our needs would be heard, understood and respected.
We were both foodies with curious palates, and we enjoyed tasting all kinds of ethnic delicacies … for the most part. He drew the line at carrot cake (Why would anyone use vegetables in dessert?) And I staunchly resisted most organ meats (Why would anyone want to eat tripe?). We approached this difference in the same way we would have if they were dietary restrictions and neither of us made a big deal out of what was in our plates.
Speaking of plates, selecting place settings for our bridal registry required a delicate dance between me, him and his mother, who correctly assumed that I didn't know which items and how many of them were needed in a full-blown set of china and cutlery, French style. Of course, we would have Christofle flatware! When she wanted to participate in our choices of what to choose and where to register, I needed to look at what really mattered and set some boundaries. Continue reading.
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