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Mastering French Cuisine, Espousing French Identity

The Transformation Narratives of American Wives of Frenchmen
Epouser la cuisine et l'identité françaises: récits de transformation d'Américaines mariées à des Français
Christy Shields-Argelès


This paper draws from a series of comprehensive and life story interviews with twelve middle and upper class Franco-American couples (six in each country). In it we recount and analyze the narratives of two American wives (Linda and Beth) who tell, in very different ways, the story of their rencontre with France as one that profoundly changes their relationship to food and their own identity. Taken as ideal types, Linda’s narrative, like those of other women who return home, is one of reintegration, while Beth’s narrative, like those of other expatriate spouses, is one of exile. Despite the differences in their perspectives, French gastronomic discourse and American nutrition discourse delineate national boundaries and shape individual subjectivities in both narratives, allowing us, in a final analysis, to explore the interweaving of daily food practices, emotion and national identity.

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  • 1  Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect interviewees’ anonymity.

1This paper draws from a series of in-depth interviews carried out in 2004 and 2005 with Franco-American couples living in France and the United States.  It recounts and analyzes the transformation narratives of American wives of Frenchmen, who tell the story of their rencontre with France and their French husbands as one that profoundly changes their relationship to food and eating, as well as their own identity and self-representation.  We focus on the narratives of two women in particular: Linda, who lives in Chicago with her French husband Antoine, and Beth, who lives in Paris with her French husband Henri1. As opposed to migrants or refugees who are often forced by the need to work or by domestic wars to move to (and remain in) a foreign country, these are middle and upper class American women who voluntarily move to France and either remain there, like Beth, or return to the United States, like Linda. In either case, these women exercise a large amount of control and choice. Indeed, they depict their move to France – and their active integration of French food habits and values – not only as a matter of choice, but as a vital part of a dynamic process of self re-definition. Despite their privileged position and agency, however, their narratives –and thus, their identities - are also structured and shaped by larger cultural forces and frames.

  • 2  An exception is Varro, 1984.

2Unlike migrants who often live within larger migrant households or communities, these women are members of “mixed” or “cross-cultural” marriages. While such marriages are a particularly interesting site for the study of cultural interaction and identity formation, little has been written on them, and much of what has been written tends to focus on couples that come from strongly divergent religious, racial or ethnic backgrounds (i.e. Barbara, 1993; Breger and Hill, 1998; Varro, 2003). The Franco-American couple has received even less attention from social scientists2, perhaps because it is often represented as a clichéd, romanticized image of modern, Euro-American love (to which numerous popular films attest). In either case, both sets of literature tend to focus on the difficulties of these marriages, especially for the expatriate wives, and often seem set on aiding their situations. This article does not take issue with these concerns per se, though it is fundamentally interested in a question that it shares with these works: what happens (for the wives in particular) when two individuals (a man and a women) from different cultural backgrounds join together to form a single household or family unit? An intimate and extended encounter with another culture always has the capacity to question or disturb the taken-for-granted ideas and values upon which identity is built, but this tendency is only magnified in a “cross-cultural” couple.

  • 3  According to Said, an expatriate is one “who voluntarily lives in an alien country, usually for pe (...)

3Drawing from the work of Paul Ricoeur (1992), we consider narrative to be an essential means by which these women attempt to construct a sense of a unified self out of a rencontre with the other that often lends itself to the experience of diversity, discontinuity and instability. Like Ricoeur, we feel that “emplotment” plays an important role in this process. In this paper, we focus on the stories of only two women in order to be able, through the use of numerous and extended excerpts, to trace the progression of their narratives, as well as to allow, when possible, the complexities of their identities to surface.  As we will see, while these narratives both begin in a similar fashion, they go on to develop differently. Linda’s narrative, which has a coherent beginning, middle and end, is one of reintegration, while Beth’s narrative, which lacks any certain closure, is one of exile3. As such, Linda’s narrative echoes those of other American women who return home after extended stays in France, while Beth’s joins those of other expatriate spouses who remain abroad.

  • 4  The author of this article translated this passage from French into English.  

4Despite these differences, however, both women lend a special and similar attention to the role of French food and cuisine in their transformation. As such, we feel that their narratives also attest to the centrality of gastronomic discourse in contemporary France. Jean-Pierre Poulain argues that the “gastronomic attitude” found in contemporary France “cannot be reduced to the cuisine and manners of the elites”, but instead “constitutes a heritage to which all those who participate in French culture, regardless of their social position, lay claim with a certain amount of pride” (Poulain, 2002: 201)4. Similarly, we use the term “gastronomy” here to refer not to elitist meals and manners, but to the often daily and mundane “knowledge of all that has to do with cooking, the organization of meals and the art of tasting or appreciating particular dishes” (Petit Larousse, 1996). In the conclusion, we will argue that these narratives allow us to see the manner in which these bodies of knowledge are not only claimed (or intentionally sought out and adopted), but also constitute disciplinary practices that delineate national boundaries and shape individual subjectivities in important ways.

5A total of 12 Franco-American couples were interviewed for this project: 6 in France (Paris and Besançon) and 6 in the United States (Chicago and Milwaukee). Each national sample consisted of an equal number of male and female expatriate spouses. In other words, in each country, half the couples consisted of a French man and American female, and the other half of the opposite combination. Guided by the comprehensive interview method (Kaufmann, 1996), couples were first interviewed together about their daily habits inside the home and their interactions with others outside the home. Second, drawing from the life story approach (Bertaux, 1997), I spoke with each individual within the couple about their own life trajectories. Both sets of interviews focused on food and eating in particular.  

Leaving Home: From Eating Nothing to Eating Everything

6Linda and Beth begin their narratives in surprisingly similar ways. They both describe their childhood diets as lacking: their meals lacked taste and variety, as their parents lacked culinary (and cultural) curiosity and openness. Both women link these characteristics to a larger set of negatively connoted practices and values they define as American. References to brain or tripe eating in France highlight their rejection of this insularity as well as their adoption of a new set of positively connoted habits and values they associate with France.

Remembering Mother’s Cooking

7Linda and Beth both refer to the poor culinary quality of their childhood diets. Linda says:

“My mom is a picky eater and there was a nasty divorce, and my dad had 17 jobs in one year (...) So I remember a lot of mac and cheese and frozen pizza and peanut butter and jelly and meat loaf. It was very meat and potatoes. I grew up thinking I hated fish until I was 21 when I went to France.  Food growing up was very much the comfort foods we call now - meatloaf, pot roast, beef stew - a lot of beef, some pork, and potatoes.”

8And Beth:

“I learned to cook here by myself, when I was on my own. You know, you always make what your mom makes, but it ended up being kind of bland, white, Irish food. (laughs) (…) Her chicken soup, you know, just boiled with white noodles or white rice and overcooked vegetables. I’ll make a much heartier, richer, kind of thing.  I never saw garlic in my life.  Garlic was a little bottle. (...) Same with shallots. (…) She hated everything greasy (...) it was steamed or boiled vegetables (...) nothing was ever just passed in the poêle, après sautéed, or anything like that. (…) She just seemed very 1950s. You know how like you grow up with a kind of cookbook?  Her’s was the Joy of Cooking, and a big deal was like a shrimp pyramid (…). My cookbook is the Silver Palate. (...) My father doesn’t like anything green. (…) (So we ate) cabbage a little (...) cauliflower, broccoli, a little bit, but it was like, you know: green beans, carrots, zucchini and corn in summer. It was just flat.”

9These two citations differ in a number of ways. Beth’s includes references to early discoveries and current culinary knowledge, all of which come later in Linda’s interview. We also note that industrially processed foods are a central category in Linda’s description, while they are absent from Beth’s. Despite such differences, however, both women refer to the lack of taste, originality, and variety in their mother’s cooking. Linda refers to her childhood diet as very “meat and potatoes”; in other words: basic, functional and ordinary.  Beth describes her mother’s cooking as « bland » and « flat »: void of taste, color and texture. Both women also refer to the pickiness of one parent, which restricts their own diets in important ways.  They associate such habits with the United States. For Linda, pickiness is directly linked to her vision of the stereotypical American:

“This stereotypical American, they’re going to put everyone out and not feel bad about it (...). It all dances around that polite awkward moment (at a meal) where ‘why can’t you just enjoy the food the way it is presented to you? Are you afraid of something? Why all this attention about you and the way you want it?’ (...) It limits creativity. It limits exploration. It limits trying things. New foods. New tastes. New cultures. It’s a weight.”

10Linda sought radically to distinguish herself from such Americans when she was in France. She says: “I hated being American and I hated everything about the culture, and I just completely denied it.” Hatred is a particularly violent emotion, signalling here not only a departure from American culture, but an intense hostility or aversion it. In her retelling of this period, Beth distinguishes herself from a similar “American”: “Because I was curious and because I wanted to try things, that gave me points. You know, I wasn’t like ‘I just want a diet coke and baguette’ sort of thing.”

11In short, not only do these women stress the fact that this “American” behavior is no longer their own, they also depict this behavior as morally flawed and hateful.

Eating Brain and Tripe in France

12In describing their initial encounter with France, both women refer to their willingness to eat everything. In describing what she calls her “first transitional stage”, Linda says: “So when I went to France I was a little skittish because over there they eat everything: brains, eyes, ‘tête de veau’. It was crazy!” Likewise, Beth claims early on to have “discovered food” in France. When I ask how, she responds:

“From eating stuff from my in-law’s house, you know, different things, and I love food, I love to eat, I love tastes, I’m curious and, you know, brain and tripe, and all that sort of stuff doesn’t scare me. I’m willing to taste anything and end up liking most of what I eat.”

  • 5  In a follow-up interview with Linda in 2009, she admits to being unable to actually try tête de ve (...)
  • 6  Here we are referring to what we could qualify as mainstream, middle-class, white American culture (...)

13Linda and Beth, like other American women interviewed for the project, cite foods that generally provoke surprise and disgust in an American audience. References to the consumption of such foods are often brief and seemingly inconsequential, and yet their repeated appearance in several narratives bring us to question their significance5. First, because such foods are generally considered inedible (if not polluting or taboo) in the United States 6, to eat them (or to talk of eating them) is to bring attention to the social and cultural boundaries that the consumption or avoidance of such foods mark (Douglas, 1972), and the fact that one is crossing them. In this way, these women clearly signal their break with the culinary and cultural insularity of their American childhoods. These taboo consumptions can also be understood as an “incorporation” of the French Other (Fischler, 1988), both for the American women who eat them, and for their French hosts who offer these foods in the context of shared meals.

Linda’s Narrative of Reintegration

14Linda grew up in one of Chicago’s near Western suburbs, where she began learning French in high school. She spent a junior-year abroad in Paris and returned again after finishing her bachelor’s degree in International Business. At the beginning of this second visit, she met and fell in love with Antoine.  After six years together in France, Linda and Antoine married and moved to Chicago. At the time of our initial interview, they had been living in Chicago for almost six years, and were expecting their first child in six months time. Linda, aged 33, was working as a marketing manager for a financial firm, while Antoine, aged 35, was working as a salesman for a French luxury goods company.

15Early in our joint interview, Linda summarizes their story in the following manner:

“Food has always been a huge part of our relationship. Like Antoine said, when we first got together (...) a lot of our social time was spent eating. I mean I guess that’s normal for them anyway, but for him and us even more so.  I mean he would get us spots at the Moulin Rouge. We would go to these fantastic places! And then when we got married and I started to cook, that was a new leg of the journey, I guess. And then when we came here, when we first came, we would have people over all the time, and I would take these recipes that I had learned in France and just impress the heck out of people. I mean it was great!”

16Linda’s narrative remains true to this introduction. After the initial break with the United States, she learns to eat and cook in a French fashion - a moment described as both euphoric and convivial - and then returns to the United States, where she demonstrates her newly acquired culinary and gustatory skills and assumes a superior social and moral status."

The Meal as Epiphany: “My intimacy meter was maxed!”

17Linda’s early experiences in France are characterized by the discovery of an endless number of new foods, dishes and table manners: “at this point”, Linda told me, “absolutely everything was new!” This moment also coincides with her courtship with Antoine. In her retelling of this time, Linda focuses on her experiences of shared meals. She refers to these meals as “ah-ha moments”, trying thus to capture their euphoric, illuminating and ultimately profoundly transformative character.

18The most representative “ah-ha moment” for Linda is their wedding dinner (a particularly fitting example because it also represents the culmination of their courtship). Linda recalls it in the following manner:

“When we got married it was just me, him, his sister, his best friend and his sister’s husband (...). And we spent no money on any sort of ceremony or hall, we just spent it all on lunch. And we were there from 1,2 to 4 or 5. That was unforgettable. I kept the menu, because it was very exotic. We had a quail egg (pause) on a salad? It was so delicate. And then we had (pause), oh my God, I am drawing blanks now! (Laughs) (...) The service was amazing. Apparently it had a big reputation. (...) I knew in my heart that these were people I would always have in my life. Even though Daniel and Lucie are no longer married, because he is such a great guy and because he was there, I mean when he comes it’s like it was yesterday that we saw each other and Frédéric is the same. Frédéric and Antoine’s friendship is, well they’ll be friends for life! And he respects us and likes us and loves me, and the fact that we’re here, it makes him sad, but he knows that we’re doing well. (...) That moment around the table just the 5 of us, like, my intimacy meter was maxed! (...) I think we had the most fun when we were with that small group of friends that is like our little family. (...) The dessert was not chocolate, I remember that was also surprising to me because I liked chocolate so much. It was a fruity, creamy something. I’ll have to send you the menu!”

19An “ah-ha moment” denotes equal importance to (and ties together) two domains: the quality food and cuisine – here in its most refined form, a gastronomic meal – and the transcendent experience of human intimacy– here also in one of its most profound forms, a small wedding celebration with friends and family. In addition, the experience of one heightens and reinforces the experience of the other. First, what they eat is important. Linda is frustrated when she cannot remember or comment on all the dishes in adequate detail. She ends by saying that she kept the menu and sent it to me following our interview. She also begins this story by referring to the appetizer and ends it by referring to the dessert, thus encapsulating her retelling of the moment (as well as the relations it celebrated) within the structure of the meal itself. The second stressed point is the intimacy shared by the participants. She talks about each guest and the durability of that relation. It is interesting to note how time blends or gets confused in this passage as Linda moves from past to present to future. This fluid movement from one time frame to the next signals the existence of these bonds across time, anchored precisely in the repetition of such ritual meals (Rivière, 1995).

20This story functions on two levels within the larger narrative. First, it illustrates the education of Linda’s tastes. As we saw earlier, when she first moved to France, she ate little and knew even less about food and France. Through a series of shared meals she discovers new foods, tastes and pleasures. By her wedding dinner, she is able to understand and appreciate a gastronomic meal.  In addition, this education is characterized by the experience of a kind of transcendent union and love (both with her spouse and with a larger set of French friends and family), which transfers a kind of sacredness to her sensual and aesthetic education.

Learning to Cook: “My lasagne sans béchamel”

21Linda identifies their wedding as the moment when she decides she is going to learn how to cook: “Someone gave me a cookbook as a wedding present. (...) And it was just a couple people asking me, ‘do you know how to cook?’ And I said, ‘No, I should probably learn that!’ (Laughter).” Linda (and Antoine) represents her cooking as symbolic of her love for Antoine (and his active participation as culinary mentor and supportive critic, as symbolic of his love for her). While Linda stresses that learning to cook was very much her choice, it also seems to be a response to assumptions about her ability to be a good wife although an American. For example, in our joint interview, Antoine describes his friends’ reaction to his engagement: “All my friends were like, ‘she’s American, you are going to eat hamburgers for the rest of your life!’’’ At which point Linda nods her head in agreement and adds: “Yea! And it was also to prove them wrong!”

22Linda depicts the process of learning how to cook in France as one that begins with the elementary and comical blunders of the well-meaning novice. Indeed, in her retelling of this period, the actual learning process itself is not nearly as detailed. One example is the story of her “lasagne sans béchamel”. She found a recipe on the back of a pasta box and spent an entire afternoon carefully preparing the meal. There was just one hitch: the recipe called for a “béchamel”, something she had never heard of and so figured that “like oregano” it could “probably just be left out”. The lasagna did not taste quite as expected.  Linda continues:

“He (Antoine) didn’t say anything!  He just pushed those semi-soft, greasy, half-cooked noodles to the side and then he ate the meat. And we went to bed that night and I had no idea what I had done wrong. It wasn’t until maybe a month and a half later that I started talking to a woman (...) that has a bistro in the neighborhood who is just an adorable lady. And she asked, ‘how is the cooking going ?’ And I said, ‘what’s béchamel ?’ And she told me and I was like, ‘I made a lasagne without putting it in’. And she said, ‘well, how was it ?’ And I said, ‘it was not good!’ And she was like ‘ah ha ha’. She thought it was so funny ! And so the reputation of my ‘lasagne sans béchamel’ was all over the neighborhood for a while.”

23As we see above, Antoine plays an important role in what Linda calls her “culinary journey”. Here, as elsewhere, he willingly and affectionately submits himself to all her trials. In regards to the above episode, he says, “You don’t disrespect food. People put a lot of work into the food and you have to respect that and eat it, even if you don’t like it”.

24These blunders also involve benevolent mentors who offer advice and partake in the adventure with good will and humor. In the lasagna blunder, a local café owner plays this role. Outsiders are also involved, as Linda says, “in grading my level of evolution”. Shortly before they move to the United States, Linda prepares a dinner for Antoine’s friends:

“I remember specifically that first Christmas meal that I cooked.  That we had these people and because they were French and because one of them actually lives in and owns a vineyard and they were happy and satisfied with the meal, to me that was like their seal of approval.”

25At various moments throughout their joint interview Antoine interjects during this story to say: “I was so proud of her!” and “all my friends were jealous; she’s American and she can cook!”

26While Linda associates learning how to eat and enjoy food with falling in love, she associates learning how to cook with maintaining and expressing that love. While this is also a response to ideas about what makes a “good wife” or what is an “American” in the French context, Linda presents her culinary education as a personal choice and an important moment of self re-definition. As in the prior episode, her choice is supported and encouraged by Antoine, his friends and the larger community, and her experience shaped by relations of solidarity.  Likewise, both episodes stress her initial position in France as that of an initiate, which acts as a foil for the tales of culinary (and cultural) prowess that characterize her return home, when she “impresses the heck out of people” with her new culinary and gustatory skills.

Beth’s Narrative of Exile

27Beth grew up in rural upstate New York, where she met her husband while he was studying for a year at her university. Following her graduation (with a B.A. in Business Management), she moved to France to be with him. They currently live in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. She had taken Spanish in high school and was “simply horrible at it”, but made the effort to learn French when she arrived (through courses at the Sorbonne). At the time of our interview, at age 38, she had been in France for 18 years, felt very comfortable with her French, and had three small children, ages 2, 5 and 7. When the last child was born, she stopped working as an independent English-language tour guide to stay at home and raise her children. Her husband, Henri, also 38 years old, worked long hours as an upper-level manager in a major French firm. While they shared in domestic tasks before the children were born, Beth had taken over full responsibility in this domain since their birth.

28Beth briefly mentions her early years in France, and the culinary education that accompanied them, but includes them in a different manner than Linda:

“The first meal I ever ate here, at his parents’, they presented me first with the dish and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it, or how I was supposed to pick, you know, something out, and you know, the ones who manage to do “this” with their one hand (takes a large spoon and fork in one hand). I was just (...) still to this day really, incapable of it.”

29Unlike Linda, Beth underlines her continued inabilities. As we will see, such feelings of inferiority color her entire narrative, which is continually split between French and American eating habits and social worlds.

Cooking for Others: “The power of putting out good food”

30Via her husband, Beth socializes with a lot of what she calls “strictly French” people. These are mostly Henri’s family and friends who “have little experience living outside of France”. Beth notices early on that socializing with “these people” usually takes place around a meal and that there is a tight system of reciprocity that stipulates returning meals (of equal worth and elaboration). She also understands the extent to which the food served at a meal is seen as a reflection of the cook’s identity. Moreover, she is made aware that, as an American, she will not, it is assumed, know how to cook, an inability that is linked to a number of negative stereotypes associated with the United States (Shields-Argelès, 2004 and 2008).

31From the beginning, then, cooking – and cooking well – becomes not only an important means of social integration for Beth, but also what she calls a “point d’honneur”:

“From the beginning, (I understood cooking) as an integration thing and when we’d have people over for dinner and they’d be like ‘we’re going to an American’s house for dinner, we better eat before we go!’ His (Henri’s) godfather came and was just awfully obnoxious, and he was like ‘Oh, can I have a coke? Ha ha!’ And I made him, like, I remember I made (...) steamed green beans with amande filet (almond slices) that had been toasted, and he’d never had that before in his life, and I did a poireau (leek) something-or-other, a poireau quiche, mini-quiches for the appetizer, with nutmeg or something, and he was just like (opens her eyes wide to show surprise). But he couldn’t stop insulting and throwing, you know, little jabs, because it was just beyond him to think that an American could actually cook. So, you know, once I understood the power of putting out good food for these people it became a ‘point d’honneur’ for me. You know, to never make the same thing for a dinner party, and always try a new recipe.  And ‘gigot en croûte’ and, you know, the more complicated the better.”

32In this example, Beth’s dinner guest uses stereotypes associated with the United States to respond and comment on Beth’s dinner. In so doing, he reinforces or calls attention to their cultural difference, instead of searching for a means to express conviviality or union. More importantly, by continually defining the meal as “American” in a negative manner, he also attempts to relegate Beth to an inferior moral position, implying a lack of good taste, refinement and control.

33Beth is also in contact (through her work) with what she terms « American-Americans», where both spouses are American and staying in France for a period of 3 to 5 years. Beth feels that the “American-Americans”, no doubt due to their structural circumstances, adapt very little to France:

“Living in France in an American mindset: Sky TV, fifty suitcases of food, you’d open the cupboards you’d see nothing but American food. The ones who would bring canned salmon back, and ranch dressing, peanut butter, instant pudding.”

34According to Beth, the foods and eating habits of these couples tend to reflect their « American mindset » and their lack of integration. More importantly, however, these couples do not understand or follow the same basic guidelines for sociability during a meal in the way that Beth has come to feel as natural:

Beth: “But the Americans definitely don’t enjoy it the same way the French do. (…) They don’t sit at the table as long, they don’t take the time.”

Christy: “Do they return the meal?”

Beth: “Not nearly as well or as often. Definitely not, because for them it’s a big deal, and they can’t imagine cooking in the same way.”

35Beth tends to socialize by herself with these couples because her husband often equates their foods with his inability to find common ground:

“He (Henri) did not want to socialize with them. I mean, we had Thanksgiving dinner at an American-American couple’s house, and he thought they were very nice but he thought the food was awful (…) boxed stuffing, yams with the marshmallows, and she had wonderful champagne, she had like Veuve Cliquot, or something, and she was like pouring kir stuff all over it. It was just like ‘sigh’. I could just see him cringe! And she’s like ‘oh, it makes it sweeter!’”

36Beth’s “sigh” seems to express her disappointment and perhaps also a certain weariness and resignation. She understands the mistake but is willingly to let it pass. Henri’s “cringe”, on the other hand, expresses an involuntary shock, disgust and/or retreat. His cringe not only positions him as strictly “other” to these people, it also involves an implicit moral judgment of them.

37In sum, Beth positions herself as a culinary/cultural-go-between who tries to deflect negative stereotyping from the French about the United States and to educate Americans about France:

“(For) the French people I tend to try and cook something American, to show them that it’s not all bad, and for the American ones I tend to cook all French, to show them to get outside of their little security net.”

38American for the French, French for the Americans: simultaneously included and excluded in each world, both by the words and actions of others and by her own changing sense of appropriateness, one wonders (as Beth indeed does throughout her interview) if she is not in some sense an outsider to both.

Separate Family Dinners:  “Maybe I’m becoming French”

39At the time of our interview, Beth is particularly preoccupied with her children’s behavior at the dinner table. She talks of difficult meals with her father-in-law and disapproval from friends and colleagues:

“We had his boss here a couple weeks ago, who’s a friend, but afterwards he said to Henri, ‘if my children dared ‘se tenir à la table comme les vôtres’ (hold themselves at the table like yours), they would have been ‘renvoyé’ (sent away),” and stuff like that. It was just like, I mean, I would never say something like that to somebody! Yeah, they were rambunctious, and they were excited that you had come and he’d shown up with presents and, you know, these huge meringues, and they were over the top, of course! Plus, he’s got two teenagers, and I don’t think he remembers what five-year-olds are like past bedtime when you give them sugar and presents!”

40In this episode, Henri’s boss imposes a moral judgment of the children’s behavior (and by extension, of Beth’s mothering). Beth counters here with an alternative explanation, but is still upset about this at the time of our interview. This is apparent in her tone of voice, but also visible when she switches to the personal pronoun “you” as if addressing this guest directly (“you had come...”). She also repeats the guest’s criticism in French, an instance of code switching that seems to underline the fact that the criticism is perceived as both exterior and imposed.  

41These negative judgments of the children (and of Beth) are intricately tied to their American identity:

“Yeah, (the question always is) do they cut the mustard or not, and up until now they’ve not cut the mustard at all (laughter), and it’s just like ‘Eh, that American,’ and, you know, all the stereotypes about American food, and excess, and that they don’t take the time at the table like the French do, and, you know, all that is thrown back at me because I’m the American and this is my negative influence.”

42At the time of our interview, Beth and her husband had recently begun a dual dinner system to deal with this issue. Four nights out of the week, when Beth is alone with the children, they eat what she defines as an “American-style” meal. On the three nights when Henri is present, they eat what she defines as a “formal, French-style” dinner. The foods and dishes themselves have little to do with distinguishing these two separate meal styles for Beth, instead the accent is on table manners and social interaction. All of this practicing is done to prepare the children for « showtime ». While Beth feels that the French meal style requires children to « act like little grown ups », she also claims that its inclusion was a joint decision:

“My tolerance for it (their misbehavior) was getting thinner, too, I’m sure. Maybe I’m becoming French! (Laughter) I mean there is definitely more of the French side overcoming.”  

43Beth first offers the idea that she is “becoming French”, then shifts to the “French side (is) overcoming”. These two positions vis à vis her French identity are related, but not equivalent. While the first implies a certain degree of choice and maturation, the second implies an imposition of external forces.

My First Gamelle: “I definitely feel inferior”

44In the French school system, most of the children who remain at school for lunch eat the food served in the cafeteria. However, because her two oldest children have severe food allergies, Beth prepares a “gamelle” (lunchbox) for them. Her first “gamelle” experience was particularly traumatic for her and her son:

Beth: “So, like, this is Martin’s first day of school. (…) So he goes to this new school, first day of first grade, has to eat lunch with the gamelle at school, he’s nervous. I make him a peanut butter and jelly. I think, you know, this is, like, simple food, it’s easy to eat. I didn’t have this gamelle thing down to a science yet, it’s my first experience, too. And the woman yelled at him, and told him that this was not a goûter (snack), that this was lunch and that he was supposed to have real food, and to tell his mother that. (…) And he’s in tears. And I had sent a juice box, and she yelled at him and she said ‘there’s no juice at the table, you drink water’.”

Christy: “How do they eat there?”

Beth: “I mean, there’s round tables, and the kids have cafeteria food, with pitchers of water, and they don’t drink milk, so he was just supposed to drink water out of a pitcher, and all that. So I put a juice box in there, thinking, ‘this is fun’. So he gets yelled at about this juice box, so he takes the juice box, which had been opened, and puts it back in his lunch box (…) and then, you know, brought it back in the class room and it ran all over the place. I mean, it was a nightmare! He came out of there, like, crying. It was awful. And it was all —and Henri looked at me like, ‘Mais pourquoi tu n’a pas plus preparé?’ (But why didn’t you prepare more?) I mean (…) Martin went a day, Paul went a half —I mean it was all mixed up and I didn’t know who was going when and who was having lunch when, sort of thing, so, the day that actually Martin was going I didn’t know, I didn’t have like a veau Marengo left-over sort of thing. I was like, ‘Shit, what do I do? Peanut butter and jelly!’ And Henri was like, ‘Toi, tu peux mieux preparer que ça!’ (You can prepare better than that!) His disdain for that whole thing was awful! (…) And now Martin won’t eat it anymore, I mean, he was like scared. (…) So he’s never had a peanut butter and jelly.”

45Beth depicts the words and actions of the cafeteria worker as violent (she “yelled”, it was a “nightmare”, he “cried”, he was “scared”). The episode is rendered even more difficult for Beth by her husband’s “disdain”, or implicit agreement with the school (and his words are retold here again in French). Furthermore, Beth seems, to some extent, to accept the reproach; she goes on to say that she hadn’t been able to plan well enough (instead of saying, for example, that she had to learn what was appropriate).

  • 7 In this way, the gamelle shares a number of similarities with the obento, as discussed by Allison, (...)

46In this instance, the school (as institution) is shaping the subjectivity of mother (and child) through something as simple and quotidian as a packed lunch7. What is imposed (and interiorized) in this case is a set of categories, codes and practices that define the proper meal, and are linked, by extension, to ideas about proper mothering and national identity. In this case, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the juice box are labeled as “snacks” and are opposed to a “real” meal. A “real” meal in France typically consists of three to four courses (Poulain, 2002). It also consists of dishes cooked from scratch (with love), and the sharing of a single dish remains a potent ideal (Masson, 2001). Dishes are typically composed of a meat and a vegetable with a mind to aesthetics, taste, and appetite (Lesyne, 2008; Masson, 2001). School lunches at Martin’s school, as in the majority of French schools, follow this meal pattern. Children sit in groups of 10 to 12 at round tables, are served in courses from common platters, and drink water from shared pitchers. Already the fact that Martin brings a gamelle sets him apart. The fact that the gamelle resembles an “American” snack rather than a “French” meal is especially problematic since debates about identity and modernity are often articulated in terms of an American counter-example (i.e. Kuisel, 1992; Rogers, 2002).

47Well aware of the symbolic meaning her gamelle took on, Beth goes on to say that in addition to feeling inferior and humiliated, she also felt « totally, totally American ». While Beth never says so directly, the fact that she chose to send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich heightens the “Americanness” of the lunch, and perhaps her own emotional difficulty with the episode. A peanut-butter and jelly sandwich is an emblematic children’s food in the United States, associated with childhood pleasure and innocence (an association Beth refers to with her own initial reading of the lunch as “simple”, “easy” and “fun”). The fact that it is rejected by the school with such force, and framed as an example of de-structured eating habits, radically shifts the symbolic import of that food for both Beth and her son. At the end of the passage, Beth says that her son “was scared and so has never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich”. In other words, the episode has in some way impeded her own ability to pass on or share her own childhood experiences and memories of a quintessential American food. If our sense of self is constructed in part through our food memories (Sutton, 2001), in this particular case her American identity is denied to her and her children.

48Beth has since worked the gamelle into what she calls a “science”, an interesting choice of words. She now prepares a large dinner in the evening and includes the left-overs in the children’s gamelles. These are often “’plats en sauce’, like a ‘veau Marengo’”. Beth says that she has found that the sauce in such home-cooked meals helps to keep the food warm until lunch time (it is placed in a thermos), though such dishes are also typically associated with the home, with the time and effort their preparation entails and with the loving care of the mother. Her gamelle sometimes contain an “entrée of crudités”, or some kind of raw vegetable appetizer (“like carrot sticks”), though she admits to often “slacking off on the ‘entrée’” and simply not including it. The children also have a dessert in the form of a fruit or an applesauce. In other words, she now reproduces the proper meal structure in the gamelle.

Returning Home: Fancy Foods and Healthy Choices

49As is often the case, Linda and Beth become most aware of the degree to which they have internalized both a discourse and its ethic when they return home to the United States, where their behaviors are differently interpreted and judged. For example, when Linda and Antoine first return, they organize a French food and wine party for their friends in an attempt to recreate the “ah-ha moments” that Linda experienced in France. While some friends partake in the festivities correctly (i.e. by searching to appreciate the wine and food and commune with the others through this process), other guests do not (and perhaps even feel the need to mark their opposition to it): one friend claims that the “truffle tastes like ass” while another drinks too much and is duly informed that “this is not that kind of party”. Linda later notes that the party was an early indication of the ways in which they would form two separate social circles in Chicago: one with those interested in food (whom Linda refers to as “foodies”), and another with those who are not. Likewise, when Beth returns to the States on vacation, she has a hard time establishing relations with other mothers because at home:

“...the food is even less important, you know, it’s to go, cash and carry. (...) I have a hard time finding other people to do that (cook) with, especially other moms with little kids, because everybody has a sippy cup with a bag of Cheerios attached to their stroller all day long.”

50In other words, when these women return to the United States, the ritualized French meal – once again, ideally characterized by an elaborated and structured cuisine, which acts as the focal point for the expression of binding social relations (Masson, 2001) – is reframed and often connected with upper class status, and perhaps even undemocratic tendencies (LeBesco and Naccarto, 2008; Johnston and Baumann, 2010). In short, for both women, the gastronomic skills and practices that were positively valued as central to the building and experience of social relatedness in France, are often understood in largely negative terms as socially exclusionary in the United States.

51However, the judgments are not always negative. If their desire for “fancy” meals or dishes is met with mixed approval, both women receive unanimous praise for the manner in which they seem to effortlessly maintain a balanced diet of nutritious, home-cooked foods. Linda is both asked, and eventually takes upon herself, to teach others to cook for these reasons. For example, she devises a culinary card game for her sister in order to teach her how to cook (in a fun way) because: “She wasn’t eating well! She wasn’t taking the time she needed to nourish her body properly. (...)  At the time she was living off Taco Bell and McDonalds. (...) It’s all about choices.”

  • 8  Similarly, Mudry (2010) explores how wine and wine consumption are reconfigured by a scientific di (...)

52Likewise, while Beth’s children are seen as “uncurious and poorly mannered” in the French context, they are perceived as “wonder eaters” in the United States, not because they stay at the table or serve themselves properly from a common dish, but because they choose to eat filet of sole, while her brother’s children eat nothing but “nuggets from the kiddie menu”. Beth says that this is just one example of the manner in which she feels “inferior here (in France) and superior Stateside, because they (her children) eat fruit, and vegetables, and not processed junk.” In other words, when they return to the United States, these women’s skills and behaviors are reframed by a nutrition discourse (Coveney, 2006), and so it is the healthiness of their choices (and their children’s choices) that become the object of others’ attentions8.

53However while Linda is able to find a comfortable position in the United States because her French gastronomic skills afford her a certain moral and social superiority, Beth, who profits from the same sense of superiority when visiting, is only left with an acute sense of her status as an outsider; she says, “It’s a shame (that I can’t find other mothers who cook) but again, it’s a square peg in a round hole, and I realize that I’m the square peg now.”


54As stated in the introduction, according to Ricoeur (1992), one of the central means by which unity is assured in the context of a narrative is through “emplotement”; the narrative must have a coherent beginning, middle and end. As we see here, while both these narratives share similar beginnings, Linda’s narrative goes on to have a clear middle and end, while Beth’s does not. Generally speaking, Linda’s identity is stable at the time of our interview, while Beth’s is in crisis. Ricoeur also argues that the stories we tell about ourselves are not ours alone, but are in constant dialogue with the stories and structures that surround us. This is the case for both of the narratives explored here; in particular, in regards to the progression of the first and the non-closure of the second.

  • 9  In my sample, American women who spent an extended amount of time in France (more than a year or t (...)
  • 10  Fitch, 1997; McNamee, 2008.
  • 11  1954, directed by Billy Wilder. The movie was redone in 1995, directed this time by Sydney Pollack

55Linda’s story echoes the stories of other American wives I interviewed9. Their narratives read like a classic rite of passage (Van Gennep, 1960): an initial separation from American food culture; a liminal period in France characterized by feelings of “communitas” (Turner, 1969) in which they learn how to cook and eat the French way; and, a reintegration into the American landscape with the new found status of a French-educated sophisticate. In addition, this transformation story – from simpleton to sophisticate – is one that characterizes the stories of many of the famous women of contemporary American food(ie) culture, both real (like Julia Childs or Alice Waters)10 and imaginary (like Audrey Hepburn’s character in the movie Sabrina)11. This suggests that Linda’s story of transformation can also be read as one version of a larger cultural script that, in the end, may tell us more about American ideas concerning the French, cuisine, class and gender, than it does about the French per se.

  • 12 Paul Ricoeur suggests that the narrative is the “first laboratory of moral judgment” (Ricoeur 1992: (...)

56Beth’s narrative, though one of the more extreme examples, also echoes the narratives of many of the expatriate spouses with whom I spoke. In this way, it does not reflect a larger national script as much as it does her position as an expatriate in a foreign culture. Edward Said suggests that such feelings of solitude or estrangement are more or less a permanent part of the exile’s existence, as one who dwells in a kind of liminal zone “outside the habitual order” (Said, 2000: 186). If, as Ricoeur suggests, in constructing a narrative individuals also search to present themselves as moral subjects12, we suggest here that this is not done as easily for the expatriate. Beth, for example, is not only caught between two different manners of practicing the meal, but between the different notions of right and wrong, or good (mother, wife or child) and bad (mother, wife or child) that are inscribed in these practices.

57Indeed, as we see in both these narratives, cooking and meal participation are not only bodies of knowledge but, in more Foucauldian terms, disciplinary practices that (re)shape these women’s subjectivities because they encode both larger collective identities and ethical grids.  For example, these women’s ability (or inability) to cook and participate correctly in the shared, ritualized meal are linked to their capacity to love and care properly for their families as wives and mothers. It is also tied to their American identity, which is often referenced via well-worn clichés. For example, both women use the image of the “ugly” American to describe their initial break with the United States, and talk of confronting negative stereotypes in France that associate their lack of gastronomic skills to their (inferior) status as Americans. In this way, such clichés are mobilized in everyday interactions - and narrative constructions - to communicate inclusion and exclusion, as well as moral approbation and disapproval.

58In recent years, a number of scholars have critically examined the link between nationally dominant food discourses and civic values. In the United States, for example, the qualities of self-control, personal responsibility and rationality that are posited as central to eating well, are also among the defining characteristics of the good citizen in American democracy, and, more specifically, within the neo-liberal ideologies of recent decades (i.e. Biltekoff, 2007; Crawford, 2000; LeBesco, 2004). In France, on the other hand, to have (good) taste – which is developed and used in a myriad of ways when shopping, cooking or sharing a meal – is indicative of one’s familiarity with and adherence to a larger cultural frame or ensemble (i.e. French Culture and Civilization), which has long been understood as central to the formation of good citizens of the French Republic (Rigby, 1991), and perhaps even more so in recent years as this model has been threatened by such processes as “Americanization”, EU integration or post-colonial immigration (i.e. Fantasia, 1994; Lesyne, 2008; Terrio, 1996). Of course, as many of these same scholars point out, while in both countries eating well (be it according to dietary or gastronomic codes) is often presented and understood as part of a communal effort to reinforce national bonds of solidarity and increase the strength of the nation (economically, militarily, morally, etc.), it is also riddled with (and serves to reproduce) social tensions and inequalities. The ways in which both women find themselves at times criticized or marginalized – in France and the United States – because their food skills and behaviors are perceived as foreign or out-of-line, are indicative of as much.

59Our point here, however, is that if these food discourses are tightly tied to citizenship, then the narratives explored here also give us insight into the nature of the bond between the individual and the national community. As we said above, both narratives illustrate the manner in which we do not simply mimic a series of food practices or the food talk that accompanies them, but also interiorize their claims and values. More importantly, however, as these narratives also show, through these processes our own sense of fulfilment and pleasure, desire and disgust, superiority or inferiority come to reflect and adhere to them, ultimately attaching us to others who share these ways of eating and feeling.

  • 13  Italics in the original.
  • 14  Though scholars have explored the link between emotion and the politics of everyday interaction (i (...)

60In his classic treatise on national identity, Benedict Anderson draws our attention to the strong emotional bond that characterizes the individual’s tie to the national community. For Anderson, the nation “is imagined as a community because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (p. 6-7)13. While Anderson’s work is widely cited in the social sciences, the very centrality of this emotional attachment is often overlooked14. Returning to it, we suggest that our interviewees’ daily experiences in the kitchen or at the dinner table – and, in particular, the relationship between self and other(s) they involve – render tangible and natural a particular form of “horizontal comradeship”. Despite the difficulties encountered in France, both Linda and Beth partake and come to take pleasure in the particular form of social relatedness that characterizes ritual meal. The social communion experienced at such meals echoes the Rousseauian social contract that lies at the heart of the French Republican model, where each individual becomes part of the general will. Beth feels she is “becoming French” at the time of our interview because, despite the difficulties she has had, eating in this way has come to feel right and natural, as well as pleasurable and desirable. She also feels socially isolated in the United States because she is unable to bond with or feel connected to others through these same practices. In other words, these women experience at the alimentary level the bond that characterizes the relationship between the individual and the national community at the politically discursive level.

61In this way, we suggest not only that these women (choose to) present themselves as American or French through their narrative reconstructions, but also that in adopting ways of talking about, preparing, presenting and sharing food with others they become French or American citizens through the act of eating. It is perhaps in this way that their narratives - be they about return or continued absence – speak most profoundly to the power of food to shape our sense of self as well as our very appetites; impacting in this way not only what we eat and who we are, but what we desire and who we aspire to be.

The research for this article was funded by OCHA, the Observatoire CNIEL des Habitudes Alimentaires ( A warm thanks in particular to OCHA’s director, Maggy Bieulac-Scott, whose unwavering support has been a constant source of strength.  

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1  Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect interviewees’ anonymity.

2  An exception is Varro, 1984.

3  According to Said, an expatriate is one “who voluntarily lives in an alien country, usually for personal or social reasons”, but who nevertheless shares in the “solitude and estrangement of the exile”. (Said, 2000:172).

4  The author of this article translated this passage from French into English.  

5  In a follow-up interview with Linda in 2009, she admits to being unable to actually try tête de veau. Linda’s “confession” suggests that some women may cite these foods without actually eating them, thus underlining their symbolic importance.

6  Here we are referring to what we could qualify as mainstream, middle-class, white American culture.

7 In this way, the gamelle shares a number of similarities with the obento, as discussed by Allison, 1991.

8  Similarly, Mudry (2010) explores how wine and wine consumption are reconfigured by a scientific discourse in the US treatment of the “French Paradox”.

9  In my sample, American women who spent an extended amount of time in France (more than a year or two), before returning to the United States with their husbands, shared a similar narrative.  

10  Fitch, 1997; McNamee, 2008.

11  1954, directed by Billy Wilder. The movie was redone in 1995, directed this time by Sydney Pollack.

12 Paul Ricoeur suggests that the narrative is the “first laboratory of moral judgment” (Ricoeur 1992:140)

13  Italics in the original.

14  Though scholars have explored the link between emotion and the politics of everyday interaction (i.e. Lutz and Abu-Lughod, 1990).

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Electronic reference

Christy Shields-Argelès, « Mastering French Cuisine, Espousing French Identity », Anthropology of food [Online], 7 | December 2010, Online since 25 December 2010, connection on 30 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Christy Shields-Argelès

Anthropologist, American University of Paris, associated with the Centre Edgar Morin of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Anthropology (IIAC) of Paris; doctoral candidate at the EHESS.

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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