What could be more French than having a baguette tucked under your arm while strolling down a Parisian boulevard? Such a sight is actually quite common. I think I expected that this was an exaggerated stereotype of the French, but I am here to tell you that it is not. The French remain quite in love with these long, skinny, crusty loaves of bread. I’ve seen people of any age, at any time of the day, carrying between one and five baguettes.
“Baguette” in French literally means “stick,” and I’ve also heard people describe skinny friends as “like a baguette.” (Magic wands are also called “baguettes,” which makes reading Harry Potter in French quite entertaining – I can never stop picturing Harry running around, waving a loaf of bread at Voldemort.) These sticks of bread are loads better than the French bread in the US – the crust is always perfectly crunchy, and the inside (la mie) is always doughy and denser than the white fluff in the bread at home. They’re also generally skinnier and slightly longer. You’ll find baguettes ranging from 50 cents at a chain grocery to, at most, about €1.10 in fancier bakeries. When something this delicious is so cheap, it’s not hard to understand why they are so pervasive. Baguettes are present at every meal in France. Really. Baguette and jam or butter for breakfast, often dipped in a bowl (yes, a bowl) of coffee or tea. Baguette sandwiches for lunch. Baguette on the side at dinner. Go on a picnic and you bring baguette and cheese. France is surely not for the gluten-intolerant.
But the baguette can tell us more about France than simply that its inhabitants adore bread. First, French law severely limits the amount of preservatives that can be in a baguette. French people seem to point to the oodles of preservatives in American food as a factor in our obesity epidemic, and they pride themselves on natural and organic produce. Fruits and veggies here do, indeed, seem to taste more…real. More intense, less chemically. They’re also smaller – instead of steroid-stuffed melons the size of bowling balls, you’ll see softball-sized (or smaller) melons here.
The preservative restriction laws also mean that French baguettes bought for dinner will be nearly stale in the morning (this discovery made me a bit scared that my American baguette is still perfectly soft 3 days later). From what I’ve observed in my host family and heard from other kids in host families, French fridges aren’t stuffed with everything one might possibly need to make a meal. Instead, they buy smaller quantities of fresh things to use that day, or perhaps the next. Any leftovers are incorporated into the next meal.
Lastly, baguettes take much longer to eat than American sandwich bread. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on that soft, moist American bread is easily stuffed in your mouth, easily chewed, easily swallowed. But baguettes take time – you have to first rip through the crust, then tear violently through the interior, and then chew it for much longer before it’s ready to swallow. All of this to say that French people eat slowly! They really like to use the word “savor” when it comes to food. And savor they do – people of all ages seem to have a pride for French food and are eager to share a dish that is très français with you. I’ve been doing my best to try them all.
*Note: This is based only on my personal observations, and everything said here certainly does not always apply to all French people!*