Of the few cultures I have had the privilege of making acquaintance, I have to say France has the most edible culture, something you can really sink your teeth into (I apologize, i couldn't resist). I guess one of the best examples of French taking their food seriously is our lunch lady (I honestly don't know her real name). She runs the cafeteria here at school where I have eaten many a delicious lunch, thanks to her above-par food standards as far as any cafeteria I have ever eaten is concerned. Every meal she comes around to each table in the teachers' dining room and asks what we think, with questions like, "How finely was your steak browned?" or, "What do you think of the lemon-creme sauce on the eclair?" First of all, name me one US high school cafeteria where there would even be mention of "browned steak" or "lemon creme eclair." Second, since when does the lunch lady even care what the food tastes like?? Turns out you have to have a cooking degree to work in a cafeteria here, like any chef in a restaurant. They take food seriously.
A little more about the cafeteria here... Meals are set up like normal cafeterias with single-file lines and maybe one or two different choices for plates. Each meal costs 3.10 Euros, or about $4.75. Every meal comes with half a baguette, an appetizer (normally a salad or some other type of vegetable dish), an entree, your choice of usually 10 or so different cheeses, and a desert (either the special of the day like an eclair or fruit or yogurt). As you may have guessed I have never once still been hungry after eating at the cafeteria, in fact most of the time I wish I had team Oompa Loompas on hand to roll me out like Violet Beauregarde. The entrees have varied from simple steak and fries to oysters in a butternut squash and garlic sauce. I love the cafeteria because it gives me the chance to try real French cuisine on a daily basis, like beef bourguignon and "pain perdu," which literally translates to "lost bread," when they take an old baguette and let it sit overnight in a sauce made of eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and raisins. It has a taste like French Toast but served cold and very tasty.
One lunch stands out in my mind above all others as a "this-could-never-happen-in-the-US-in-a-million-years" scenario. As I walk into line in the cafeteria I smell the unmistakable aroma of sauerkraut, at which point the German assistant who is with me, Kathi, must have registered it too because she starts grinning from ear to ear at the thought of some home cooking. Sure enough when we get up close enough to see the food it's quite obviously German day: there's sauerkraut, two different kinds of sausage and mashed potatoes. After collecting my apple strudel for dessert I walk into the teachers' dining room where, now get this, replacing the normal bottled water on the table are giant bottles of beer! I was a little apprehensive and thought, "Surely this is non-alcoholic..." Nope, 4.5%. I then thought there must be some mistake, drinking at work? Then another teacher approached me, grinning a little too wide for it being a Tuesday afternoon, and encourages me to pour myself a glass of beer to eat with the German food. I'm told this is the custom in France, to drink beer with sauerkraut. A custom apparently strong enough to break the "must be sober at work" rule. Having been raised by my father I could not pass up something free, and this was free beer. Done and done. I had my fair share of full glasses while enjoying an otherwise still delicious meal. I wonder if the students noticed that the teachers were leaving our dining room much more jovial than we had entered? What a way to break the monotony of a work week.
One last comment I'd like to make is about the wine, naturally. Wine, in most cases, is cheaper than bottled water here. When you go into a cafe you can usually get wine for only a few centimes more than water from the tap. It's just a factor of life for the French. I try to get a new wine each time I go grocery shopping as my way of tasting but honestly I taste little difference between red wines and the only difference I taste with whites is my uncanny ability to predict which ones will give me a hangover. So the standard red I get costs me 1.15 Euros a bottle. That's less than $2! And it's leagues above a $6 bottle of Barefoot wine back home. When I visited my host family in Nantes I brought with me a regional wine from Burgundy and I decided since it was a special occasion to buy a more expensive bottle, about 8 Euros (~$12). Apparently they recognized the bottle because after thanking me my former host mom immediately chided me for buying such an expensive bottle of wine! I would like to just watch a French person peruse the wine isle in Fred Meyer or Safeway to see their reaction. French wine is a culture in itself and I'm glad to be here during the Spring when all the vineyards open up again. That way I can come back and be the wine snob everyone will expect.