the proof is in the profiteroles: on “dieting” in france

Dieting is not an especially French activity. Nor does it feel particularly patriotic to live down the street from a small market and ignore the siren song of its milky white goat cheeses and fresh baguettes.

Flower market

But that’s what I did (or tried to) for a whole month.

All in the name of health, I did my best to follow the Whole 30 program, an eating regimen designed to “push the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food, and the downstream physical and psychological effects of the food choices you’ve been making.”

The simplicity appealed to me. This is a diet where the Yes is simple: eat real food.

The No, well that’s a little more complicated. No foods containing added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, or sulfites. At first I wondered what harm there could be in foods like chickpeas and brown rice, but Whole 30 has you eliminate the foods that commonly cause problems and could be negatively affecting you. For example, you may have a low-grade allergy to peanuts or an intolerance to dairy and not even realize it (a lot of people do). In doing so, it helps teach you a new way of thinking about eating.

When people hear “diet” they so often think of weight loss, but there are of course many other reasons to reform the way you eat. Mine were largely mental and psychological. I tend to eat when I’m sad, snack when I’m stressed, go without meals when I’m busy.

I thought of myself as healthy because I counted kale as one of my favorite foods. But when I took an honest look at my habits, I wasn’t impressed. All that kale and tahini sauce was drowned by the way I had no command of moderation. I would have a perfect eating day, and then someone would open a can of Pringles. Half an hour later, oops. The can is nearly empty and I’m fighting nausea.

In the morning before school, I spent more time putting on mascara than consuming protein and fat (both elements more likely to contribute to the success of my day than would the length of my eyelashes).

And like most people, I had my own array of little health annoyances: debilitating headaches, bouts of fatigue, and other things that might hold a connection to my eating habits. It was worth a try.

Whole 30 focuses on good fats, protein, fruit, and as many vegetables as possible. I started the program on a Sunday, rummaging through the cabinets at my friend Rémi’s house. He was going to move back to Bordeaux for over a month to finish his studies, and I would occupy his home in the time being.

“Nope, this has to go,” I tossed him boxes of cereal, a jar of Nutella, a bag of sourdough rolls. By the end of the morning he was ready to lug home ketchup and mayonnaise (because they had added sugar), a bottle of wine, a package of tortillas, several wheels of cheese, tiny cartons of cream, and a can of chantilly.

Rémi was devouring a hunk of Brie. He looked at me and for the third time, said, “You really can’t have cheese?”

“C’est qu’un mois !” I kept saying. It’s only a month.  acs_0514

His wide-eyed doubt was making me nervous, so I set off for Grand Frais, my favorite grocery store, to wander the wide rows of colorfully abundant produce. Those first-week post-paycheck groceries were a sight. Salmon and chicken and pork sausage and tuna. Mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, kale. A fresh basil plant. A huge bowl of blood oranges. Eggs, coconut milk, coconut yogurt, sweet potatoes. A papaya. acs_0270

Even Rémi could admit it didn’t look like the prison diet he’d been envisioning.

We hugged goodbye and without the devil on my shoulder, I respected the rules flawlessly for two weeks. The first breach of my new programme alimentaire happened on an innocuous Friday. That evening was a soirée entre collègues. I was looking forward to it, but as the event drew closer I had a comic moment of shock: I had agreed to eat in a restaurant–a French restaurant–during a Whole 30. What had I done? What was I going to do? The drama was real.

One “cheat” meal probably doesn’t sound like a big issue, but for two reasons, it is. The first is that Whole 30 strongly discourages bending the rules in any way, stating you can’t expect to reap the rewards of the challenge if you so much as consume a grain of sugar (for example). The second is that I have a bit of a self-control issue. “Just one episode” and I’m up half the night. “Just a little cheese” and the whole block disappears.

I wanted to respect the limitations of this “diet” so I could learn more control and thoughtfulness over what I consumed. It was all or nothing, and I wanted it to be all. Somewhere in the middle, “just doing my best,” is not a safe choice for my particular personality type. I’m either committed, you can count on it, or I’m not doing anything.

I didn’t want to give in because I was sure that meant I would just keep giving in, day after day, until there were no healthy changes left to speak of.

I thought of possible plats I could consume without derailing my progress.

On a scrap of paper I scrawled: moules frites, steak frites, confit de canard. All delicious options that should contain a minimum of wheat, dairy, sugar.

There was still the wine and bread to consider. But I would cross that bridge when I came to it. C’est parti. 

That evening the teachers carpooled to Pégomas, a little town 10km from Cannes where small farms produce roses and jasmine for Chanel. We stopped at a cozy country restaurant in an old wine cave. On était quinze, fifteen ladies decompressing after a day at school. Thursday had seen a big national strike on the part of government workers, including teachers, and the recent shooting in Carcassonne was fresh in the collective mind. This recent stress meant that the suggestion of wine from the restaurant’s propriétaire was met with actual applause.

Santé ! I raised my chilled water with gusto and escaped notice.

The restaurant was high quality, offering just a few seasonal choices scribbled on large chalkboards on the wall. I was pleased to see some options that weren’t too crazily indulgent. Comme entrée, I ordered bulgur with a poached egg, asparagus, prosciutto, and vinaigrette. For the plat, I ordered sea bream royale, a typically Provençal fish, with silky mashed potatoes and a sauce sweetened with shrimp. acs_0512

The food and conversation were both lovely. As I ate my dorade royale, I remembered our last dinner together in December and thought about how much had changed since.

Then: still a little unsure, doing my best at work but not entirely convinced, didn’t really know anyone at the school.

Now: feeling fully integrated as part of the team, proud of the job I’ve done, able to follow rapid-fire French at a big group dinner.

It came time for dessert. Slowly the propriétaire worked his way down the table, recounting the evening’s offerings in a drowsy rhythm. Tarte tatincharlotte aux poires, profiteroles. Tarte tatin, charlotte aux poires, profiteroles. 

But it stopped with my rien pour moi, merci. 

This was unacceptable.

I hoped this man would keep it discreet but no such luck. He paused, like maybe I was joking. The teachers caught on, and suddenly there were five women urging me to order dessert. “Oh, it’s just that– j’ai assez mangé,” I tried. I’m full.

Bah c’est pas grave ! Came the response. “You’ll take a bite, and if you don’t like it or are too full, you’ll leave it to share with the rest of the table! We’ll help you!”

The school’s directrice who I often see in classes at the gym, said “vas-y, Jess-i-cah. You can go to Fitlane tomorrow!” She waved her hand.

“It’s not that”– I started to protest.

“You’ll get some profiteroles, won’t you?”

“I’d say she should get the profiteroles. Bien sûr.

C’est le week-end, Jessica ! 

The man was waiting. And how could I say no? I got the sense that abstaining would be an abject rejection of team spirit.

Alors, I said slowly. “I guess I’ll be having the profiteroles.”

The order was met with cheers. acs_0513

I kind of had to thank them for the peer pressure, because these profiteroles were really good. The deep chocolate sauce was still piping hot. With the cold chantilly, it tasted like a luxury.

Later, my friend saw the picture and said “that looks like high fashion on a plate.”

At least I went out with some style.

The evening led to the development of a new plan I respected, one of my own. Chez moi, the Whole 30 rules stood.

But in public, I decided to prize social connection over maintaining a perfect diet plan. Because I think that would be missing the point.

I went on dates and had wine or cider. You can’t really agree to go out for drinks and then have a glass of water.

I had Italian aperitivo, eating a little bit of cheese with the prosciutto. I ate a pizza and relished every single bite.

But at home, I ate like a person transformed. Or transforming. And I still do, continuing my humble and nourishing meals featuring sweet potatoes, fish, steamed kale, baked chicken, and colorful vegetable soups.

Breakfast is not optional. I get healthy fat from coconut milk throughout the day. My protein intake has gone way up, powering my workouts. I drink double the water I did before. My snacks have changed from too much cheese and sugar-loaded Lindt bars to kiwis, blood oranges, dried plums, and cashews. And I actually crave and love eating all these things.

I’ve noticed a higher level of energy and a stabler mood. I don’t eat because I’m bored. I don’t overeat. Simply put, I’m a lot healthier.

In technical terms, I failed the Whole 30. Miserably. But I did find balance and learned something important: moderation is possible, even for me.

mon chou: kale, the forgotten vegetable

img_3431 In French, instead of sweetie, you might call someone mon chou.

My cabbage.

I appreciate the double meaning. Le chou is both my cabbage and my sweet. But all cabbages are not created equal. It’s kale that’s my drug of choice.

Looking for a light read in the ‘American Expats in France’ genre, I recently read a memoir entitled Bonjour Kale. It was fun to find out that the kale I enjoyed for dinner tonight, last night, and pretty much every night I cook for myself, is largely thanks to fellow American Kristen Beddard, a New Yorker who found herself a bit lost in Paris, lacking a day job and lamenting the absence of her favorite vegetable.

Five years ago, kale was the superfood and comfort food du jour for foodies around the US, but in France ce n’existait pas. Sure, you might be able to find a row in someone’s personal garden, but certainly not on a commercial scale. Stores didn’t carry it and market vendors and farmers hadn’t heard of it. There wasn’t even a consensus on what to call this neglected vegetable. There was, however, a term describing its sad state. Kale was a légume oublié–a forgotten vegetable–one that had fallen out of favor. One theory goes that kale was a hearty “poor man’s food” that reminded people too much of their lean days during World War II.

Beddard wanted to change this if she could. There could be such a thing as celebratory kale. Glamorous, chic (and full of antioxidants). Kale’s image needed a makeover and Beddard, with a background in marketing, felt she was the woman for the job.

First, she started a blog intended to detail the progress of “The Kale Project.”

Next she went to the market, gathering the courage to ask local farmers, in her beginner’s French, if they would be interested in growing le chou kale. She would provide the seeds. She made her case: healthy, delicious, and here’s proof it will sell…

A few said yes.

As it grew, Beddard made kale connections, identifying expats and restaurant owners ready to buy in case of a supply.

She visited the farms to see the progress, once carting back two full trash bags of kale on a three-hour train ride.

She promoted the vegetable at a Yelp event, a winter foods festival in Paris where she served pesto and smoothies and talked about her project. It was a hit.

As the supply of kale increased, so did its value in the public eye. Beddard’s website included a map, “Kale Spotted,” that let followers know exactly where they could find this vegetable, forgotten no longer.

She was interviewed by various media outlets and even got to help decide what to officially christen this revitalized veggie: le chou kale (sounds like kahl) it would be.

And there it was. Beddard said she was never in it for a profit. Bringing kale to Paris was its own reward. (Though you might also count as reward the kale-based tasting menu she was personally served by Alain Passard.)

I appreciate the book most as a business story: a great example of how to identify a need and meet it. A Humanities alum like me could use the lesson. “Make your passion your paycheck,” that’s the goal. As for the book’s subtitle: “a memoir of Paris, love, and recipes,” I’m less convinced. While the recipes are great (I’ve tried two), and it’s fun to learn of each one’s diverse origins (from the author’s mother to Passard), I don’t think the story quite covers “Paris” and “love” effectively. This title oversells the product–or perhaps represents a different product entirely. When I think of Bonjour Kale, I think of…kale.

I would have called this book something like: Légume Oublié: One Woman’s Quest to Bring Kale to France.

The ‘American expat stumbling around France’ thing has been done before. I think there is room to do it again: but the writing should be really sharp, the observations astute. Foreign words should be included effortlessly, with grace (don’t define for readers un petit peu or mon Dieu!: instead, simply provide a bit of context). The author should have something original to say.

Beddard has that something (how many other Americans have started a transatlantic initiative for a beloved vegetable?) but her true story gets a bit lost when trying to keep up with the other players in the memoir market.

Still, I have Beddard to thank for helping me get my daily greens. I buy my kale at Marché Forville in Cannes. Or at the chain Grand Frais if I’m feeling more commercial.

It is still largely unknown. Little old ladies in line at the market might ask me: “now what are you planning on doing with that?” Cashiers inputting the code eye the kale suspiciously. “Ça c’est le chou kale?

Thanks to Beddard, I know to respond with a confident oui.