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Communicating in the Language of Food
By Joe Lurie

"Bicycling in the Yogurt" the French Food Fixation

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Je Serai un President Flan-Boyant

Noting that French President Francois Hollande has been referred to by his political opponents as a fragile strawberry, a wobbly flan, a marshmallow, and “gauche caviar,” with the charisma of a smelly sausage, I was reminded of how a culture’s preoccupations shape the way language is used.

I was first introduced to the pleasures of French cuisine and its influence on the French language as a university student hitchhiking through Normandy, sampling butter, cream and apple brandy-suffused dishes.

Struggling to express myself in village bistros, I realized the truth behind Mark Twain’s observation that Intermediate French is not spoken in France. A friendly waiter, noting my frustration, reassured me saying, I know, it’s not pie, “Je sais, c’est pas de la tarte,” which means it’s difficult. He went on to add, but it’s not the end of the string beans, “mais c’est pas la fin des haricots” – a strikingly French way of saying, it’s not the end of the world.

A decade later, my French was much improved. While directing a US American study abroad program in Toulouse, my understanding of food’s influence on the language deepened. Before taking a French cooking class with my 20 students, we stopped at an open-air market. Because the line to buy cheese was not moving, our impatient guide complained: “on ne veut pas faire le poireau,” we don’t want to be like a leek. Later, we learned the translation: to wait like a motionless leek in the ground. Now late for cooking class, our guide urged the van driver to press on the mushroom!appuyez sur le champignon!” – meaning step on the gas! Keeping a chef waiting simply would not do.

The students and I were struck by how carefully the chef conducted the lesson – artfully presenting and discussing the ingredients. The meal is serious business, not to be treated like a joke or, as the French say, like custardc’était pas du flan ce cours de cuisine! As we prepared a fruit salad, the chef mumbled “oh purée!” mashed potatoes! – or damn it! and disdainfully discarded a blemished peach to preserve an aesthetically pleasing fruit plate.

During almost four years living in Strasbourg, Toulouse and the island of Corsica, I saw how the French passion for eating and discussing food flavored the language in tasty and unusual ways, though some expressions are unique to different regions or generations.

It began to make sense that endearing French metaphors are often rooted in the pleasures of taste. “What a nice person” is served up in French as “c’est une crème!” – what cream, while “la crème de la crème,” the cream of creams is the best of all. And “you are so energetic” takes on a carb boost in French: you have the French fry (tu as la frite). To be in high spirits also can come from the fruit family, as in you have the peach (tu as la pêche), while having a banana (avoir la banane) is to have a big smile. And, of course, there’s the affectionate “mon petit chou,my little cabbage.

Allusions to food also season the language of love. A broken-hearted UC Berkeley student of mine from Marseille described her flirtatious boyfriend as a Don Juan with the heart of an artichoke, quelqu’un qui a un cœur d’artichaut,” offering each of his lovers a leaf from his heart. He was skilled at making romantic advances or as my student put it: serving up a dish, “faire du plat à quelqu’un,” a prelude to going off to the strawberries, aller aux fraises,” to enjoy an erotic interlude.

Even insults and put-downs easily spring from the tongue as if from a farmers’ market. An idiot or jerk, for example, can be described in French as what a pickle! (quel cornichon!); an utter squash (une vraie courge); such a noodle! (quelle nouille!); or as having a green pea in the brain! (avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau!). When struggling to drive in France, I’ve heard irate, gesturing French men speed past, yelling “espèce d’andouille!” piece of sausage! or, you imbecile!

I remember a heated debate in a Paris café about a Gerard Depardieu film. A friend dismissed it as a turnip, “un navet,” a startling vegetable metaphor for a trashy film. When he called the actor a horrible drunk, an indignant Depardieu fan interrupted with: shut your smelly Camembert mouth!ferme ta boîte à Camembert!”

Just as food evokes passion in France, its metaphorical expressions enliven debate. Butting in on a conversation is to bring your strawberry, ramener ta fraise. Being overly inquisitive about someone’s private life could provoke an acerbic “occupe-toi de tes oignons!” mind your own onions! the French version of mind your own business. But perhaps the classic French way of ending an argument is go cook yourself an egg, “va te faire cuire un œuf,” or go to hell.

Traveling through the Pyrénées with a French couple, my wife and I enjoyed great food and spirited conversations, especially about politics. When the husband praised Sarkozy, his wife sneered that the former President is overly dramatic – making a big cheese out of nothing, “il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout.” She added, you can’t tell if he’s talking about pork fat or pork meat, “on ne sait pas si c’est du lard ou du cochon,” you can’t tell if he’s lying or telling the truth. And she believed Sarkozy had casseroles hanging on his butt – “des casseroles au cul” – a scandalous past.

While serving as Dean of Students at an international college in Strasbourg, I was struck by how much my French colleagues valued using words precisely, reflected in the pervasive use of the verb “préciser.” I chuckled when I heard some professors describe student papers that lacked clarity. They complained that these students were lost, bicycling in the sauerkraut, pédalant dans la choucroute. In other regions, one might say bicycling in the yogurt or couscous. And then there’s swimming in chocolate, nageant dans le chocolat, or skating in the mayonnaise, patinant dans la mayonnaise – getting nowhere. Outside the college, I heard other vivid ways of describing confusion such as being in the soup, the pate or the cabbages (être dans le potage, le pâté or les choux).

Recently, I saw an exasperated French TV commentator despair over the French economy by throwing up his hands exclaiming what a salad!quelle salade!” what a mess! And then he finished with the carrots are cooked! “les carottes sont cuites!” meaning it’s all over.

If one is unemployed and grouchy or as the French say, “pas dans son assiette,” not on your plate, landing a job would help to put butter on the spinachmettre du beurre dans les épinards,” to make things better. And then it’s time to put your hand in the dough, “mettre la main a la pate” – get down to business. After all, you’ve got to defend your steak, “défendre ton bifteck,” as in look out for your interests.

Speaking of steak, making a living is gagner son bifteck, to earn one’s steak; while making a profit is to prepare one’s butter, faire son beurre. And to have a pancake avoir de la galette, is to be rich. Assuming pancakes are your goal, you’ll have to go all out, put on the sauce, mettre la sauce, and be prepared to make a strong sales pitch, vendre ta salade, by selling your salad.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in computer science from Tours told me he was building a start-up company – “une jeune pousse,” a young sprout and didn’t know what to expect or what sauce he would eat, “ne pas savoir à quelle sauce on va être mangé.” He knew he had bread on the board, avoir du pain sur la planche, a lot of work to do, but realized that while dealing with potential investors he had to avoid being rolled in the flour, être roulé dans la farine – duped. Otherwise, he risked eating the frog, manger la grenouille – going bankrupt. He didn’t want to end up without a radish, ne plus avoir un radis, or as we would say, without a cent. All his dreams for nothing – “pour des prunes.” Still, if he becomes successful like a Bill Gates, he’s apt to be called a large vegetable, une grosse légume, and be among the grated cheese, le gratin – the elite.

The versatility of the cheese metaphor in a country with hundreds of cheeses is not surprising. “A dessert without a cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” observed Jean Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste. His famous 19th century book, exploring the nuances of cuisine – still is sold in France. And no wonder, with a line like: “He who invents a new dish will have rendered humanity a greater service than the scientist who discovers a planet.”

Today, as French supermarkets and fast food restaurants continue to proliferate, gourmands refuse to compromise or cut the pear in two, couper la poire en deux, in defending their culinary heritage. For more than twenty years, during “La semaine du goût,” Taste Week, thousands of chefs visit schools across the country. They teach children to appreciate fine food; make a baguette, a mousse au chocolat; appreciate a bouillabaisse; and learn the anatomy of the tongue. Restaurants with Michelin stars develop special meals for young children. And chefs are invited to daycare centers to prepare gourmet menus.

Will this unique early training insure the survival of the refined French palate and the nourishment of its language? A master chef is likely to respond, of course, “mais oui, c’est du tout cuit” – it’s completely cooked – it’s in the bag.