balance

could these two stunning women be French?

I just finished Mireille Guiliano’s French Women for All Seasons, the sequel to her bestselling French Women Don’t Get Fat. Like the first, this book is a guide to thinness and the good life. The name for this blog entry comes from one of her section headings on wine; and just like champagne, this work is effervescent, sometimes silly or dry, but always a pleasure and always in style. Guiliano, somewhat mischievously, makes a big point of writing “I don’t do or recommend diets.” Surely that is a bit tongue-in-cheek as much of the text is about finding that slim you and learning to feel bien dans sa peau, or good in your skin, about it. Her fairly well-worn idea is that faddish, American-style diets don’t work. Well, duh. She offers, then, a plan for reshaping your outlook on food, drink and life in order to reshape your body; instead of starving yourself over a few weeks and then ballooning up again and again.

The book is divided into four main sections, representing the traditional four seasons. In them she develops her fashion ideas for each season with accompanying recipes using seasonal ingredients. These chapters are followed by a last few which offer specific guidance on other, related subjects; like developing a taste for wine, planning parties and entertaining, a special commentary on unusual (to Americans) French foods, and an amusing section in which she describes the meanings of some of the various French expressions that she sprinkles so liberally throughout the book. That last bit is rather infectious, non?

The book glows with Guiliano’s personal anecdotes about her childhood in France as well as her adulthood living and working in New York. She’s full of opinions about women’s fashion and deportment, exercise and the culture of food. Sometimes these bons mots seem harsh. This example struck me particularly, both because of its obvious validity and the writer’s brutal humor in exposing this common foible: “Others take the arrival of summer sun as the occasion to roast like poulets on a spit, heedless of common sense, let alone medical fact. Raising the bar for what constitutes a healthy glow, they compel their more vampirish sisters to slather on the tanner-in-a-tube, which leaves virtually all complexions some shade of cantaloupe.” She’s not that tough all of the time. Usually, Guiliano’s advice is more businesslike yet compassionate. To the nervous potential hostess, she writes:

I know a lot of people panic or obsess over looking and doing their best. We can all become insecure about hosting and sometimes have the feeling that people are coming to judge us. But that’s nonsense. Most of them will have made up their minds about you well before they ever show up; if they’ve accepted your invitation, that already says a lot. Besides, even reluctant acceptors still want to have a good time. Nobody shows up determined not to. Really, you’ve got them from hello.

No truer words were ever written!

Despite the book’s title, her helpful suggestions about weight and portion control can apply equally to both sexes. I’m curious about several of her recipes, especially the fiddle head fern pasta for springtime. I hope to make that one when fiddle heads return. A lot of the recipes call for dairy. This is French cooking after all. Guiliano’s not shy about using butter, eggs, milk and cream, seemingly with abandon. She’s no stranger to meat dishes, either. I passed over those recipes without incident. She confesses her chocolate addiction openly. This is one of her personal “offenders” that leads her down the path to overweight. This problem doesn’t prevent her from offering loads of decadent chocolate dessert recipes for the reader to drool over. Fortunately, I’m not that into chocolate, so I can handle it.

Many of the dishes that she describes are standard French stuff. She has her version of vichyssoise, also known as cold leek and potato soup, a few kinds of mousse, and oysters prepared several ways. I was enchanted with that last but still remain too intimidated by shucking them to really test-drive those recipes. Perhaps someday… She does have some more adventurous fare, like farfalle with edamame, and frogs’ legs, though these are few and far between. I liked her emphasis on eating good foods in season and frequenting farmers’ markets as a way to improve taste.

No doubt Guiliano’s central idea is correct: portion control and regular exercise accompanied by the occasional indulgence probably is the best way to reduce and maintain your desired weight. What makes her program innovative compared to the run-of-the-mill diet plan is that last, indulge-yourself-occasionally part. Have fun, but in moderation, s’il vous plait!

I enjoyed this book quite a lot but sort of wonder about what makes it so pleasant. The recipes are fairly traditional, her fashion suggestions are positively old-school (no jeans, now really!?!) and the plan for weight control is the same thing that my primary care physician tells me whenever I go in for a visit. I think that it must be all of the Frenchie stuff.

Guiliano’s life seems terribly glamorous. She lives in Paris and New York, where she owns apartments in both places; she has a summer home in Provence; she and her husband frequently travel to Italy where they go wine tasting with ancient barons and baronesses in Tuscany; she is a high level executive for the famous champagne house, Veuve Cliquot. She seems to have done everything, and with such style! Amazing!

What is it about French people criticizing America that makes a book such a delight?

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Well, I’ve finally been able to finish this challenging book. To be honest, I skimmed the last quarter of it. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair was a real struggle for me. Ostensibly the book is about exactly what the title says: the slow food movement and the philosophy behind the goals of “good,” “clean” and “fair.” Really Petrini’s work is a bizarre mixture of self-promoting autobiography, name dropping, a travelogue, a political manifesto against the agro industry, a vague sort of self help guide and an almost spiritual exhortation to embrace the lifestyle and thinking of a gastronome. It’s no wonder with all of that going on in a mere 255 pages that reading this was tough going. I simply cannot agree with Alice Waters, who wrote in the introduction that Petrini’s writing puts “big ideas together in sparkling, strong language.” ‘Sparkling’ and ‘strong’ suggests a kind of crisp clarity that I could not find anywhere in this book. Instead it was written in a repetitive, contradictory and condescending style that left me very irritated.

has urbanization really led to the decline of quality tasty environmentally freindly food choices

has urbanization really led to the decline of quality tasty environmentally friendly food choices?

The Slow Food movement has its origins in Italy as a reaction against what, to some, was the gradual disappearance of traditional food lifestyles and the rise of fast food chains in Rome. Petrini consistently targets the agro industry as a leader in the disconnect between the farm and table throughout the West. As a result he complains somewhat histrionically that the world “seems to be drifting aimlessly.” Quality, taste and biodiversity have all suffered as a direct consequence of people leaving farms for the cities and becoming disconnected with their traditional culinary cultural histories.

He’s ambivalent about industrialization. On the one hand, he clearly recognizes that it has improved life for many. He cites the example of the virtual end of malnutrition and scarcity of food in western societies as evidence of that. Yet he raises the concern that these same changes are ultimately “unsustainable” as nature becomes more and more “an object of domination.” Throughout the convoluted text, Petrini returns again and again to agro industry as the real problem. By focusing on quantity versus quality; exploitation of farmers and agricultural workers; the use of pesticides; and relying on a few agricultural products which can be easily transported vast distances, thereby reducing diversity and damaging the environment further, industry is literally wrecking the planet. It’s true that monoculture and pesticide use cause environmental problems. But is it obvious that the older methods of agricultural production, used on a large scale, are environmentally superior to the current ones used by big industry? He does not really offer a lot of facts to support this grand thesis. But he is persuasive and whether or not you really believe the world is at risk, he does have some good ideas for improving your appreciation of food and wine.

As a self-styled gastronome, Petrini is all about quality and taste. He’s really into relationship building with your local farmers as “co-producers” or maybe even getting back to nature and growing your own food. He seems positively convinced that this will improve quality and taste. That may be. Yet I couldn’t help noticing that nowhere in this book does Petrini ever recommend in any serious kind of way that aspiring gastronomes should actually learn to cook. How, I wonder, would someone know what to make from produce at the farmers’ market or their kitchen garden if, as he claims, we’ve all been raised on pre-made foods that you merely reheat?

I do appreciate the idea that we need to learn to taste though I still firmly believe that taste is subjective. The Slow Food tasting workshops that are offered around the world do sound intriguing. I’d love to go to a tropical fruit tasting fair in Rio de Janeiro sometime, for example. Perhaps we can see the 2016 Olympics while we’re there? Seriously though, must one attend a special workshop or will home tastings do? That’s what the WC crew does with wines and it seems to work out pretty well. I definitely notice vinous nuances much better now that I’ve been consciously paying attention and writing about them for this blog. An added benefit of home tastings might also be less damage to the environment. Instead of taking a huge jet to another continent to learn to appreciate mango better, I can do it from home. Sure, the mango needs to be shipped to me, but I understand that those large ships use less fuel per load than planes. The net effect will be less environmental damage, though with this more environmental friendly plan, I’d miss out on the fun sounding trip.

Travel is another problem issue in this complex work. Petrini strongly champions growing locally and learning about the local culinary history of food wherever you happen to live. I get that. At the same time he emphasizes quality and variety as key for any gastronome. Doesn’t variety by necessity imply foods from beyond any particular locality? Petrini identifies travel as a “right” for all gastronomes. And it certainly sounds like he travels a fair bit. He flies from northern Italy to San Francisco quite regularly. But he also gives anecdotes throughout the book about visits to Mexico, India and Scandinavia, to note only a few. Frankly I’m jealous. It gets a bit absurd at times. One of his fondest memories comes from a Barbaresco tasting held at the Marriot hotel in Times Square. These wines come from Petrini’s home province in Italy. What does that mean?!? He travels thousands of miles on a jet plane to sample wines from vineyards that he could have bicycled to from his home. Isn’t that the kind of thing that leads to the destruction of the environment? I wonder. Perhaps since we’re talking about people traveling rather than food, you can conveniently ignore the environmental cost because it’s out of the realm of concern for the gastronome?

He’s most passionate while decrying the “cultural annihilation that has affected the countryside of every part of the world, on a scale that is unprecedented in human history.” I’m hard pressed to fully grasp what that means. I do get it that there have been mass migrations from the countryside into cities; a trend towards eating out more and cooking less, at least in more developed industrialized places; and that advertizing and marketing has taken hold of the food industry more and more. Does that equal ‘cultural annihilation?’ I don’t think so. It’s merely cultural change, which is an ongoing process for all time. Yes, certain food traditions get lost over time, but there are new things to enjoy too. I couldn’t have developed a taste for sushi living here in the United States had it not been for the industrial changes of the 20th Century which permitted fresh fish to be flown overnight from anywhere in the world. Without improved shipping methods, I’d never had the chance to develop my love for French wine either. Even Petrini recognizes that “traditional” foods are the product of change. He notes that tomatoes are native to the New World and pasta is a version of something developed by China carried through the Middle East. But Italy alone claims paternity for spaghetti with tomato sauce.

I couldn’t help but see this seeking for a fantasized past of high quality, tasty regional food as an attack against the US. As I’ve already mentioned, Slow Food itself is a reaction against the expansion of fast food chains in Italy. I suppose it was in America that fast food chains were born. Beyond that, Petrini completely dismisses the idea that American culture offers any culinary tradition that meets his criteria for taste and quality. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse is the one possible exception that defines this general rule. That’s obviously absurd. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we Americans have rich traditions of regional cuisine. I won’t bother to enumerate them because I don’t think that we need be defensive on this point. Instead it suggests a kind of cultural snobbery and superiority underlying the writer’s world view that is quite troubling.

In the end, this book touches on a lot of exciting and controversial issues: the growth of the agro industry, changes in patterns of eating and living, environmental issues, and the recognition that taste matters. I have to admire his emphasis that learning about food is a lifetime occupation. I just feel that it’s not quite enough. Agro industry exists for a reason; so do fast food chains. Why? I think that the latter survive because a fair number of people like fast food. But what about about big agro? That’s something for which the book has no answer. At his best, Petrini simply demonizes it as the source of the problem. That makes no sense. It’s not here by accident. What would happen if everyone did as Petrini suggests, and go back to nature and begin to cultivate food in small plots ourselves? With the necessary duplication and inefficiency involved, I suspect that we couldn’t grow enough to sustain us all. There are a lot more of us now then there was two hundred years ago. Whether you like it or not, the agro industry exists to sustain the massive world population. We should look at that first before dismantling it wholesale.

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what's your opinion, doctor?

what's your opinion, doctor?

Carlisle is a good guy.

This may be the only thing that the Native American werewolves and the Volturi agree upon. Certainly Bella thinks that he’s great. Perhaps she’s biased. It must be handy to have a good looking sweet ER physician, who never tires or is short-tempered, hanging around when you’re a terrible klutz. Charlie bends over backward defending Dr. Cullen in book one. Really, everyone thinks that he’s marvelous. Listen to Jacob’s ringing endorsement in Breaking Dawn:

Carlisle Cullen. Looking at him without that hate clouding my eyes, I couldn’t deny that killing him would be murder. He was good. Good as any human we protected. Maybe better.

I like Carlisle too. I admire him really. It must have been hard growing up with such a tyrannical father. Then to suddenly be turned into a vampire: so much pain and shock and trauma! I can hardly imagine it. Moreover Carlisle was all alone for the whole thing. He didn’t have others to guide him during his first vampire year. He must have ironclad self-control to have avoided killing anyone in the bloodlust that I’m sure he battled. After her wretched birthday party at the start of New Moon, Bella asks him how he could resist her open, bleeding wound. He modestly replies, “Years and years of practice… I barely notice the scent anymore.” So there! He’s very tough.

But what about Carlisle as a physician? There’re a number of practical considerations: how did he manage to get the right credentials what with his advanced age? How does he work with his patients when humans generally have a natural aversion to vampires? Does he periodically return to medical school or residency training when he’s struggling to keep up with new advances in the profession? Did he ever lose it in the bloodbank?

My real question, though, is the one relating to that special “medical intervention” that Elizabeth Masen demanded for her son on her death bed. “You must do everything in your power. What others cannot do, that is what you must do for my Edward.” And the rest is history: Dr. Cullen vampirizes Edward.

But that’s not all. Later we learn that Dr. C changes Esme after her suicidal jump from the cliff. At Rosalie’s insistent request, he converts Emmet following his mauling by bears. Rosalie herself is “saved” after she’s gang raped and left for dead by this good doctor. He even offers to change Bella after high school, though that doesn’t prove necessary.

In Edward’s case, Carlisle clearly had his mother’s informed consent to change him. Edward himself was underage at the time (though he probably should have been consulted about the proposed procedure as he was seventeen.) In the cases of Esme, Emmet and Rosalie, Carlisle just went for it, not telling the patients anything until it was too late. To me this places these actions in an ethical gray zone. I do recognize that we’re dealing with life-and-death decision making here. There probably wasn’t time to go before the ethics board or get second opinions. But I don’t get the sense that the doctor really thought through the consequences of these actions afterward.

The details of informed consent aside, once one decides that emergency vampirization is reasonable, then it’s a short step to using it as an elective procedure. Remember, this is Carlisle’s plan for Bella. Why not expand the treatment to the general population? It’s clear that being a vampire has tremendous advantages: good looks, endless energy, strength, potentially eternal life in good health. Shouldn’t everyone get this bit of work done? There is the whole dining out problem to contend with of course. Though what medical treatment doesn’t have unwanted side effects? Apparently you can learn to deal with it if you work at it. Plus if we all got changed, there’d be nobody left to feast on, so we’d all be “vegetarian” by default. Problem solved!

How can Dr. Cullen withhold this life saving procedure from humanity? Maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all.

more “Twilight” rants

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a thin French woman in Paris

a thin French woman in Paris

The secret of eating for Pleasure is what this book is all about. Mireille Guiliano has an envious position as CEO of Veuve Clicquot champagne which allows her to drink the bubbly every day, but also gives her a bird’s eye view on the culture of French dining and weight control. Just like the title, the book describes how French women avoid getting fat. Guiliano describes her personal experience with weight; she gained gobs of it as an exchange student in America then managed to lose it with the French methods she enumerates. She offers specifics about what exactly the French do to stay naturally thin. Having just gone to Paris for a short trip I could really see the magically thin, pretty women everywhere. Yet they seemed to eat pastries, cheese and drink wine constantly. She attributes this ability to the passion that the French feel for their food, a passion not shared by Americans. For instance, there’s a reference to bakers who would compete fierily in Paris just to make the best chocolate covered macaroon cookie! Beyond passion, there are some practical steps that she suggests to achieve a desirable French thinness. Stabilization is recommended for maintaining equilibrium and keeping slim while aging. Drinking more water is emphasized as an important key to keeping svelte and ample consumption is apparently learned at a very young age in France . Eating nutritious broth-type soups are part of the whole regime. Recasting is the term used for getting started in the “school of proportions” and using more food variety. She repeatedly focuses on “offenders,” those foods you are bound to overindulge on. She recommends not keeping “offenders” in the home. There are fabulous recipes in the book about how to bake French bread, make croissants and yes, prepare chocolate mousse! At any age, there is joy to be found in living more French, eating more French, and breathing more French! Check it out and see if you can make your life skinnier by taking breaths between bites, taking those stairs, along with going for that walk with your posture in check! This is more than some step by step diet book, it’s a charmingly written message to enjoy life and in the process keep slim on the journey.

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