After polishing off canalones covered in a cream sauce and melted cheese, my host mom places in front of me my second out of three plates. On it is chicken cooked on the stove with plenty of olive oil, and fried potatoes to have her homemade version of patatas bravas. As she generously pours more oil on my chicken, she tells me how sano, or healthy, our meal is tonight, and that she made us dessert. The dessert is strawberries, though marinated with balsamic vinegar and sugar and served with cream. While she clears plates and happily converses with us, our host-father cuts bread furiously and forces us to eat until we can convince him that we really do not want another piece. How can a three-course meal as bounteous as this one, served with more pieces of bread you could dream to eat in one sitting, be healthy?
Almost every meal eaten at our home here in Barcelona has been brown. I have been taught from a young age that the more colors on your plate, the healthier it will be. This of course excludes “foods” such as Skittles. Bread and pastries, coffee, chocolate, fried food, potatoes, cheese, meat, and vegetables that turn brown when you cook them – eggplant, artichoke, and onion, are foods that are eaten by us and my host family almost everyday. The special splash of color during our meals is a small plate of salad or the half glass of red wine. Also, they seem to insist that a meal is not a meal unless you eat everything you possibly can; we eat plate after plate of filling food making dinner last at least an hour, plus the dinner conversation after, or sobremesa.
From my meal experiences here it might be safe to say that the French paradox exists outside of France. My host-parents are extremely healthy and sound people, especially for their age. My host-father who is 88, gets up early every morning to go to the gym, and goes on excursions with his friends to the mountains every weekend. He’s lived so long and so in shape eating many foods that Americans could deem unhealthy. That is exactly what the French paradox is: eating a diet so rich and by American definitions unhealthy, yet the people who eat the diet are extremely fit. Michael Pollan writes about this “paradox” often:
You might also be interested to know that some of the cultures that set their culinary course by the lights of pleasure and habit rather than nutritional science are actually healthier than we are — that is, suffer a lower incidence of diet-related health troubles. The ”French paradox” is the most famous such case, though it’s worth keeping in mind the French don’t regard the matter as a paradox at all; we Americans resort to that word simply because the French experience — a population of wine-swilling cheese eaters with lower rates of heart disease and obesity?! — confounds our orthodoxy about food (Pollan).
As Americans, especially me as a nutrition and food science major, we put so much emphasis on whether a food is healthy or not, what makes it healthy, if it stays healthy if you cook it, that we forget about food as something with taste. I have never heard my host mother say that one specific food in our meal is especially sano, nor have I heard her say the word nutritivo. Eating dinner with my host family every night has brought up the idea that the meal is healthy because it is a meal. The comida becomes a plato because we all sit at the table together, talk about our days, learn each others’ languages; we share.
Sano must then not be a category of foods that nourish your body better than other foods; it must be a way of eating. In fact, one might argue that food is not the primary purpose of a meal and that nourishment is not just about relinquishing hunger. Julia Child wrote: “remember, no one’s more important than people!” Here, food is a social activity. A meal centers on conviviality rather than merely satisfying hunger. This is quite possibly the answer to the paradox: if food is not a meal without sharing it with people, one is not likely to eat except with other people during a meal. In the U.S., a meal has one purpose, which is that of filling you up as fast as possible. We want to eat fast and conveniently and our food research reflects that while only studying what we eat and not slowing down to consider how.
As I write this article sitting quietly alone in a coffee shop during merienda time, I come to realize the ultimate difference between the loudly chattering Spanish people in the café and me. A healthy meal is not necessarily a nutritious meal, but a shared experience centered on food with good conversation.
Pollan, Michael. “Our National Eating Disorder.” The New York Times Magazine. 17 Oct. 2004. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17EATING.html>.
Child, Julia, and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.