Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.
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I’ve come to believe that it would be possible to stem the tide of world-wide obesity with the standard issue to all women of a beautifully made, French, Little Black Dress. You know — the type that appears in French adverts, or as worn by Audrey Hepburn, or in silhouettes on paperbacks about Paris (also featuring delicately drawn curly patio furniture and pom-pom headed poodles). A shapely fitted confection which flares out just above the knee, worn by a pony-tailed, impossibly thin, and very definitely French jeune-fille. Ah, me, she is just a black outline on my current bottle of rosé — but I want to be her and live her life of lightly, skinnily, skipping through streets of shuttered buildings full of parked Citröens.
If I could wear that dress, look like that, I’d forgo that extra croissant. You know I would.
Hiding a multitude of chins with Standard Issue Clothing
The last time I received a standard issue item was from my husband’s company when we relocated to Saudi. Black it was indeed, but that is where its similarity with an LBD began and ended. It was, you needn’t guess, a rather large and definitely not fitted abaya with matching headscarf.
The Husband returned home from his pre-visit carrying a lovely pink and black box which whispered all sorts of possibilities of delicious contents. In retrospect, it was probably rather large for that. As abayas go, it was a racy number with hot pink and silver around the hand-obscuring sleeves and on the edge of the black chiffony scarf.
Yes, I know. What a floozy. Actually, the scarf gave me considerable pleasure. I liked to drape it and imagine myself Benazir Bhutto or Jemima Khan. While I felt quite exotic at times, the sad truth was that I was indistinguishable from any other woman in town. It wasn’t rare for a strange child to grab my hand, confusing it for that of its mother.
That abaya was a dangerous thing, though. I heard all sorts of stories about what people wore under it, from saucy knickers to tea-stained pajamas, but I wore running tights and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. Whatever we wore, though, there was never need for a constraining waistband which would pinch us after a doughnut too many. It was awfully easy to consider pudding after lunch or even an extra Middle Eastern pastry at breakfast, especially since other pastimes were fairly limited.
Obesity is in the eye of the beholder (or in the outline of the LBD)
I am told that French obesity rates are rising, but from what to what, I am hard pressed to answer. Yesterday I drank a coffee on the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s most fashionable street, and tried to count the number of curvier types I could find. By curvier type, I am talking about those with extra rolls. There were precious few – especially when I consider towns in England or America. A little eavesdropping revealed many of these chubbier folk not to be speaking French. Lots of tourists and people whose origins were other than French seemed to be the ones adding a little padding to the city. Perhaps it is for them there is a little crêpe and Nutella stand on the appropriately named Rotonde, the lovely fountain which marks the centre of Aix.
You might say that this really isn’t a very scientific survey and you might be right, but bof to you. The French assure me that only Aix and Paris are ultra-slim, while the rest of the country is very different – said with a charming little purse of the lips and shake of the head, bien sûr. Yet this is what I see and I am convinced that it is because French ladies have a uniform, and they see it as their duty to fit into the damn thing.
If you can’t fit in the uniform, you won’t fit in at all
The uniform in Aix is a nice dress, or neat trousers, elegant tops and casual but well fitted jackets or even cardigans – but not comfy ones, darling, don’t even think of it. Colours are elegant neutrals, whites or blacks, and linen is definitely favoured for the summer. Patterns are handled with caution and fabrics are always natural. The whole package is finished of with a head of expensive beige highlights and who then, frankly, has any money left over for overeating?
One cannot wear this uniform well if there is any hint of pudge and so discipline is required. Yes, French women absolutely do hit the gym. This should make you feel much better. Do not believe what you have heard, that French women stay slim just by walking everywhere and taking the stairs. There are lots of gyms and they are full; the classes are as frenetic as anything in NYC. Sport is organized, and grown adult women enroll in athletic-, swim- and sports clubs at the annual Rentrée which follows the end of August’s national Vacances every year. Indeed, it is organized almost along military lines and involves getting medical certificates, insurance, and all sorts of paperwork. Even staying slim conforms to the national obsession with bureaucracy. You need discipline to collect and organize that much paper.
Your mother was right: eat three times a day, and only three times a day
This discipline really seems to be in a typically French Classic manner. Old-fashioned, if you like. Three sensible meals a day, one large at midday, and do not open the fridge between meals. Wine is drunk, but not in bacchanalian English or Irish excess. “Only one,” my French friend explains with a slight wag of her index finger, “at 5pm.” These are rules which we all know we can follow, but……
This is where the government would be wise to issue that frock. Just as the abaya gave hiding room for the effects of little indulgences, a little black dress does not. Better than the abaya, it would be a luxurious thing to wear and worth an hour in the gym every day in order to get into it. Once on, it would be a reminder to avoid any bloat-inducing, calorie-laden treats, which would spoil the line of its exquisite cut.
Come on! I had to wear the abaya in Saudi. It seems only right I should have to wear the classic national costume of France. Doesn’t it?
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission