How the French Do It

It had been one of our typical robust lunches at L'Artois—foie gras, roasted woodcock, cantal, slices of blue plum tart, washed down with a bottle of sancerre and a bottle of cahors (our usual one-two punch)—and we were now sipping glasses of delicious vieille prune (a honey-brown plum eau-de-vie from southwestern France) and smoking our luncheon-size Monte Cristos. Claude leaned back a bit in his chair, simultaneously squinted and grimaced as he often did when he was about to say something to provoke me, and announced, "You know, if I were still a young man, I would now challenge you to eat exactly the same meal with me again, but backwards this time, starting with the plum tart and ending with the foie gras." He paused and then added with a twinkle, "But perhaps we would have the wild boar this time instead of the woodcock...."

Claude was a man of normal size, given to moderation in most things—but well into his eighties, he remained a formidable eater. On one occasion, when he'd just gotten out of the hospital after a coloscopy and had been advised to eat sensibly for a while, we were discussing where to go for dinner. I mentioned one restaurant famous for its foie gras, then quickly said, "Of course, that's probably not the sort of thing you'll want to eat tonight." "Well, you know," he replied, "foie gras doesn't sound so bad. And after all, it is in a sense already half-digested, and so ought to go down pretty well." As it turned out, though, he didn't have foie gras that night. He had lamb kidneys instead.

Claude regularly consumed enough rich food and drink to give a cardiologist apoplexy from across the room—and yet he lived a life of reasonable length, and died with no diet-induced maladies. He ate and drank like a Frenchman. But how do these people do it? Why don't they seem to be poisoned by excess as often as we are? Much has been written in recent years about the role of wine in moderating the malevolent influences of dietary fat, and that's undoubtedly part of it. But I think it must also have a great deal to do with the way the French eat: They tend to bring a sense of occasion to food. At a fine restaurant, or to observe a special day, they will indulge to the fullest; at home on a quiet evening, they'll munch a bit of bread and salad. Oh, and they expect to suffer now and then for their indulgences. On the phone early one January, Claude told me that, for New Year's Eve, he and Pepita had dined at home on oysters from his local fishmonger and a roasted guinea fowl—then added, matter-of-factly, "We got rather sick from the oysters, but that happens sometimes." If one wishes to enjoy the pleasures of oysters, his attitude said, one must expect to pay the price now and then.