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Le Self

Village buffet

Le Village Buffet photo via Where is Cat?

I've not been a Francophile for decades so my cultural understanding of the country is admittedly weak. Yes, I realize they are a thin nation and we are mostly chunks, but I'm pretty sure that when people talk about a certain French aesthetic, they really mean Parisian not the entire country.

Acclimating French women to Jenny Craig is no easy sell, as Susan Dominus' article in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine points out. In particular I was struck by Valérie Bignon, the director of corporate communications for Nestlé France's irrational vehemence against cafeteria-style dining (I didn't interpret this as all-you-can-eat) a.k.a. "Le Self."

“You know what I find totally crazy?” Bignon asked, momentarily sidetracked. “Le Self. You know this system? It’s American. You take a plate, there’s a line, you take some salad. . . .” She was referring to what we call self-serve, an option so neutral to me that Bignon might as well have been decrying the rise of the photocopy machine. “In school cafeterias, there used to be a gentleman who made the meal and a madame who served it, and everyone ate together at the table, as they do at home,” she said. “But Americans hit on this system that is fast, it’s cheap, you take what you want — and now it’s everywhere in France!” she said. “I am anti-Self. It’s bad for rapport, and it’s bad for health — it’s too individualistic.”

But in the new issue of Saveur, a woman raised in France in the '60s reminisces about summer family road trips along Route Nationale 7. Author Sylvie Bigar writes:

Other times when hunger struck, we could count on the casual roadside restaurants that fed travelers, as well as truckers who drove the route year round. I remember filling my plate from their generous buffets with as much leg of lamb or entrecote as I wanted.

So, what gives? Le Self is clearly not a modern invention, nor strictly an American export. Buffets are viewed by Parisians much as they might be by a certain class of New Yorkers, which doesn't mean they don't exist.

Also, not terribly related: I feel like a bad person because whenever an article by an American writer mentions a pivotal family trip to Paris (which happens an awful lot–I can think of two off the top of my head in magazines this month, alone) that formed their ideas about food, my brain shuts off and I start feeling twitchy. Obviously, my aversion is born out of jealousy because the idea of a European vacation is unfathomable to me despite even the seemingly middle-class Griswolds partaking in the rite of passage. I am making a vow to hold back on kneejerk character assessment just because so many writers experienced kickass family vacations involving Michelin-starred restaurants.


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