On a recent trip to the UK I took the girls on a London bus. The Curly One, who must have been a bloodhound in a former life, suddenly wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Mummy,” she said, in her well-spoken foghorn: “someone is eating a steak hâché on here. Why doesn’t the driver tell them to stop or get off?” Having furtively ascertained that she wasn’t about to get us all knifed, I shushed her and pointed out that she had herself just eaten a snack on board said bus. Assuming an air of world-weary patience she explained, “yes, but that was a goûter. That lady’s eating a whole meal. It stinks”.
My daughter is quite correct. UK high streets reek constantly of food. Tube carriages are infused with air de cheese ‘n onion with accompanying crunchy sound effects, and train stations are filled with wafts of Cornish pasty, which the adjacent spiralzed kale and goji berry joints do little to smother. Meanwhile one glimpse of the pavement at the end of a Saturday night in any major town will tell you that if anyone in the post-Brexit UK economy is going to thrive it will be the fast-food worker and the street-sweeper.
The ubiquity of food, and people consuming food, was not something that I particularly noticed when I lived in the UK. Having now spent nearly four years in France, however, it hits me smack in the nose. The thing is, you see, that nobody eats food in French streets, unless they are seated outside at a café or brasserie. Just occasionally you might see someone eating a croissant standing up at a bar, but presumably they have a very good excuse for doing so. The only waft that you will encounter in the rue is the fug of a gauloise, or, more pleasantly, the smell of fresh bread that canny boulangers have pumped out onto the pavement to lure you in.
Whereas fast food to a Brit signals cheeky kebab, or guilty donut, to a French person it means menu du jour. With this menu, you may not have any choice about what you eat (invariably lump de viande, with sauce de quelque chose and overcooked haricots verts followed by slab de tarte aux pommes), but you do know that it has been freshly cooked, from scratch, probably using local produce, that it will only cost you 12€, and that you will sit down to eat it, possibly with un petit verre de vin.
I once found myself in the difficult position of not yet having eaten lunch at 2pm, and needing to get to my next appointment by 2.30pm. Not to worry, I thought, I’ll just buy something quick to eat and consume it en route. Needless to say this was easier said than done. I strode purposefully towards an ardoise bearing the legend restauration rapide. It turned out it should have read rapide [compared to ten-course banquets], for not only did the ordering process seem to comprise five separate steps, but then, having retrieved your meal, you were expected to consume it at one of the tables provided. In any case, the man running the joint gave me a dirty look as I approached and very deliberately plucked away the ardoise that had drawn my attention (it was after 2pm, after all, and tout le monde sait qu’on ne mange que entre midi et 14h).
Next I ran into the nearest mini supermarché and hunted round desperately for the picnic lunch section. If you have ever tried this you will know how disappointing an experience it can be. There are always several dispiriting croques monsieur on display, all requiring the aid of a frying pan before they can be consumed, and otherwise your options are limited to some plastic cartons containing mounds of carrottes râpés, and then one or two approximations of a sandwich, containing lacklustre Emmental et jambon on soggy pain de mie. Thoroughly disheartened by what was on offer, I purchased a packet of chips anciens and a bunch of bananes and went on my way.
That was not the end of the matter, though, for I had not reckoned with the public shaming that would ensue when I made my first attempt at opening my packet of chips anciens once I had boarded le tramway. A mere rustle as I got it out of my bag and the vielle dame opposite fixed me with a steely glare. Knowing that I needed to eat, I turned away from her, only to find a much younger dame glaring at me from that direction with equal disapproval. Fearing that my reserves of sang froid would not run to crisp consumption, I reached instead for a banane, but the chastening stare was, if anything, more sternly applied. Defeated, I put all consumables back into my bag and waited for my stop, where I sat on a banc and shivered as I stuffed a bit of fuel in, unobserved, before my meeting.
This idea that fast food is an oxymoron has percolated down even to the likes of McDonalds. No self-respecting French branch of McDo is without its proud advert for service à table. This is too much for poor old Eadred, who mutters perplexedly about the “same soggy fries and contaminated beef burgers” whether it is served to your table or not. He’s missing the point. Eating a steak hâché is absolutely fine so long as you do it in the allotted period for eating, sitting at a table, and never, ever, on public transport.
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