food / travel

Vegan Or Gluten-Free: Hard To Swallow In France

The 'exceptional' eaters are tolerated if it's part of a medical treatment. But when it's based on well-being or upsets dinner parties, it can get tricky.

Being vegan or gluten-free can be hard in a country where meals are an institution
Being vegan or gluten-free can be hard in a country where meals are an institution
Solène Lhénoret

PARIS — Try this: tell those around you at dinner that you have stopped consuming gluten. Or meat. Or dairy. And wait for the answers: "What's this, a new fad?", "Do you want to lose weight?", "Are you sick?"

Refusing to share a meal often sparks all sorts of comments and more or less unpleasant criticism, even debate. Since becoming a vegetarian four years ago, Laura Antonakis has become very familiar with this. "But… What are we going to eat?", "Men have been eating meat since prehistoric times!", "What you're doing is useless, it won't change anything", "Your carrot is suffering too" are remarks she often hears when the subject is brought up during meals. The 31-year-old Parisian librarian says she has been called a "quinoa eater" and a "stupid hipster."

Like many others, Laura tries to avoid this touchy subject, especially when she is with a new group. "I never try to convince anyone. But when I go out in Paris, my friends always get charcuterie, and refusing to eat it can trigger hostile behavior," she says. "I also get criticism from vegans who accuse me of not going far enough. ‘You don't eat animal flesh, but you don't mind wearing a wool sweater made in Bangladesh?" In the end, you can't make everybody happy."

It is difficult for people who follow a restrictive diet to know what behavior is best. "When I'm invited somewhere, I feel like I'm being judged as a selfish person," says Pauline Randet, 48, who lives in Moscow and stopped consuming gluten three years ago after being diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease. "You never know if it's better to tell them, not tell them, come with your own food or beg everyone to eat out, even if it means being frowned upon by the waiters."

A traditional moment of conviviality

In France, you don't joke about food. The French are known for their love of big festive meals where guests can indulge into the art of "eating well" and "drinking well." In November 2010, an intergovernmental committee of the UNESCO even decided to add the "Gastronomic meal of the French" to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This "French-style" meal must meet certain criteria in terms of "time, schedule, location, space — eating at the table, for instance — and the structure of the meal — with a starter, a main course and a dessert. Most importantly, it must be shared with other people," says Claude Fischler, a sociologist and research director in food at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

In France, meals are a communion — Photo: Kelsey Chance

According to French tradition, the meal is a convivial moment during which people savor the dishes over a long period of time. A 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) shows that France is the country where people have the longest meals, averaging 2 hours and 13 minutes every day. The overall average for other member countries is about 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Differently from the Protestant tradition in which food is not sacred, France is influenced by Catholicism where food is a communion. "This is my body, this is my blood… You can't be picky and ask if it's gluten-free," says Mr. Fischler. "Since the meal is a communion, if you show that you do not want to take part in it, you are literally excommunicating yourself."

In all religions — except Protestantism, which allows people to eat anything and everything at any time as long as they do not take pleasure in it — there is a common practice of food deprivation, according to Eric Birlouez, professor of nutrition at AgroParisTech. "This is sometimes called ‘fasting", when people refrain from eating certain foods for a period of time, such as Lent for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims, or Yom Kippur for Jews. The practice of fasting is pleasing to God because man is able to willfully control his food impulses, but also sexual impulses. You have to be able to show that the mind is stronger than the body", says the academic.

Since the meal is a communion, if you show that you do not want to take part in it, you are literally excommunicating yourself.

Since France and Southern European countries in general favor "commensality, or the sensory pleasure of eating, of having a good time together," says Birlouez, "it is not in good taste to refuse food. Moreover, one of the first things children learn is to try it before saying ‘I don't like it"."

Juliette Liegeois, a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Nice, decided to ban meat from her diet two years ago because "it disgusted her." Her worst memories? That time when she was invited to eat lunch at a neighbor's house, and they refused to give her a substitute dish saying: "It's your choice, own up to it!" She ended up not eating anything. There was also that time when the school cafeteria staff told her "Just pick the bacon out of your rice, there's nothing else." Her stomach remained empty, again.

"Overall, being different is a problem in France," says Céline, who started a gluten-free diet one year ago. This French teacher, who has been living in Hamburg for the past ten years and wishes to remain anonymous, noticed that there are very clear disparities between France and Germany, where people's food choices are much better accepted, particularly in restaurants, which systematically declare all of the dishes' ingredients.

Half of French people have changed their diet

Despite all of this, there has been a sharp increase in the number of French people who choose to eat differently. In 2017, the Observatory for Society and Consumption (Obsoco) published a study on French people's dietary behavior. According to this study, 21% of them follow a specific and permanent diet.

Among them, flexitarians — who limit their meat consumption without being exclusively vegetarian — are the most numerous (8%); followed by those who have banned sugar (4%); those who only eat organic food (1%), and vegans (0.4%). The study also reveals that half of French people say they have changed their diet in recent years.

"Your carrot is suffering too" — Photo: Jon Fife

While such diets are tolerated when they are part of a medical treatment, acceptance is more difficult when they are based on physical and mental well-being.

For Eric Birlouez, it is necessary to differentiate between diets where a specific toxic food is eliminated and those "who are part of a trend. Many people threw themselves into the gluten-free trend: celebrities, the world of design, fashion, media… One day, it's baobab pulp, the next, it's coconut juice. It allows people to stand out socially, to assert their identity. ‘I am not alone, there is a real or virtual community behind this.""

"It is also important to distinguish diets who put an emphasis on the environment and animal welfare. Eating also means acting on environmental protection, limiting waste… In some spheres, this philosophy is not shocking, and is even becoming the new normal," adds the AgroParisTech professor.

From sausage to Christmas oysters, lamb on Sundays and regional specialties, starting a restrictive diet is also about cutting yourself off from French traditions.

Marthe Pariset, 27, vegetarian for the past four years, acknowledges this. "Food is linked to our history, to shared memories of our childhood. And when you refuse that, people's reaction can be very emotional, because it reminds them of their own contradictions: no one likes to see videos of slaughterhouses, but everyone loves eating a slice of sausage."

It took her several months to become fully vegetarian because of the strong "social pressure of my family, my friends and even in restaurants." For this marketing manager, who has been living in Munich for two years, France lags behind compared to Germany. "Even in Bavaria, the land of sausages, there is always a vegetarian option on the menu," she says, ironically. Her brother, a market farmer, strongly defends traditional agriculture, which "makes for very lively dinners." But despite this, her family has finally accepted her diet. Her latest victory: a vegetarian Christmas dinner. "I even convinced them to do this every other Christmas!"

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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