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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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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