French by adoption, Jamie Schler is passionate about gastronomy. For more than 25 years, she has been tasting, browning, putting in the oven, blanching, caramelizing dishes, always looking for a taste that will bring people together. Once the cooker is done using, she goes to her keyboard to share her culinary experiences on her blog, Life’s a Feast. Interview with an epicurean, to talk culture, traditions and food.
What was your first impression of the French culture?
Jamie Schler: I came to France, to Paris, in the summer of 1985, looking for a new life. What struck me, as someone who loves to eat, were the markets. I remember being astonished at the relationship people had with food. Picking up products, putting them in paper bags with our hands, which you don’t do in the States! Lining up at “boulangeries”, the whole bistro and café scene… I’d been living in New York before, which is a food town but so completely different. In Paris, the streets are lined with people eating! People in France are both passionate and casual about their food. What struck me was also the quality of the food and the social life around food, all day long. Talking about my first impression, it seemed that, in the States, food was very well planned – shopping, meeting people at the restaurant… Maybe it’s because everything is so much closer together in Paris. It just seemed so much more spontaneous, convivial, less planned. I look at it differently now but that was the impression I got, that everything was just very passionate.
Abroad, French gastronomy is often stereotyped with baguettes, frog’s legs and camembert. How did you see French gastronomy before coming to the country?
JS: I grew up in a very southern American town that didn’t have anything French. The only contact I had with French was the high school French club, somebody making Coq au Vin for the French club dinner, or one of our teachers showing us how to make croissants with ready-made dough! I thought back then that it was the height of luxury and sophistication! When I went to New York, I worked for a Frenchman and started understanding what the French “boucher” and the French “boulangerie” were. I was a struggling poor student at my first job out of college and it was still something out of reach. In the States, you had to have a lot of money to eat French! I remember going into the little French shops and buying “poulet rôti”. The fact that it was French made something simple not so simple; to me, it represented sophistication.
What does French gastronomy represent to you today?
JS: My impression has really changed and I now see both sides! I married a Frenchman who came from a very humble and traditional background. His parents owned a little shop so the children had to help cook. Hot meals were served at the table everyday and everyone would gather for lunch and dinner. My husband cooks and taught me a lot about that kind of very traditional French family cooking and traditions, completely different to what I knew. I think over the years I’ve understood and I’ve come to realise the crossover in French culture, especially as a food writer. There is a part that is very Michelin star and “Haute Cuisine”, and then this very traditional kind of family food and cooking. I can now see how both sides meet in the middle, how they are one and the same, and both extremely attainable to someone like me. I also now understand all the traditions and history behind food through the history of this country I’ve been living in these past 25 years.
In your opinion, what is symbolic of French culture and gastronomy?
JS: I think the “terroir”. The closeness to the earth, the ground, the land and the ocean. This closeness to the past also, because the French are very much tied to their traditions. I think it all comes from growing, catching and killing the ingredients. That has a lot to do with family as well. It’s all kind of earthy and basic. The French are close to the food that goes on their table through their family traditions and through where the ingredients come from.
Is there a real “art de vivre à la Française” that is very different to one in the States ?
JS: Yes, there is. I see many positive things about it but I also see an evolution towards something negative, which is very dangerous. Being an outsider and an insider, I see there is still this traditional way of food, of sharing food, serving food and dining together. People still care very much about it. On the other side, I feel like during this last 20-25 year period, there’s been a very fast push towards modernisation, supermarkets and packaging. As a culture, it went too fast maybe. Today, I feel people aren’t able to recognise the true quality of food, because they might be eating less homemade at home. In that case, maybe the traditions around food are very automatic rather than heartfelt.
Do you think there is a shift though, where people are coming back to a more seasonal way of cooking?
JS: Yes, I do. My husband and I moved to Italy in 1992 and came back to France in 1998. During that time, we didn’t like what we saw. We started to notice that every market stall was selling the same fruits and vegetables, all year round. That was when they started flying products in from Chilli and South Africa, instead of producing locally. That’s when people stopped going to their local shops. That’s also when supermarkets started selling pre-packaged and frozen goods. However, in the past couple of years, I have definitely seen a move back, where consumers are going back to more local fruits and vegetables, changing with the seasons, buying at their local fishmonger and butcher, cooking more at home. I also see this wave of young chefs who are treating products and raw ingredients with much more respect. That transfer is being picked up by the client. Maybe all these cooking shows on television are helping that change as well. Simply going back to cooking!
What is your favourite French dish? Why?
JS : The first one is “blanquette de veau”. It’s a dish that I’ve always loved, and a dish that I’ve always been fascinated about. It has kind of become a fetish dish! With my husband, we look at different people’s recipes, like those of Françoise Bernard, just trying to make the most perfect and authentic “blanquette de veau”. It’s something that’s so comforting and satisfying. Secondly, my husband recently started making “pot-au-feu” with beef and beef tails. I’ve absolutely fallen in love! Too me, a good “pot-au-feu” is just perfect!
Are there any French cooking habits that you picked up since living in France?
JS: Yes, I’ve learnt how to eat the French way! It means those sit down lunches, “en famille”. We always do that with our boys, at noon and in the evening. I really picked up the whole ceremony, the formality of sitting down with your family at lunch time and dinnertime for a meal. That really changed the way I eat.
In what ways does the culinary culture reflect a country? How are those cultures different between France and the United States?
JS: It’s hard to explain! I think in the US, there are real pockets of food cultures that are long-lasting, very deeply ingrained, but overall, food is very influenced by trends. Trends come and go, foods come and go, ways of eating come and go. Food in the States, the way you eat and what you eat, is almost a choice, a lifestyle choice. In France, it’s not. There might be little trends, like the macaron for example. But I think in France, food and eating is less a lifestyle choice than it is a way of life, part of life. From one generation to the next, my sons, my husband’s parents and their parents, are still practically eating the same way and the same food. It’s just a way of life. Trends can come and go and it doesn’t really change the basics of what’s going on every day in people’s homes. I think that’s the big difference between France and the United States.
Finally, French gastronomy in three words?
JS : Terroir, tradition, senses.
Pictures : © Jamie Schler from Life’s a Feast