Minding my manners

July 17, 2009 at 11:00 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

There is so much to learn.

From the subtle differences in inflection that differentiate the words for heart (coeur), class (course), and run (corre)–all of which sound basically like “core” to my untrained ear–to the odd reality shows (“reality tourism” in which you get thrown in a Soviet gulag for a week), I learn more about French language and culture every time I step outside, turn on the TV, or start chatting with someone.

But the most mystifying is the way that the French eat fruit.

To me, one of the best parts of eating a peach is biting into it, trying to suck up the juice before it drips down my chin, tasting the contrast between the skin and the flesh.  But as I am learning, in France this is a practice best confined to one’s own home. Gusto is best expressed as a slight sigh and closing of the eyes upon tasting the peach, rather than slurping your way through to demonstrate the juiciness.

I would not have known about this wrinkle of French politesse–fruit-eating generally not being a public activity–were it not for my office lunch room, where we all gather every day around 12:30 to eat lunches that we either brought from home or buy at one of the local restaurants or markets.  This being France, the fruits are absolutely fantastic, and most peoples’ lunches in the summer end with a peach, half a cantauloupe, a handful of apricots.

And yet.  The first time I saw someone peeling a peach before eating it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  But this is how it goes: the peach must be perfectly ripe.  Put the peach in your left hand and a table knife in the other.  Make a small cut in the skin, catch the edge of the skin on the blade of the knife, and gently pull towards you to lift just the skin off the peach, leaving the flesh intact.  Continue doing this until the skin is completely gone, a process that takes a good five minutes.  Your left hand will be covered in peach juice, but your chin will be perfectly clean.  Now take the knife and make vertical slices in the peach flesh, cutting away slices of peach, resting them on the blade of the knife, and carrying the knife to your mouth.  The right hand never comes near the face without the knife aiding the transport of fruit to mouth.

Or a cantauloupe.  I do not have the daintiest fruit-eating manners by nature, and I was always a slice-up-the-melon-and-eat-it-while-holding-the-rind kinda girl.  But here is what one does in France (this is more of a fork-and-knife operation, and cantaloupes here are much smaller than in the US, the size of a softball or a little bigger): cut the cantauloupe in half, and then in half again to make 4 crescents.  Hold the melon quarter in your left hand and cut away the seeds and pulp.  Cut the quarter in half again to get a crescent-shaped eighth of a melon.  Slice the fruit off the rind by resting the melon in the left hand and running the knife between melon flesh and skin.  Now cut the melon into chunks–but wait, not all at once!  Cut the first chunk, put down knife, pick up fork, chew and swallow chunk, put down fork, pick up knife, cut next chunk, put down knife, pick up fork….and repeat for the remaining 15/16 of the melon.  No wonder there is a mandated 45 minute lunchtime!  Yet it also makes me really happy that the fruit is so good it can actually be savored in this way, rather than being a somewhat tasteless and poorly-textured vehicle for vitamins and minerals.

The biggest revelation is a new way to eat apricots, which are hugely popular here and one of my big surprises of the summer, because I always thought of them as a fruit most suited to drying.  But here is a secret to politely indulging in their deliciousness.  If you put both thumbs in the dimple at the top of the apricot with the vertical indentation in between, and pull your thumbs gently apart, the apricot will cleave perfectly in half.  No knife necessary and no leaking juice, because the fruit is fairly dry as stone fruits go.  The pitless half can then be eaten (skin-on!) out of hand, and the pit can be easily loosened out of the second half with a fingertip.  Who would have thought?

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Now I understand David Lebovitz’s comment in his book that he doesn’t eat fruit in public anymore because it’s too stressful.  I’ll need to practice my knife skills in private before breaking them out in the office, because I’ll definitely send a slippery peach flying into my lap the first time I try to peel one, and I’m self-conscious about taking the bite-and-slurp approach.  I’m not going to stop buying nectarines from the fruit guy near the Rue de Fleurus entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens and eating them while watching the tennis players, or refrain from working my way through a bag of cherries while sitting in a park, but it’s nice to know the ways in which I should modify my eating habits when they are on display.  Cherries.  How on earth does one eat those politely?  And come to think of it, how did olives become such a popular food when they necessitate the deposit of a spent pit into one’s fingertips, or putting one’s fingers into the mouth to withdraw said pit?

As I said…there is so much to learn.

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  1. Awesome post. I had no idea that there was a more polite way to eat fruit than just digging into it! I’ll be trying these out when eating lunch at school so I don’t end up with dribbles of juice all down my chin. Let me know if there’s a technique for plums… For your sake, I think you should have taught me these when we first became cube-mates 🙂


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