In the bag As restaurants across France are now required to allow customers to take home their leftovers, considers how the French will come to terms with ‘
Ian Moore le doggy bag’
We all know how seriously the French protect their ‘Frenchness’. The boundaries drawn around the French language, for example, are legendary albeit possibly futile in the global world we live in. ‘ Le weekend’ anyone? The march of change is inevitable, but if there’s one thing I thought would never get interfered with, it’s the French and their table habits.
I’m not talking about cuisine here, French food is French food. You can talk about ‘fusion food’ all you like but I live in a remote corner of the Loire Valley – the only fusion food around here would be trying to eat foie gras with chopsticks. No, it’s the rules themselves, the etiquette; the very essence of Frenchness itself. In short the ‘doggy bag’ has arrived.
Growing up, table etiquette in our house was being told not to put your elbows on the table, eat with your mouth open or hide uneaten sprouts in a plant pot. If we left any food at all, we were reminded of our economic responsibilities, not social protocol, but in France, leaving food uneaten on your plate is the height of bad manners and a serious insult to the chef.
It strikes me that French chefs are a sensitive bunch at the best of times. I once ordered a well-done steak, only to be confronted by an angry chef who declared he would never “put a shoe on a plate”. I was 13, I had no idea what he was on about, only that he didn’t look like a man to be crossed.
Despite this, from January this year French restaurants are now ‘obliged’ to provide a doggy bag for any customers prepared to risk social ostracism by not eating all of their food and instead asking to take it home with them. Personally, I’ve only ever seen tourists ask for a doggy bag in France and only then with cuisines already associated with ‘take away’, for example a Chinese meal or a pizza. I’ve been in restaurants in Paris where a waiter has given me the full level of his Grade A snooty condescension just for ordering a meal in the first place. And that was to be served on a plate! Heaven knows what his reaction would have been had I shunned the plate and venue, preferring instead a bag and home.
I had actually always thought that the reason dogs themselves are allowed into so many French restaurants was to eliminate this problem at source. You want to avoid the filthy looks of fellow diners by not finishing your meal? Buy a small dog and put it at your feet throughout the meal. Seriously, I’ve never seen a diner with a dog in France ever send back anything other than a clean plate.
So if that’s a system that works, why change it? To the French, doggy bag usage is strictly an American thing and there to cater for America’s insistence on portion sizes that would sink a small ship. The French are convinced that their portion sizes are perfect so I can’t honestly see anything changing all that much; it’s difficult to change a nation’s culture. Take the UK, for example, where licensing laws were extended to eradicate the centuries-old custom of binge drinking. It hasn’t done so – binges have just got longer, that’s all. If the French change at all with this new law, I suspect it will be just to add a whole new range of haute couture accessories like a Louis Vuitton doggy bag or a special sparkly dog collar incorporating the doggy bag itself, sort of like a food-bearing St Bernard.
The real test will come if it takes off to the extent that the Académie Française actually feels compelled to introduce a French term for doggy bag, rather than stick with the current ‘ le doggy bag’. I suspect not; they’ll do like everyone else and just sweep it under the table.
I’ve never seen a diner with a dog ever send back anything other than a clean plate
Ian Moore is a comedian, writer, chutney-maker and mod who lives with his family in the Loire Valley. His latest book is C’est Modnifique!, (£8.99, Summersdale Publishers). ianmoore.info