This blog post on dinner etiquette and protocol has been on my mind for a while. However, I did not want to speak about it until experiencing it first hand more than just once. Now that we have hosted and have been hosted several times for both lunch and dinner in France I feel that I can speak on this subject in a clearer manner.
First of all, I must begin by saying that lunch or dinner is rarely the first get-together two parties will have to get to know each other. Instead it is often the 2nd or 3rd step. Normally, there is an invitation to coffee or for a gouter (snack time before dinner). Each party reciprocates this, and then the dinner invitation can be extended. Needless to say, this protocol can be broken, but it is the general rule of thumb.
Second, lunch can be anywhere from 12pm to 1:30pm for a start time, just like in the United States. However, dinner is early if it starts before 8pm (even then, 9pm isn't at all late). Families will often feed the children before hand and then eat separately from them because of bedtimes. When we have invited or been invited dinners will start early for the kids sake. Early being between 6:30pm and 8pm. Because of this difficult time for dinner, we often opt for lunch with our friends. It makes it much easier for the children to participate and keeps the time less stressful for them.
Third, the invited brings a gift to the host such as the one brought to us last week. Flowers are a very popular choice for the gift.
It is also perfectly acceptable for the invited to ask to bring something such as desserts or the baguettes for the meal. At the dinner we had last week, the family we invited offered to bring dessert; and I gladly accepted. Doesn't it look amazing? Just so you know, it tasted even better than it looks! The French know how to do desserts.
Also, a meal is not something to be rushed through! There is a pause in between the appitzer and/or salad; then another pause between the main dish and the cheese plate; then another pause until the dessert; and yet another pause before the coffee or tea (they usually eat their dessert separate of the coffee and tea). All of this takes place at the table, and can last a couple of hours. In the United States we would often move to the living room at this point to make discussion more comfortable. However, the French love table conversations and will often stay there for the evening enjoying their discussions on politics or strange American customs like having dinner at 6pm (Ok, maybe that's only when we are there). So far, our shortest dinner engagement has been 4 hours long with the average being for 5 1/2 hours.
The wonderful thing about being an American in France is that the French will serve their regional dishes to us (In France, there are very specific regions with very specific regional dishes. Therefore, people from different regions of the country love teaching us about their specialty dishes.). It has been fascinating! In turn, they love it when we fix classic "American" dishes. This can be hard for me, and slightly frustrating. It seems like the classics in their minds are fried chicken or hamburgers. I don't mind occassional hamburgers, but cannot our family doesn't eat anything fried! Therefore, I will make a BBQ meatball dish or a honey/mustard chicken, which they enjoy immensely. I'm finding more and more how much the United States has adapted from the countries which founded it. Our dishes are so international! However, our angel food cake or soft-baked chocolate cookies, or brownies with ice-cream are huge hits over here; so the desserts are easy to decide on.
Did you know that Americans use their forks an extraordinary amount? Really it's quite startling. In France, it is proper to use both the fork and the knife at the table with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand for almost every dish served. I have seen Frenchmen eat boned chicken piece with such grace and then leaving nothing on the bone. In fact, that is how I always view the way the French eat...with grace and poise. They do the same with a piece of pizza as they would with a steak dinner. They also enjoy their food emmensly often remarking on the quality of the vegetables or the sharpness of the cheese. They love savoring each bite and commenting on it. Sometimes they are brutally honest, such as when a woman told me she enjoyed the kiwi and banana in my fruit salad but that the strawberries were only so-so and were still out of season. It is not something I should be upset about, she is just explaning her experience with the food.
Now, to discuss kids at the dinner table. I have been told that in the last generation French children were expected to stay at the dinner table with the adults and be seen and not heard until they were dismissed. Now, I do believe that it is important for children to learn to be well behaved at the dinner table. However, a two hour long dinner seems nearly impossible for the child. Therefore, after they have finished their main dish,we always let the children go to their room to play until the dessert is brought out. Thankfully, this is well excepted now. I am also glad that all of our guests have been willing to let the children in on the conversation. Jonathan and I are firm believers in helping our children develop their conversational skills. Claire and Matthew are both shy around adults. However, they are gaining confidence as we include them and listen to what we they have to say.
So there are a few little insights into the French dinner table. To be quite honest, I used to be terrified of eating dinner here. Now we all love the conversation and the enjoyment of the food. And to show how much I have integrated into the culture, I now eat my salad, pizza, and even chicken legs with a knife and a fork. :)