Sunday, October 09, 2005

Meriting Deconstruction: books on unconsidered themes prove a great attraction to the French since they are about their favorite subject — themselves

It turns out yet again that we have got the French all wrong
writes Mary Blume.
Take Sunday luncheon, which we imagine all lively chat and lovely food, adorably buttery grandparents, Papa expertly carving the roast, rosy-cheeked Maman with her casserole of steaming purée, children straight-backed and scraping their plates clean.

Dream on. A family meal is a social construct more complicated than the tasks involved would suggest, says the sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, and its study is back where sexuality was before Freud. In fact, Kaufmann reminds us, historically there have been more taboos concerning food than sex.

In his latest book, Casseroles, amour et crises (published by Armand Colin), Kaufmann explains that the crises are existential and adds that in our secular society the sacrificial altar has become the kitchen stove. "Cuisine is sacrifice. There may be joy but there is also pain," Kaufmann said by telephone from Brittany, where he was planning his family's Saturday night dinner. …

Each meal these days is a test of whether family members have anything to say to one another, Kaufmann says, and the answer is usually no: one French family out of two watches television during meals. This may be just as well since table talk carries the risk of opening a Pandora's box of hidden resentments. Usually, Kaufmann says, the lid is left just ajar.

… A sociologist who wrote on such worthy subjects as life in housing projects, Kaufmann hit pay dirt, so to speak, in 1992 when he published a book on French attitudes to daily tasks such as ironing and emptying the trash. This was followed by books on similarly unconsidered themes which proved a great attraction to the French since they were about their favorite subject, themselves. The Latest Kaufmann, as headlines put it, now gains as much space in Paris newspapers and weeklies as a contender for the Prix Goncourt.

"I work in the ordinary and the banal," Kaufmann says. "It interests me and it interests more and more readers." He had thought that mealtimes would provide a droll light subject but found it complex and grave instead.

The complexity lies in the fact that French housewives dream that cooking will bring them happiness and love.

… the answer to a question that Kaufmann appended to his list during the study was surprisingly revealing: What would be your greatest dream? To give up cooking, most of them replied.

… There may be a bit of narcissism there, notes Kaufmann, who adds that cooking is not all virtue and grace.

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