Bicycling in the Yogurt: the French Food Fixation


Communicating in the Language of Food, by Joe Lurie

Dear readers, I am very pleased to share with you another guest blog post by the talented Joe Lurie (though Joe, I’d prefer to “swim in the chocolate” rather than “bicycle in the yogurt”). You’ll remember that Joe previously shared with us the very popular article, “Language Under the Gun.”

Noting that  French President Francois Hollande has been referred to by his political opponents as a fragile strawberry, a wobbly flan , a marshmallow, and “gauche caviar,” with the charisma  of a smelly sausage, I was reminded of how a culture’s preoccupations shape the way language is used.

I was first introduced to the pleasures of French cuisine and its influence on the French language as a university student hitchhiking through Normandy, sampling butter, cream and apple brandy-suffused dishes.

Struggling to express myself in village bistros, I realized the truth behind Mark Twain’s observation that Intermediate French is not spoken in France. A friendly waiter, noting my frustration, reassured me saying, I know, it’s not pie, “Je sais, c’est pas de la tarte,” which means it’s difficult. He went on to add, but it’s not the end of the string beans, “mais c’est pas la fin des haricots” – a strikingly French way of saying, it’s not the end of the world.

A decade later, my French was much improved. While directing a US American study abroad program in Toulouse, my understanding of food’s influence on the language deepened. Before taking a French cooking class with my 20 students, we stopped at an open-air market. Because the line to buy cheese was not moving, our impatient guide complained: “on ne veut pas faire le poireau,” we don’t want to be like a leek. Later, we learned the translation: to wait like a motionless leek in the ground. Now late for cooking class, our guide urged the van driver to press on the mushroom!appuyez sur le champignon!” – meaning step on the gas! Keeping a chef waiting simply would not do.

The students and I were struck by how carefully the chef conducted the lesson – artfully presenting and discussing the ingredients. The meal is serious business, not to be treated like a joke or, as the French say, like custardc’était pas du flan ce cours de cuisine! As  we prepared a fruit salad, the chef mumbled “oh purée!” mashed potatoes! – or damn it! and disdainfully discarded a blemished peach to preserve an aesthetically pleasing fruit plate.

During almost four years living in Strasbourg, Toulouse and the island of Corsica, I saw how the French passion for eating and discussing food flavored the language in tasty and unusual ways, though some expressions are unique to different regions or generations.

It began to make sense that endearing French metaphors are often rooted in the pleasures of taste. “What a nice person” is served up in French as “c’est une crème!” – what cream, while “la crème de la crème,” the cream of creams is the best of all. And “you are so energetic” takes on a carb boost in French: you have the French fry (tu as la frite). To be in high spirits also can come from the fruit family, as in you have the peach (tu as la pêche), while having a banana (avoir  la banane) is to have a big smile. And, of course, there’s the affectionate “mon petit chou,my little cabbage.

Allusions to food also season the language of love. A broken-hearted UC Berkeley student of mine from Marseille described her flirtatious boyfriend as a Don Juan with the heart of an artichoke, quelqu’un qui a un cœur d’artichaut,” offering each of his lovers a leaf from his heart. He was skilled at making romantic advances or as my student put it: serving up a dish, “faire du plat à quelqu’un,” a prelude to going off to the strawberries, aller aux fraises,” to enjoy an erotic interlude.

Even insults and put-downs easily spring from the tongue as if from a farmers’ market. An idiot or jerk, for example, can be described in French as what a pickle! (quel cornichon!); an utter squash (une vraie courge); such a noodle! (quelle nouille!); or as having a green pea in the brain! (avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau!). When struggling to drive in France, I’ve heard irate, gesturing French men speed past, yelling “espèce d’andouille!” piece of sausage! or, you imbecile!

I remember a heated debate in a Paris café about a Gerard Depardieu film. A friend dismissed it as a turnip, “un navet,” a startling vegetable metaphor for a trashy film. When he called the actor a horrible drunk, an indignant Depardieu fan interrupted with: shut your smelly Camembert mouth!ferme ta  boîte à Camembert!”

Just as food evokes passion in France, its metaphorical expressions enliven debate. Butting in on a conversation is to bring your strawberry, ramener ta  fraise. Being overly inquisitive about someone’s private life could provoke an acerbic “occupe-toi de tes oignons!” mind your own onions! the French version of mind your own business. But perhaps the classic French way of ending an argument is go cook yourself an egg, “va te faire cuire un œuf,” or go to hell.

Traveling through the Pyrénées with a French couple, my wife and I enjoyed great food and spirited conversations, especially about politics. When the husband praised Sarkozy, his wife sneered that the former President is overly dramatic – making a big cheese out of nothing, “il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout.”  She added, you can’t tell if he’s talking about pork fat or pork meat, “on ne sait pas si c’est du lard ou du cochon,” you can’t tell if he’s lying or telling the truth. And she believed Sarkozy had casseroles hanging on his butt – “des casseroles au cul” – a scandalous past.

While serving as Dean of Students at an international college in Strasbourg, I was struck by how much my French colleagues valued using words precisely, reflected in the pervasive use of the verb “préciser.” I chuckled when I heard some professors describe student papers that lacked clarity. They complained that these students were lost, bicycling in the sauerkraut, pédalant dans la choucroute. In other regions, one might say bicycling in the yogurt or couscous. And then there’s swimming in chocolate, nageant dans le chocolat, or skating in the mayonnaise, patinant  dans la mayonnaise – getting nowhere. Outside the college, I heard other vivid ways of describing confusion such as being in the soup, the pate or the cabbages (être dans le potage, le pâté or les choux).

Recently, I saw an exasperated French TV commentator despair over the French economy by throwing up his hands exclaiming what a salad!quelle salade!” what a mess! And then he finished with the carrots are cooked! “les  carottes sont cuites!” meaning it’s all over.

If one is unemployed and grouchy or as the French say, “pas dans son assiette,” not on your plate, landing a job would help to put butter on the spinachmettre du beurre dans les épinards,” to make things better. And then it’s time to put your hand in the dough, “mettre la main a la pate” – get down to business. After all, you’ve got to defend your steak, “défendre ton bifteck,” as in look out for your interests.

Speaking of steak, making a living is gagner son bifteck, to earn one’s steak; while making a profit is to prepare one’s butter, faire son beurre. And to have a pancake avoir de la galette, is to be rich. Assuming pancakes are your goal, you’ll have to go all out, put on the sauce, mettre la sauce, and be prepared to make a strong sales pitch, vendre ta salade, by selling your salad.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in computer science from Tours told me he was building a start-up company – “une jeune pousse,” a young sprout and didn’t know what to expect or what sauce he would eat, “ne pas savoir à quelle sauce on va être mangé.”  He knew he had bread on the board, avoir du pain sur la planche, a lot of work to do, but realized that while dealing with potential investors he had to avoid being rolled in the flour, être roulé dans la farine – duped. Otherwise, he risked eating the frog, manger la grenouille – going bankrupt. He didn’t want to end up without a radish, ne plus avoir un radis, or as we would say, without a cent. All his dreams for nothing – “pour des prunes.” Still, if he becomes successful like a Bill Gates, he’s apt to be called a large vegetable, une grosse légume, and be among the grated cheese, le gratin – the elite.

The versatility of the cheese metaphor in a country with hundreds of cheeses is not surprising. “A dessert without a cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” observed Jean Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste. His famous 19th century book, exploring the nuances of cuisine – still is sold in France. And no wonder, with a line like: “He who invents a new dish will have rendered humanity a greater service than the scientist who discovers a planet.”

Today, as French supermarkets and fast food restaurants continue to proliferate, gourmands refuse to compromise or cut the pear in two, couper la poire en deux, in defending their culinary heritage. For more than twenty years, during “La semaine du goût,” Taste Week, thousands of chefs visit schools across the country. They teach children to appreciate fine food; make a baguette, a mousse au chocolat; appreciate a bouillabaisse; and learn the anatomy of the tongue. Restaurants with Michelin stars develop special meals for young children. And chefs are invited to daycare centers to prepare gourmet menus.

Will this unique early training insure the survival of the refined French palate and the nourishment of its language? A master chef is likely to respond, of course, “mais oui, c’est du tout cuit” – it’s completely cooked – it’s in the bag.

Joe Lurie is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s International House, a cross-cultural communications trainer, consultant, university lecturer, and certified Cultural Detective facilitator. Another terrific article he wrote for Cultural Detective, also full of metaphor, was called “Language Under the Gun.”

28 thoughts on “Bicycling in the Yogurt: the French Food Fixation

  1. A great read! As a French food-lover, I had a great time seeing all of these expressions carefully brought together — you don’t notice them when you use them in every day situations!
    ”Language Under the Gun” by the same author was also a great read.

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  2. From the CD group on LinkedIn:
    George Simons • My all time favorite is, “il est bon come du bon pain”–someone who is “good as gold” in France is “as good as good bread!”

    Here is also a nice collection and only a couple of them repeat the article you linked: http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/cat_french_idioms.php
    If you follow up the link at the bottom of each expression on this page, it gives you an audio version to listen to–you can improve your French while learning foodie phrasing–drooling can be an obstacle to correct pronunciation, however!

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  3. Via email: Tomorrow my third week in France begins so your article about the French using food terms for a variety of meanings was apropos. I read a newspaper most days and have been amazed how some of these appear in print..what fun or j’ai la peche!

    Analee

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  4. Thank you, Joe, for sharing your thoughts on this fun subject.

    Is not that interesting that French, who are all about food (according to their choice of idioms and metaphors) manage to stay so fit, while Americans, who are all about sports (according to their choice of idioms and metaphors) are rapidly becoming one of the most unfit nations.

    Does that mean that the difference is not that much between being and doing as it is between loving and doing?

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  5. I applaud Joe’s extensive look at food-related idioms (50+) in French. As a US-American, I know our daily expressions contain oodles of sports metaphors (and gun metaphors, as pointed out in his earlier article). However, doesn’t English also contain many expressions related to food? Perhaps all languages (because of food’s basic status)? Let me get the ball rolling here:
    She’s a peach.
    He landed a plum job.
    She’s the apple of my eye.
    I call my spouse sweet pea, sugar plum, honey bun, sugar pie, muffin, dumpling, and cupcake.
    What an egghead he is!
    They’re two peas in a pod.
    He’s as cool as a cucumber.
    It’s as flat as a pancake.
    They gave him the raspberries.
    He’s as skinny as a bean pole.
    The proof is in the pudding.
    It’s as easy as pie. In fact, it’s a piece of cake!
    Hot dog! That’s great news!
    She brings home the bacon.
    Cool beans! I’m delighted to hear that.
    You chowderheads! Can’t you do anything right?
    She slapped his face when he called her a tart.
    He tells such corny jokes. They’re pure cornpone.
    They say she has a bun in the oven.
    [Various food analogies for men's and women's private parts]
    He was sowing his wild oats.
    Too many cooks spoil the broth.

    Can anyone take the baton from here?

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    • EXCELLENT start, Alan! Thank you! A few thoughts from our breakfast table this morning:
      They are thick as molasses.
      He went bananas.
      She’ll full of beans.
      Go peel a grape!
      You’re brown as a berry.
      He likes to butter me up.
      Have your cake and it it, too.
      These will sell like hotcakes.
      He has champagne taste on a beer budget.
      He thinks he’s the big cheese.
      Don’t cherry pick!
      Start with the low-hanging fruit.
      That’s the way the cookie crumbles.
      She’s a tough cookie!
      He’s salt of the earth.
      The cream rises to the top.
      Don’t egg her on!
      That’s just sour grapes.
      I can’t walk and chew gum.

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    • I’d like to comment on this comment because you’ve rather . . . mis-used? one metaphor: the one about proof & the pudding. The original is: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. In other words: why talk about something until it’s been accomplished? It’s no use talking about the ingredients or the cooking method.You have to actually taste the final produce, the pudding, to know if it’s good. “The proof is in the pudding.” doesn’t really make sense!
      I love your list, and I wonder if there are similar lists in other languages.
      Susan Kl

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      • Dear Susan, thank you for sharing that clarification! I can sure agree that the logic makes sense, and the origins of the phrase may well be as you say. Great info to remember. Language however is a living and ever-changing thing. The English (midwestern “American”) with which I grew up more often used the shorter phrase as Alan relates it.

        Reminds me of another “regionalism” I used with an Irish colleague years ago. “I sure have enjoyed working with you,” I told him. My meaning was that I was enjoying working with him and looking forward to continuing to do so. He thought I was firing him from the project! From a right/wrong perspective my grammar was in error, but from a language-as-usage perspective, I used a regionalism that caused a mismatch between intended and perceived meaning.

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  6. Excellent ingredients Alan and Dianne ,and given the food staple in all cultures, perhaps not surprising, but the choice of foods in the metaphors may well reflect particular food preoccupations and or favorites. i.e. for the French, mushrooms, onions, artichokes, carrots, lard, leeks, couscous, yogurt, turnip, sauerkraut in Alsace, pate, radish, frog, sausage, zuccini ,pear etc… Easy as pie and piece of cake are, I believe, translations from French as are some of the cheese expressions–grand fromage. Alan, I also have an extensive list of metaphors for private parts .It would be interesting to compare the English and French approaches, but perhaps more tasteful to communicate about this through one-on- one e mail. joelurie@gmail.com

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      • And while food is a staple and a preoccupation across all cultures, the fact that it has been elevated to an art in France makes me suspect that the food metaphor may spring more quickly to mind and more frequently in French ,as in the recent flurry of food metaphors for President Francois Hollande. The Chinese also use “eating” as an unusually common metaphor for many things not explicitly connected to food . But we will need a native Chinese languge speaker to show us the many paths to digest these examples. Is anyone out there ready to show us the way? joe lurie

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  7. Susan, thanks for custardly clarification. I had heard your fuller use of the pudding expression, but (in concurring with Dianne) I think this expression may be evolving. Perhaps (without any evidence to bring out) it is changing like this: The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. —> The proof of the pudding is in its eating. —> The proof is in the pudding’s eating. —> The proof is in the pudding. Not sure, but I do know that popular conceptualizations tend to win out over more “logical” ones in so many expressions. (Look what’s happening to the use of “literally” these days.)

    Dianne, your addenda were terrific. So many familiar expressions that this native speaker didn’t think of! I’m wondering if there is any qualitative difference between the French and the English expressions here. (I didn’t look through to check.) Joe seems to be implying this.

    Joe, I’ll write you a personal note in follow-up.

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  8. Your blog about French food is really awesome. I like various cuisine food very much. I like French culture, tradition, french food etc . Last summer I have visited France as well as I have visited French restaurant. I have enjoyed French food very much.

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  9. Pingback: The Power of French Food Culture…Even for Selling Men’s Underwear! | Cultural Detective Blog

  10. Dianne, this has got to be one of the most enjoyable & informative articles I’ve read, ever! Thank you for posting it for us. As I read it, unsurprisingly I began to think of other countries where they use metaphors based on their core obsessions, e.g. Sports in the US. Evidently, your many followers have started to post their own examples. What about your company inaugurating an annual competition around this article, with the prize being a dinner with you where some of the items in the winning entry included in the treat!

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    • That is a MOST excellent idea, Reyno! I trust you will enter that annual competition. It will be our tenth anniversary (of Cultural Detective) this next February. Perhaps this is just what we need to kick that off….. Though with our readers located all over the world, and funds being what they are, not sure about that prize suggestion ;) I LOVE the idea of traveling to wherever I have to go to have dinner tho!

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  11. Thank you. I was inspired at 01h 30 London time when I read the article. The 10th anniversary will indeed be worth celebrating. Although of course it could be a virtual dinner, or postponed until such time you visit the city/country where the winner is located. On the other hand, to celebrate you could ask your many admirers to go out for a meal on the anniversary date in their respective locations & they can post a photo to you! Given the international focus of your interests, perhaps the diners should choose to eat their favourite national dish & post a photo of that.

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