The Winter 2018 issue of Gastronomica features my research paper “A Tale of Two Cities: Differences in Wine-Drinking Culture in Nice and London”. Here is a synopsis of the paper and a look into the making of the project.
France will always hold a piece of my heart. I will never truly know how the seeds were sown that inspired my adoration of the land. Yet from the first time I set foot on the cobbled streets of Paris as a teen, I fell madly and hopelessly in love. Paris felt to me like I had stepped into a time capsule. My heart was catapulted back to the ages of the lost generation of American writers. My eyes were flung forward into the future of fashion – Parisiennes were flashy, full of attitude, and effortlessly en vogue. My belly was grounded firmly in the present, taking in as much quiche, crêpes, tartes, and macarons as I could savor in tiny bites.
My heart guided me back to France in college, but this time, instead of wandering through chocolate museums and getting lost on runs along the Seine, I was on a mission: I was going to solve the French Paradox.
The French Paradox is the theory that the French population has shockingly low rates of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to levels predicted by their consumption of saturated fats – think brie, buttery brioche, and foie gras. This theory was often conflated by American and British media to suggest that the French can eat anything but will remain eternally slim. Translated, French women don’t get fat.
What made French food habits so unique? My first thought as a coming-of-age drinker was wine. Red wine is shown to be a heart-healthy staple of the Mediterranean diet so it logically follows that it may contribute to the low levels of CHD reported in France.
Following my 6-week summer study abroad trip in Nice, France, I landed an internship with an environmental education organization in London, England. This second summer location provided a perfect opportunity to compare France’s food culture to that of “the fat man of Europe”, as pre-Brexit England was called. Within these two cities, I undertook my first mixed methodology study, conducting interviews and surveys on wine-drinking culture en français whenever possible. Admittedly, language was the greatest challenge of the project, but it was also among the most rewarding elements. I became accustomed to French wine snobs and locals laughing in my face at my grammatical errors, but enduring the worst eliminated every ounce of reservation I had for speaking the language.
Aside from my breakthrough in language, I learned an important lesson from my study. From my interviews and observations in France, I discovered that wine is a key part of French identity in Nice, and it was frequently consumed in small portions for aesthetic value or for enjoyment at special family occasions. In London, on the other hand, wine was frequently consumed in considerably larger quantities, often for inebriation.
Drunkenness was not the primary intention of drinking in France, but does that make wine the key to the French Paradox? In truth, after critical reflection and attaining a Master’s of Science in Global Health and Population, it seems that the theory is hopelessly flawed in the first place. The most convincing evidence for the French Paradox is informed by ecological studies, which are inherently prone to bias. Most ecological studies associate population-level risk factors with population-level health outcomes without interpreting individual-level data. Thus, stating that population-level saturated fat consumption should be predictive of CHD fails to take a myriad array of confounding factors into account. Wine could be the telling confounding factor, but so could small portion size, high quality of ingredients, long duration of meals, commonality of eating with others, or a number of other factors that are stereotypical of French eating patterns.
So I didn’t solve the French Paradox. However, I did adopt a lifelong appreciation for the French way of mindfulness and moderation as a primary intention for wine-drinking. Voilà.