National French Week
Food and food-related activities are the mainstay of any French classroom. French cuisine represents the epitome of fine dining all over the world. Food is also one of the most basic elements necessary to human life and is charged with all sorts of personal, family, and cultural symbolism. Food can signify love, sharing, celebration, pleasure, as well as mere nutrition. Americans do not often reflect on this metaphorical aspect of food which is often seen as mere fuel. The French, however, are much more cognizant of the social and symbolic value of food. Despite the rise of fast food and the increased popularity of convenience foods in France, Paris, in particular, remains the gastronomic capital of the world. In France, chefs give presentations to school children and participate in programs to “awaken their palates.” There is even a Semaine du Goût organized annually in France and in several other countries.
Given the less-than-ideal eating habits of many American children and young adults, National French Week offers an opportunity not only to educate them about nutrition, food preparation, dégustation, and appreciation of food but to allow them to share this new-found knowledge with others. It also provides an opportunity to collaborate with other teachers to prepare dishes, evaluate nutritional value, or present culinary creations to the public.
Below are some suggestions for food-related activities that can be organized during National French Week:
- organize tasting events for cheeses, pastries, or regional dishes which may involve judging as well as sampling dishes;
- create posters and displays on agricultural production, regional cuisine either of France or the Francophone world, comparing the nutritional value of a typical French or Francophone and American meal;
- create a website/blog on Francophone cuisines with recipes, cultural information, music, and illustrations;
- put together and distribute a French or Francophone cookbook;
- sponsor a recipe or cooking contest with school board members or administrators as judges;
- sell or provide samples of French foods in the hallways at school or at a local grocery store or mall;
- set up a café in the classroom and serve breakfast to administrators, counselors, or parents. One student acts the part of the French-speaking waiter or waitress while a partner serves as translator;
- create menus in French for the school cafeteria;
- collaborate with school cafeteria staff to offer a French meal or dish;
- sponsor an excursion to a local French restaurant, inviting school officials and parents;
- take a field trip to a French bakery or restaurant for a cooking demonstration or lesson and have students demonstrate what they learn to others;
- have students give a presentation on French food, table setting, and table manners to local civic groups or elementary schools;
- volunteer to have students “cater” a school board or city council meeting;
- work with local grocery stores, food shops, culinary specialty stores, or malls to do demonstrations or presentations on French or Francophone foods;
- invite a French-speaking or French-trained food professional to speak to the school;
- organize a French meal cooked by students with invited guests;
- invite exchange students to be guest speakers and talk about their experiences with food in the U.S. and organize a panel with American students who have visited other countries;
- organize a French pot luck dinner for students and their parents;
- organize a Francophone food fair with French-speaking students at a local university with students of different nationalities providing a dish representative of their culture;
- organize a culinary scavenger hunt with teams of students searching for ingredients for an exotic dish, then preparing and eating it;
- collaborate with other teachers for an interdisciplinary project related to French cuisine with one teacher supplying the cooking expertise and one supplying the cultural knowledge;
- decorate the cafeteria with student-created posters promoting French regional cuisines and the cuisines of the Francophone world.
Organizing a French Meal
For twelve years I organized an annual French dinner for my university students, the last one consisting of a nine-course meal for 32 people. Every year at the beginning of second semester, students voted on a menu and date for the dinner during the month of March. I then tabulated the results, assembled the recipes, and determined the cost of the meal per person. Students paid usually $6-$8, and we invited other French faculty and Francophone foreign students to attend as well. Students signed up to help shop, prepare the dishes, and clean up.
On Friday afternoon, one or two students accompanied me to do the shopping. Depending on the dishes chosen, students came to my home on Saturday throughout the day (and sometimes on Friday if a dish required overnight refrigeration) to prepare the various plats. We even tried making our own baguettes one year, but oven space was too limited to allow us to bake enough loaves and prepare the other dishes which required oven time. Dishes like soups and stews could simmer away in crock pots or electric roasters, freeing the stove top and oven for dishes that had to be prepared just prior to serving.
Individual menus were printed, and each student received a copy of all the recipes. The table setting was as authentic as possible, with tablecloths, cloth napkins, real dishes and silverware. Students were responsible for serving the dish they had prepared. We served French bottled water rather than wine since not all students were of legal drinking age, although we cooked with wine. Fresh ingredients were used whenever possible, and all dishes were made from scratch. The meal lasted at least two hours, and there were never many leftovers.
The last two years, we were featured in the local newspaper as “Cooks of the Week” with the menu of our dinner and recipes printed as well as photos of the cooks at work. Although the logistics, particularly for seating and cooking time, were often complicated, this was one of the most popular events to which students looked forward from one year to the next. It is often one they reminisce about when we meet years later, and they still use the recipes.
A typical menu included: French onion soup, crab-stuffed avocadoes or bouchées à la reine, chicken breasts with white wine and cream sauce, stuffed mushrooms or carottes à la crème, aligot or pommes dauphines, salad, cheese, mousse or éclairs au chocolat, Konakry (a jelly-roll cake with raspberry jam filled with crème pâtissière and pineapple and with an apricot glaze) or cherry clafoutis, and, of course, café after the meal.
Reprinted and adapted from the AATF National Bulletin, Special Issue, Vol. 24 No. 5 (May 1999)