Chewing the Fat: An Analysis of "Gras" as a Cultural Concept
Like politics and religion, food is a topic that I believe should sometimes be avoided in polite discussion. It’s so personal, so cultural, so utterly subjective; yet we tend to struggle when it’s time to step out of our personal boxes. I think people are generally okay discussing say, a specific dish. Do you eat crêpes in your family? No, we always did pancakes, they’re thicker. Oh, cool.
But things get really tense, really fast the second you get into anything beyond that. Especially when you go beyond into comparing plates and into comparing dietary norms and customs. When you step out of the “do yous” and into the “should yous.”
Is peanut butter a health food? Is it better to eat early or late? How much should you eat at a given meal, and when? You probably have Opinions Prepared right now. I’ve made the mistake of getting into this discussion with friends before, friends who (like me) have grown-up in a relative monoculture, and who’ve had the privilege of never questioning the objectivity of what and why they eat. It can get bad. There exists in the Western science an increasing awareness, if not yet acceptance, of cultural differences. In general, though, popular culture treats food science as just that - a hard science, with a mostly-right way and a mostly-wrong way.
I say all this because in the past few months, I’ve become aware of a dietary principle in France that I cannot quite understand. An argument I have never won, not even once. Here’s the deal: in France, the worst/best thing a food can be is gras. Even if you’ve never taken a French class in your life, this is probably one of the words you know already: as in Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. So gras = fat. We’re all following, right? No, we are not, because I still cannot figure out what the hell gras actually means.
You sit down with your friends to eat a burger and fries, or why not, a raclette. And someone’s gonna be like, “Oh man, this is so gras!” It kind of means “fatty,” it kind of means “greasy,” I am following you all from here! I can’t think of a direct equivalent for an American, but when people say it in English, as they do, they say “fat.” Ca c’est trop fat!
When gras isn’t sinful self-indulgence, it’s the worst thing a food can be. “You shouldn’t eat that,” someone will say, “It’s too fat.” There’s a law here in France that dictates that any advertisement for unhealthy food must have a disclaimer at the bottom. There are a few variations on it, but one of the most common has to be, “Avoid eating too much sugar, too much salt, too much fat.” This has become a French mantra.
Thus, the French are wary of gras, they are anti-gras, the way Americans were in the 90’s. Or the way we hated carbs in the 2000’s, or sugar today. The French know about carbs, but they could never hate them. Bread is king here, bread is a health food.
I’ve had someone sit in front of me with 12 inches of baguette and tell me that like, salmon is very gras and should be avoided. This is where my inability to be chill about anything, ever comes into play, I was so indignant. Salmon does have a high fat content, but it’s the good fat! You’re eating an entire baguette!
Now, I’m not a dietician, and I have an absolute shit diet, but remember what I was saying, about food science being kind of cultural, and everyone thinking the way they were raised is Natural and Right? I am a carb fan, but in terms of macronutrients, carbs aren't going to keep you full. I was raised to seek out proteins, then healthy fats, carbs to be avoided. I’m not saying I ever do that, but that’s what They told me. I’d try to make my argument whenever it would come up - surprisingly frequently, the French love talking about food - and every time, I’d lose. I was sure I had science on my side, but so were they.
Let’s get back to gras. Foods that are gras are fun, but they’re not for all the time. It’s a “sometimes food,” as our friend Cookie Monster would say. Personally, I subscribe to a “healthy fat keeps you full” kind of mantra, but that is fine. It takes all kinds, I am not an actual dietician, generally French obesity rates are lower than in my country (let’s ignore the 435 other socioeconomic factors behind this). So, I am willing to be open-minded and listen. I am willing to eat an entire baguette everyday but avoid the risks of fat if that’s what we’re doing over here.
Très bien, but this would be much easier if I could figure out what the hell gras means. Like we discussed, it supposedly means fat. But people use it to refer to a food that is high in fat content maybe like, 1% of the actual time.
When a burger and fries was fat, I got it. When sausage was fat, I was following. But then like, a chocolate bar was fat, but a croissant wasn’t (a miniature Milka bar contains 2.1 grams of fat per serving, the average croissant weighs in at ten times that amount, at 21 grams.) An avocado toast couldn’t be less gras if it tried, and yet a cup of cubed avocado clocks in at 21 grams as well. Cheese, I think, depends. That’s where they totally lost me.
It’s a great metaphor for so many things in my life: I know gras is bad, I know it’s supposedly bad for me. I know that, as a girl, I’m supposed to be putting on some big show of avoiding it. I just can’t figure out exactly what it is. I googled it, and all I got was lists of the usual suspect high-fat foods to avoid: sausages, fried foods. No mention of chocolate, nothing out of line with the same “objective” food science I was raised with in the States.
So, here’s my hypothesis (yeah, we’re just getting to that now, gimme my Pulitzer). “Fat” as understood in French daily language is one of two things: one, a shortened, pop culture version of saying “unhealthy”. Two, a reference to all that’s heavy, indulgent, sinful.
There’s an interesting analysis to be made here in terms of French gastronomie. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a food historian, so I won’t try to make any crazy conjectures. Something interesting, though, is that ancient class lines governing food are still very clear. The actual social divisions are abolished - anyone will eat a pot au feu on a cold autumn evening - yet there remains a distinct collective memory about who ate what, 100 years ago. It just so happens that a lot of “plats de campagne” seem to be very gras. Cassoulet, raclette, tartiflette - anything you’d eat today after a long hike or a day on the slopes, distinct from the frilly, fussy dishes associated with aristocracy.
I wonder if there isn’t some kind of deep-seeded class association. I’m thinking about Bourdieu and his treatment of taste. He postulated that, in the popular imagination, economic capital had a negative correlation with everything that was salty, fatty, and fried. Strong tastes, flavors, and a certain heaviness supposedly characterize the foods popularly associated with less economic and cultural capital.
Are we what we eat? Sometimes gras seems more like a synonym of heavy, a property that might be transmuted directly to the body via osmosis. It's better to eat light, airy, fresh - there's a very visceral read of food as corporeal, one that sort of makes sense to me in such a Catholic country (the blood of Christ, etc.)
It wouldn’t shock me to think that “fatty” food might still retain those mental associations today. I suspect that indulging in gras meals is a fun indulgence for the rich but a provocation of class anxiety for everyone else, even if it’s subconscious. It’s similar in the US, I think - because wearing a t-shirt covered in mini-pizzas is cute when you’re a certain person, but judged when you’re an overweight person living in a food desert.
There’s also a certain gender association that I hinted at earlier - if gras is heavy and strong, then women shouldn’t eat that way. I’m not casting judgement on this, because American women are subject to largely the same pressures (if it’s recently become trendy to be obsessed with tacos or whatever, it’s in a certain light of irony, bigger girls aren’t allowed to be in on the joke.) It’s okay for guys to eat a lot of gras stuff, but girls don’t get to have that fun.
Considering these factors, I think that’s how gras has lost its literal translation to the actual macronutrient fat. I mean, it has and has not. At a recent dinner party, I tried to explain that fat has a vital role in the chemistry of cooking (I’ve been looking to buy Salt Fat Acid Heat), and you would’ve thought I had seven heads.
Generally, I think, French dietary practice would have you believe that gras is more avoidable than carbs (any country this obsessed with bread might do the same). But generally, gras is shorthand for indulgent, heavy, delicious. It’s a way of imagining foods that, in some popular imagination, cling to the body. Fat makes you fat, as we’d say in the 90’s. But fat is also fun. If you find yourself in France, eat your fries and fear not the boogey-man. You’re arguing with a proud Food People, and you’ll never, ever win.