Friday, 25 January 2013

The Great Plate Debate

The other night, Understanding Frenchman was at mine and I was serving dinner. He watched me as I poured soup into bowls, then took the two plates out from underneath to put our slices of toast on.

"Jen and Arnaud," he said, referring to two friends that we had had dinner with at the weekend, "were having the same conversation as us.The one about the plates."

Jen and Arnaud are a Franco-British couple like us and I was relieved to hear that we are not the only ones who have in depth discussions over the dinner table about aspects of our daily routine which same-nationality couples probably don't even notice, never mind discuss. Like the Great Plate Debate.

Let me explain.

On the first morning of my very first experience of living in a French family, it was rudely brought to my attention that the French, when they serve bread at the table, do not find it necessary to use a plate. I say rudely, because at the same time as we were happily eating bread and jam straight off the kitchen table, so was my host family's large, slobbery black Labrador dog. Very few things would put me off fresh baguette served with thick butter and a layer of confiture, but this was one of them.

Since then, I have had plenty of opportunities to observe that, while the presence of drooling dog was fairly unusual, the absence of plate was not. This caused me to ask myself two profound existential questions. Firstly, why? And secondly, is it important?

I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to the first. Perhaps the hard crust of a French baguette makes it less likely to leave crumbs on the table than a British loaf. Perhaps because we more routinely spread on butter, we're more worried about the table getting sticky. Or maybe we have more of a liking for table cloths, or a stronger aversion to wiping hard surfaces.

Luckily, the second question is easier. The answer to this one is quite clearly "not in the slightest." Unless, of course, there's a slavering canine somewhere in the vicinity.


  1. That's strange. I never thought of it as a former French and we didn't have any rules with plates. That said, on a slightly different note, Feng found weird that so many French hang plates (old plates, collectibles, etc.) on the wall!

    1. Maybe that's why there are none left to eat the bread off!

  2. During my year in France I was quite surprised to discover that the French don't use bread and butter plates. And don't have soup spoons. And re-use the cutlery! I actually think that baguettes make more crumbs than 'regular' bread, but they just wipe or vacuum them up. I love knowing things like this so that when I am teaching kids I can tell them about authentic French life, and not just teach the language.

    1. I'd never actually noticed that nobody here has soup spoons. I thought it was just me!

      With regard to the crumbs, I did once (briefly) date a French guy who had one of these mini-hoovers attached to his kitchen wall so that he could vacuum the table after eating. So there is a solution!

  3. I have also noticed the absence of plates when eating bread--it drives me nuts!

  4. I read 'A Year in the Merde' before I came here and I think he touches on this in one of the chapters, so I came prepared and wasn't too shocked when I saw that his observations rang true.

    After almost 4 years, I picked up this habit that now when I do it in the States, I'm looked at like I was poorly-raised.

    Like you, I have yet to get an answer either. The best I get is a shrug. Just another great mystery of French living!

  5. Oddly enough, they don't use bread plates in Switzerland either, which I find really strange because the Swiss are so neat about everything else. I still haven't gotten used to it and usually try to place my bread on the side of the plate or hold it awkwardly in my hand. Then I look around the table and realize that everyone else's bread is on the table so I try to nonchalantly put it there. But I still cringe inside - even though there isn't a dog eating off the same table!