Certain diets, like certain fashion trends, go in and out of style. While I have donned several ludicrous hats in the service of self-loathing, and in the interest of keeping up with the times, there are some diets (I am proud to say) that I've always avoided. For instance I've never looked, along with the rest of the fattening Western populace, to the Far East for the ultimate weight-loss solution. Refusing to believe that the answer lay, not within me, but in some oceans-distant Shangri-La where old men spoke in riddles to the plaintive piping of flutes, I could not offer myself to the Okinawa Program or the China Study. I must confess however that, quite recently, I did attempt French Women Don't Get Fat. And I bow my bereted head in shame.
Mireille Guiliano's French weight-loss program is the latest manifestation of what I call "the distant-land diet," a phenomenon born (arguably) out of the contemporary conviction that our overweight collective has been dragged down to its fatty depths by our own cultural demons. After all, this was the author's experience: Having spent a year in Boston as a teenager is what she claims lead to a twenty-pound weight gain, and returning to France as la fille prodigue, she rediscovered her French roots in order to be cured of this ghastly American affliction. The book is an account of her recovery. To be fat it seems is a matter of country, and Mireille prescribes pretending that you are from another one as a cure-so don your beret and try, with all your fat little North American heart to be French. Or, more specifically, to be a French woman.
The French woman not only oozes scarved sophistication, she is also much, much thinner than you. Throughout the book, the image is exploited-from the stick-thin baguette-toting poodle-walker on the front cover to the jacket photo of the author herself; all slender elegance, posed next to a flute of champagne. And by sipping boiled leek juice for two days, followed by three months of chewing slowly and developing other dainty, moderate "French" eating habits, you can look like that too. Pourquoi pas? Part of me hated this woman. The mangier, fleshier, woeful part of me, however, went out and bought leeks.
Magical Leek Soup (Broth)
Ingredients: 2 pounds leeks
Boil leeks for 20-30 minutes.
Eat with a bitter heart.
Veronica's Verdict: Cry.
According to the author, Magical Leek Soup is "a trick used by many of the local women for generations." Your French dietary journey begins here, with a two-day fast during which you will drink naught but leek dreg every two to three hours, one cup at a time. You can also eat the leeks, a half-cup at a time, should you be hungry. The author speaks of her own experience with this soup as a gastronomical epiphany. I must say, I did not find it to be so. There is nothing gastronomically edifying about leek-flavoured water, no matter how many bien s?rs and oh-la-las one utters as one sips.
But courage les femmes-for those who hate leeks, Guiliano offers an alternative concoction made with other vegetables. She cautions that it is, "somewhat less liquidy and magical than the leek soup." What a pity. She assures us, however, that "both versions are so good, and such an adventure for most palates." She even encourages you to "jot your impressions of flavour and fragrance" in your food diary (you must keep a food diary for the first three weeks). I did jot my impressions down. In grave detail.
Following this dismal weekend come three months of what she calls "recasting." Here you are counselled to eat good food in moderation, whilst trying to be as French about the whole thing as possible: smaller portions, more courses, meals composed of local, seasonal, good quality ingredients, and finally, the facing of what she calls nos petits demons (in other words, your "temptations"). She confesses that in her case these were pastries. After a weekend of leeks, mine was anything I could chew. Her way of dealing with her demons was to buy fresh flowers whenever she walked down a street filled with bakeries, so as to defend herself against the sinful scents. Mine was a muzzle.
Sadly, I didn't last the three months. In fact, I barely managed to get through my first leeky weekend. Despite the leeks and the author's somewhat insulting and patronizing angle however, what she counsels is quite reasonable: Variation, moderation, making choices that are meaningful to you, enjoying your food. Chewing it rather than gulping it down in the American tradition. Foie gras may be made that way, ladies, but apparently a French woman never was. She bravely allows bread and wine and chocolate in this dark Atkinsian age of synthetic substitution-she even dedicates a whole chapter, in typical French fashion, to stressing the importance of such pleasures. Elsewhere are similar diatribes about the beauty of oysters, fresh produce and champagne.
So even though I burned my beret in the end, I quite enjoyed the book. The author clearly loves food and knows how to write about it. With dry wit and a light heart, she succeeds in veiling the whole diet, even the leek bit, in a kind of La Vie en Rose-ness I found irresistible. In fact, as you read, you can actually hear the accordion music drift in and out of earshot-I swear it. I even attempted the recipes: Her grilled lamb chops are wonderful and easy to prepare, and her Poulet au Champagne is decadently delicious. But no matter how many times I strut beneath my poster of the Eiffel Tower, I simply cannot be a French woman about food, nor can I throttle my demons with something so simple and quick as a bouquet of flowers. When it comes to food, I'm afraid, my demons (be they cultural or personal) run too deep.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) is Maisonneuve's connoisseur of all things culinary and libidinous. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Veronica Tartley.