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What do dirt-poor French people eat?

  • b

Hi. I was wondering if anyone can give some input on this. I'm in the UK and it's fairly safe to say poor innercity families here in general do not have a good diet due to budget restrictions and poor food education.

But in a country with such a rich gastronomic heritage such as France, what is the deal there? Can anyone give any insight into this? I would be very interested to hear.

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  1. They cook and eat at home, and may eat very well.
    I believe those who don't eat well are those who have too busy a life-style, and not necessarily the poor.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Parigi

      You are describing the provincial middle class here, not the "dirt poor".

      1. re: Ptipois

        "Joie de Vivre" is one of my favorite books. It tells of growing up in a village where family, food, friends and custom provide a road map for living simply and well.


        Sure it's romanticized, but a little romance and magic in our lives is not a bad thing. It's thrust is that it is love and caring attention rather than luxurious ingredients that make a memorable meal and occasion.

        1. re: mangeur

          Now I am confused. What does "dirt poor" mean? If I understand English correctly, that would mean being penniless to the point that it is not even possible to enjoy "the French lifestyle". I doubt that what is described in "Joie de vivre" alludes to the "dirt poor" social strata. It takes a certain amount of money to live simply.
          My experience of extreme poverty covers the cities and suburbs. People in the countryside who have vegetable gardens and access to cheap fruit usually fare better.

          1. re: Ptipois

            Or a rod and reel. Used to be that you could tell when it was the end of month if dinner was mackerel and potatoes.

    2. Seems to be a very broad generalisation. I would be certain you couldn't generalise about any socio-economic class' diet especially with large groups of immigrants whose diets maybe cheap but also good.

      1. If they're really dirt poor, they don't eat very differently from their equivalents in the UK. Pasta, ham in plastic, grated cheese in plastic, junk food, mostly carbohydrates and too much bread.

        We mean "dirt poor" here, not just having trouble finishing the month, which is a common situation even in the middle class.

        12 Replies
        1. re: Ptipois

          My main experience of French people who are really poor is in rural areas, so it might be a bit different in the cities. From what I can see, they still cook fresh food, but they either grow it themselves in allotments (sometimes rented, but often shared or belonging to their parents/friends) or get the cheapest stuff from markets/supermarkets. People I know will eat less meat than others and maybe have a plate of ratatouille and bread. They will avoid good cheese, as it's really expensive, but will make tarts and omelettes. If they have meat, it will be very cheap cuts and it will be made to stretch a really long way (e.g. one or two cheap merguez sausages in a vegetable sauce to go over couscous for two people).

          I still think their culture is much more orientated around cooking from scratch than the UK is these days, so they will be more likely to be eating healthier food.

          1. re: Theresa

            " People I know will eat less meat than others and maybe have a plate of ratatouille and bread. They will avoid good cheese, as it's really expensive, but will make tarts and omelettes. If they have meat, it will be very cheap cuts and it will be made to stretch a really long way (e.g. one or two cheap merguez sausages in a vegetable sauce to go over couscous for two people)."

            This is actually how we eat. We call it living well. We can certainly afford big prime chunks of protein, but they seem less interesting than lesser cuts and vegetable based dishes and home made pastas.

            French friends in Sens have planted their entire backyard in vegetables and fruits plus half dozen fruit trees. He also is an avid fisherman. Every meal at their home is composed of food minutes off the plant. They live very well indeed without stepping inside a supermarket, the epitome of local and seasonal.

            What this kind of life requires, however, is time to cook from scratch as Theresa writes. That in itself is a luxury.

            1. re: mangeur

              I'm not sure from your post if you're agreeing or disagreeing with me ... :o)

              But if you're "dirt poor" the chances are that you are working part time or not at all.

              And I have worked full time for most of my life, but have always cooked from scratch - so I know it's possible to organise your life around good but cheap food.

              1. re: Theresa

                Actually, both. I preach cooking from scratch, but realize that it does take either leisure time or your kind of organizational skills which not everyone has. So I realize that i am often preaching to the choir.

                1. re: mangeur

                  But that is a great advantage to being dirt poor, French, and living in France! Hunger and poor diet often seem to go hand in hand in many places, but in both "Old World" cultures and "emerging World" cultures you find the distinct advantage that those population groups, by nature, almost universally "cook from scratch."

                  A real problem with nutrition in today's world is the globalization of the American fast food concept and the current global financial climate that often requires a full time job with no time to cook from scratch, so it's "dinner at MCDonald's." I'm not convinced this kind of "dirt poor" can't be found in some variation in most big cities of the world. So being "dirt poor" in some cultures can mean eating extremely well when compared to "dirt poor" in other cultures.

                  I can't speak to the UK or France from experience, but I can guarantee that in the U.S. much of our indigent population has no clue when it comes to good nutrition, and all too often at all levels of the US population there is great ignorance when it comes to true "cooking from scratch.". In this context I mean that 3 cans of string beans, 1 can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, and 1 can of French fried onion rings for a Thanksgiving side dish is NOT NOT NOT "cooking from scratch!"

                  The WORLD is in "a world of hurt"!!!

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Is there impoverishment in France that can match Haiti or Cuba?

                    1. re: Veggo

                      I don't have a clue, but I would guess that most Cuban and Haitians native born to those countries likely do know how to cook a nutritious diet "from scratch.".

                      But there's a global problem I haven't seen mentioned on these boards, and that is the "default" corruption of food on a global scale. France, and I assume most of the members of the European Union, have official laws banning genetically modified foods from their marketplace,

                      NEWS FLASH!!!

                      Once an apple, or a rice plant, or a cotton plant that is genetically modified to be "pest resistant" (or anything else) is proven successful in a hothouse and approved for use by farmers, those plants through "normal reproduction," as in pollenated by whatever process of nature, will spread their pollen to non-genetically modified plants, and soon enough ALL of the apple trees or rice fields or cotton crops in the region, then the country, and maybe even soon the entire world ARE genetically modified! That's how nature works!

                      So I personally find most serious and/or informal discussions of "healthy" food lean heavily on the "moot" side of "reality."

                      I also readily admit that much of this "creative compulsion" of man to interfere with nature comes to fruition through American Agribusiness, which is now a global problem. For example, one of the fiascos that both amuses and irritates the hell out of me is the VERY big bucks that were spent in genetically engineering a tomato that would take longer to ripen so that farmers could get it to market before it passes its prime. IDIOTS! All the farmers AND grocers needed to do is pack the damned tomatoes STEM DOWN and they will stay at peak for a loooong time! Only yesterday I made pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes I have had sitting stem down on my counter top for three full weeks. Delicious! I only wish agribusiness would pay me the big bucks they wasted on their research and development!

                      The biggest problem in the world today is that there are too many people who don't know the difference between "can" and "should". Obviously too many of them become scientists and engineers. (sigh)

                      (This rant is brought to you by Caroline1 through the auspices of Chowhound, a subdivision of Chow.com. CBS cares!)

                      1. re: Veggo

                        re: haiti
                        Haven't heard of Frenchmen eating mud. So less extreme starvation. (have read discussions of what type of American soil is best to eat).

                        1. re: Veggo

                          Only among homeless and extremely marginalized people. As elsewhere, there are people, often with mental health problems, for whom it is hard to organize proper meals, and people with no cooking facilities whatsoever.

                          Impoverishment in the sense of semi-starvation is far more widespread in Haiti than in Cuba. There was hunger in Cuba during the so-called "special period".

                          Usually extremely poor people in France can access good healthcare (though the system is far more complicated than the British or Canadian model), and there are a lot of charities such as les Restaurants du Coeur that provide decent meals to itinerants and marginalized people.

                          1. re: lagatta

                            There is also a large network of "foyers sociaux" with dining rooms funded by various municipalities for free or heavily subsidized meals for old and other "distressed" people. Many communes also provide vouchers for indigent folks so that they can eat in regular restaurants.

                            Taf et Maffe, lovingly reviewed on Chowhound by Ptipois and nemnemnem is an example of the new trend towards private-public partnerships to create ultra-affordable and very good ethnic restaurants in immigrant communities... with vouchers from the commune, the cost is almost free for the poorest.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Indeed. In any strata of society in any culture.

                      I did not mean to sound condescending, as in, "Well, why not just grow it in your back yard?" The people of whom I wrote are retired middle class French. They live near the outskirts of town and, yes, they do have a yard. But they do plant every inch of it, both horizontally and around the borders, vertically. They live simply and, FMPOV, very well.

              2. Dandelions, sometimes accompanied by dandelion sauce.

                1 Reply
                1. re: vielleanglaise

                  I heart you, Vieille. I have always hearted you.

                2. They eat pasta with butter; couscous with butter...

                  and junk food.

                  1. I'm not convinced that the hounds living in Paris or parts of France could answer this question any better than the Americans have been able to account for the culinary and nutritional habits of their countrymen. Class is a powerful border and while France has the benefit of good wine, cheese, and meat on the cheap (and with regulations that may prevent hormones and antibiotics in said food), I'd hesitate to advance some fantasy of the 'ethnic' or 'peasant' or 'ethnic peasant' who magically supersedes all social/economic context. Poverty is pretty shit, and there's no dreaming out of that one. No matter what the single hounds on a mission to demonstrate how food stamps or minimal income should prove no barrier provided you have all the time in the world to seek out the deals, and all the petrol and parking money ready to take the car wherever these deals lead. As for our Manon of the Spring dreamers? I'll need to ask. Frankly, the stories I'm getting out of those regions are mostly grand if one is chowhound class.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Lizard

                      As a French-born, I really did rub my eyes when I discovered some of the replies in this thread. To the point that I really had to ask what was really meant by "dirt poor". I mean, "real" poverty?
                      It is just as terrible in France as it is anywhere else. What else is there to expect?

                      However I do understand the OP's question. I also have read the recent reports about poverty in the UK now reaching levels unseen since the Victorian era, and some dietary details attached to that. For some reasons linked to industrialization and the loss of rural life, food scarcity since the 19th century has always stricken more severely in the UK than in France. But since the end of WWII, things have evened out somehow. Now the less affluent French are proud to fill their supermarket carts, when they can afford that, with the same overprocessed junk food as everywhere else in the "developed" world.

                      1. re: Ptipois

                        To me "dirt poor" means the poorest of the poor, in the UK those would be the long term enemployed, the down and out and many recent immigrants. I would assume the diets in France, like the UK, would reflect their ethnicity. So the shops/markets outside the Periphique are going to reflect the background of the communities. And low cost supermarkets will be selling low cost highly processed foods.....financially poor often means nutritionally poor as well.

                    2. My first trip to Paris ('97) the McDonalds was packed w/ teenagers and the elderly. That's how the poor eat (in the cities at least) just like in America.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Chinon00

                        On rue Poulet (!) in the Château rouge are (the northern part of Barbès which is mostly West African) I also saw a lot of teens at a KFC - though their mums make yummy yassas and other stews.

                      2. government benefits (what you would call welfarem, food stamps or WIC in the US) is much greater in France and Spain than in North America.

                        as a result, even the working poor are getting some type of government subsidy for food. While more modest, even the poorest have at least 2x to spend on food than their US equivalents.

                        1. According to Madame Trierweiler's account of our President's views, they eat mush since they're sans dents.

                          20 Replies
                          1. re: John Talbott

                            Ouch. You on the other hand, are not toothless.

                            1. re: John Talbott

                              According to one baker who had won the Meilleure Baguette prize and had therefore won the privilege to be the baguette purveyor for the Elysées palace, the French president simply toasts night-old baguette in the morning (and all by himself). That is something many dirt-poor families won't do. Getting a fresh baguette every day - often two, one for each meal, - is a human right here.

                              1. re: Parigi

                                Toasted baguettes are one of my favorite breakfasts. Dunked in cafe au lait. In chambre d'hotes, I raise eyebrows of our hosts who have walked or driven several km to bring us warm croissants when I choose simple toast. (DH eats my share of the croissants.)

                                ETA you do make a very good point. There are many cost saving habits that monied people take for granted but that some poorer people find excessively humbling. I guess I learned when were young and "undersalaried" to make things from scratch, how to cut up a chicken to best advantage, squeeze the last juices out of the tired bones. And when we rarely went out to dinner, to taste every bite in order to add it to my taste memory in hopes of duplicating something close to it at home.

                                1. re: Parigi

                                  On the other hand, you never toast fresh baguette. It's an absolute no-no. Baguette has to be at least 6 to 8 hours old if you want it toasted. If you prefer it untoasted (as I do), you do get it fresh in the morning. But if you want baguette toast, it should be a little stale.

                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                    I also prefer fresh baguette, but not being a morning person, and living on the 5th floor with no elevator prevents me from being courageous enough to go get it fresh for breakfast... so I guess I'm with the president on this one.

                                    1. re: Rio Yeti

                                      I am not making a political point: knowing that he has this simple habit, and it is he, and not some liveried huissier, who comes down to the kitchen by himself in the morning and toasts his old baguette, makes him endearing.

                                      1. re: Parigi

                                        I agree with you -- there's so much to make me think he's not quite human -- toasting last night's baguette **by himself** is at least a point in his favor!

                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                          He also delivered an ace eulogy for a conseiller of his, a friend of mine, and had us laughing and crying and laughing. That day he was - gulp - a great speaker.

                                          1. re: Parigi

                                            why, then, so awful in public with a prepared speech? There's something redeemable about him...Segolène seemed to think he was okay enough to have, what, 5 kids with him?

                                            (don't get me wrong, by the way, I don't exactly think that Sarko is the second coming, either...while it was interesting to have a front-row seat at the last election, I was kind of glad to not have to actually make a choice!)

                                      2. re: Rio Yeti

                                        O Rio, what deprivation ! Next you will be telling us that you have no résidence secondaire for weekends in Normandy.

                                        But I'm in the middle. I sometimes buy a baguette on the way home from work for toasting in the morning but sometimes trot to my local boulangerie at the crack of dawn (well, 9am or so) for a fresh one for a tartine with my hot choco. But breakfast at a café on my way to work is best.

                                        1. re: Parnassien

                                          As an unfortunate Veal-headed Parisian (literary translation), my weekends stay this side of the périph' (or sometimes Fontainebleau)... I know, I know...

                                          1. re: Rio Yeti

                                            I just spent last weekend in Moret and Milly. Not the worst place on earth. Fontainebleau is a bit bourge. Très même…

                                            1. re: Parigi

                                              When I say Fontainebleau, I'm talking about the forest of course... I have no interest in the château or the town.

                                            2. re: Rio Yeti

                                              For the non-French speakers,
                                              "Parisien tête de chien, Parigot tête de veau" is a silly rhyme that provincial kids (and sometimes members of the Front National) use to insult us Parisiens. Since this is a food site, Rio quite rightly went for the veal-head rather than the dog-head to describe himself. Good thinking ! :)

                                              1. re: Parnassien

                                                For this French speaker at least, some explanation is more baffling than none ... I do see the insulting potential of invoking heads of poor beasts but but ... how do Parisiens differ from Parigots and what do dogs and calves have to do with one and not the other ?

                                                Or is this a mystery of the same degree of impenetrability as M. le President's glamourous harem ?

                                                1. re: shakti2

                                                  I understood it to be silly children's rhyme. It is mostly about rhyming.
                                                  One evening our downstairs café neighbors in St Jean de Luz, supposedly durs de durs separatists, beckoned to us: "Eh ! Têtes de veau là !" and treated us to a delicious free meal of oysters and Basque sausage, for the 10th anniversary of the café. There, "tête de veau" was a friendly address. It's like one jazz musician saying to another: "you played like a son of a bitch!"

                                                  1. re: shakti2

                                                    Parigot is argot for Parisien... and veau rhymes with parigot (silent t) and chien with parisien... and that, I think, is the only reason. Sorta like cockney rhyming slang. M. Hollande's attractions are less explicable.

                                          2. re: Ptipois

                                            Actually I love stale and chewy without the benefit of toasting. On the other hand, the purported masculine charms of M. Hollande merely mystify me.

                                            1. re: shakti2

                                              O Shakti, many things mystify me. Where do I start ?

                                      3. When I was poor, I ate mostly rice and beans. I didn't live in France, though.

                                        9 Replies
                                        1. re: flavrmeistr

                                          The French equivalent is coquillettes with grated cheese on top.
                                          Or cassoulet eaten directly from the can.

                                          1. re: Ptipois

                                            You can eat beans out of the can in North America, too. I'd say the French equivalent is more like petit salé aux lentilles (out of a can) and potatoes.

                                            (And coquillettes with cheese, of course)

                                            1. re: tmso

                                              I've been dirt poor and have been by dirt poor people in France, I can tell you that it's coquillettes-gruyère, omelettes and canned anything. Petit salé aux lentilles is for richer people.

                                              1. re: Ptipois

                                                Thanks for the responses!
                                                So as I suspected, the poor in France will still be eating a lot better than the poor in England. A dirt-poor person on your average council estate in England even being able to make an omelette would be pretty uncommon.

                                                Also I'm surprised gruyere is so cheap over there. Would that be an example of a classic cheap cheese in France? Over here a cheap cheese would probably be something processed to hell.

                                                1. re: BenL1

                                                  By "gruyere", please understand "nondescript Brittany-made grated mousetrap", a relic of the postwar agrofood revolution that produced, among other things, the loss of hedgerows, portholes inserted permanently in the belly of a cow to check what goes on inside, an invasion of green seaweed on the coasts of Brittany from excess nitrate rejection, and "Emmental français".

                                                  Any grated Swiss-type cheese in France has been called "gruyère râpé" for generations in daily conversation.

                                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                                    Coquillettes-gruyère vs. Kraft Dinner deathmatch.

                                                    1. re: Ptipois

                                                      Yes much Gruyère in France is analogous to mass produced Cheddar in the UK.

                                                      1. re: PhilD

                                                        Like what is (was) known as Government Cheese in USA.

                                                        1. re: foodeye

                                                          Here is an article about a local organization here in SF: http://www.cuesa.org/article/fighting...

                                          2. They eat cake, right? Brioche, anyway.