History, Journals, Modern Languages, News

‘Why the French Hate Doggie Bags’ – In Conversation with Janet Beizer

‘Why the French Hate Doggie Bags’, first published in Contemporary French Civilization, Volume 42, Issue 3-4, examines the negative publicity attached to taking home leftovers from restaurants in France, and has a rising Altmetric score of 196. We spoke to the author, Janet Beizer, to find out more about the article. 

CFC 42.3-4

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your article and what drew you to focus your work in this area?

In my article, “Why the French Hate Doggie Bags,” I trace the reluctance of contemporary French people to take home leftovers from their restaurant meals to feelings of shame and embarrassment linked to a certain cultural heritage: specifically, the nineteenth and early twentieth-century practice of l’arlequin, the practice of selling leftover scraps from wealthy private and restaurant tables down the social ladder.

How would you define the term, l’arlequin, or in English, the ‘harlequin’? And how does this practice fit into the current debate over dining and doggie bag culture?

I should clarify that the term “harlequin” in English is my own literal translation of the French alimentary term, “l’arlequin,” borrowed by nineteenth-century French slang from the name of the Commedia dell’arte character, Arlecchino, appropriated by the French as Arlequin when the Commedia theatre moved into French art and life in the late Renaissance. Arlecchino/Arlequin/Harlequin was characterized by his rag-tag costume of stitched-together multi-colored patches—originally worn because he was a poor boy from the countryside whose mother could not afford whole clothes, so she needed to recombine bits and pieces of tattered cloth to dress him. So we can see why food vocabulary would borrow the theatre term to refer to plates of food that were similarly patched together—and in this case, too, associated with poverty.

My stories of harlequin eating add a historical dimension to contemporary dialogues about hunger, consumption, waste, and recycling, with the caveat that there are no easy parallels to be drawn here. Although there are similarities between the practice of the “arlequin” in French food history and modern ventures in trickle-down food distribution and food waste management, contemporary practices, in general, can be distinguished from the older French practice by the fact that the aim today is to reduce food insecurity, feed the hungry, and avoid the depletion of resources, while the earlier practice was very much for profit, and additionally, rather lacked a concern for hygiene.

You have previously said that you believe you are the first person to refer to the ‘Harlequin’ in this context. As the pioneer for this term how do you think it will pave the way for further research on the topic?

I believe I’m the first person to use the term in English (in a 2014 article and in talks and lectures prior to that). I hope my book-in-progress on the food harlequin, The Harlequin Eaters: Leftovers and The Patchwork Imaginary in Nineteenth-Century Paris, will contribute to establishing important connections between the traditional Commedia character called Harlequin, the alimentary harlequin plate, and the role of what I call “harlequin aesthetics” in the advent of modernism in the arts. I mean by “harlequin aesthetics” an art that finds its founding principles in a play of fragments, patchwork, collage, and metamorphosis (to put it briefly). The book suggests a way to integrate sociocultural history with the history of aesthetics, and invites a rethinking of the place of class and race, through food, in the history of modernism. One of the forces that drove this book, I should perhaps add, was a confidence in the power of alimentary practices, often marginalized in academic circles, to inspire art and thought, and the conviction that the “domestic imagination” has aesthetic and intellectual power.

In your article you reflect on your own experience of working in a Paris soup kitchen; what other sources did you use to research this topic?

My occasional work in the Paris soup kitchen run by a friend was supported by conversations with restaurant owners, chefs, and acquaintances in Paris, and by scouring related newspaper, magazine, and electronic articles, as well as keeping my ear to the ground for radio posts and podcasts. The wonderful annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery has been an especially helpful resource over the past several years for learning and talking to a wide range of food researchers and practitioners.

Finally, do you think that French attitudes toward food waste will change given increasing pressures to uphold sustainability and eco-efficiency measures?

French attitudes toward food waste are already changing, and have been for a good moment. There is a good deal of publicity for, and encouragement of, sustainability and food justice on the part of the state as well as that of food professionals, and the French public tends to be well read. In addition, such topics are readily discussed on television shows and radio podcasts. The average French citizen, in fact, is very aware of and supportive of eco-efficiency measures. Yet this doesn’t mean this same average French person is eager to return from a restaurant carrying a doggie bag. In France as everywhere else, there’s a gap between intellectual principles and knee-jerk emotional reactions. Consider, too, that the doggie bag is seen as a foreign (particularly American) phenomenon by the French, who often attribute this practice to the typically large portions that overwhelm American tables and plates and create de facto waste. The doggie bag, according to this logic, is built into the American system to accommodate its very wasteful premises.

‘Why the French Hate Doggie Bags’ is available to read here. Click here to find out more about Contemporary French Civilization.

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