The first time I weighed myself in Canada, I almost had a heart attack.
The scale in the corner of the kitchen was taunting me, and one morning, I finally climbed on it. I was just curious, I guess. Barely awake, my eyes still out-of-focus, I blinked several times, trying to bring the scale’s needle into focus. And I gasped.
Then, I realized it wasn’t kilos but pounds.
My heart started beating normally again.
It took me a long time to get used to the imperial system, but it took me even longer to learn how to eat in North America.
When I first came to Canada, we had just finished a long trip in Latin America. We were both pretty thin and fit thanks to daily plates of “arroz, pollo y frijoles” and a very tight budget. But once back to civilization, we were hungry for something different. North American style food was new to me and I was eager to explore the local culinary specialties. I tried all the fast-food chains I could find: after all, France only has MacDonald’s and Quick.
I learned that pizza slices were sold with a side of fries, that the perfect addition to an otherwise fairly healthy sub sandwich was either a bag of Doritos or two cookies. Appetizers were the size of three normal French plates and the food was very greasy. But hey, after all, what’s the harm once in a while?
We cooked a lot too. We could afford fast-foods joints once in a while, but we were broke. Trips to the supermarkets were very interesting as well: so many products were new to me! I couldn’t believe I had spent over 20 years without macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, hot dog, onion rings…!
This period of discovery was followed by a period of intense homesickness. I missed cheese for example, real cheese. The first time I had been to Subway, the guy behind the counter asked me which kind of cheese I wanted on my sandwich. I was already drooling in expectation, and asked in return which kind of cheese they had, speaking with the voice of an expert. He rolled his eyes and pointed at a few the square slices: “er… white, yellow and we are out of American”. White…? Yellow…? What kind of cheese was that? No need to worry though, since they all tasted the same (plastic rubbery taste), I usually don’t care which kind is put in my sandwich now and just say “regular cheese” like most customers… whatever that is.
When they think of French cuisine, most North Americans think of extremely elaborate dishes or just plain stereotypical ones, such as snails (which I have never had by the way). I didn’t miss that. I miss the simple products, such as fresh bread, thin crust pizzas, quiches, pâté, fancy yogurts and pastries. But I quickly learned that they were no equivalent and that I’d better discover new local specialties. After all, why spend a lot of money in a jar of Nutella when you can have some local maple syrup?
But I still wasn’t done with my culinary culture shock.
People say that French women don’t get fat: I beg to differ. I was French and I got fat.
The thing is, in France, I never really cared about what I ate. Like most women, I followed the common-sense diet. Eat a croissant once in a while, just not with the above jar of Nutella. Have some cheese but not a fondue every night. Pasta dishes are fine as long as they are homemade. A sandwich is a great lunch, just go easy on the butter. And the list goes on.
But this didn’t work in Canada. It took me a while to realize that anything fat was not just fat, but ultra-fat. There were no simple French butter croissant, but super-sized pastries filled with chocolate, dipped in cinnamon and topped with cream. Any sandwich had tons of mayonnaise in it, not just butter. Fries or chips had to be dipped in three kind of sauces — hell, even pizza crust was supposed to be dipped in garlic sauce!
I started doing something that I have never done in France before: reading the labels. When I discovered that a can of soup could be half of my daily calories intake, I got really pissed off. Was there anything healthy to eat here? I wasn’t buying much processed food (such as microwave diners) because I wasn’t use to them and it still wasn’t good enough. Was I condemned to make every meal from scratch?
Over time, I developed some techniques. I systematically buy the “low-fat” version of a product (such a cream cheese, bacon, yogurt etc.): I can’t tell the difference anyway. I read the labels more carefully: some tomatoes sauces for instance pack an insane amount of preservatives and impossible-to-pronounce ingredients for what it is, i.e. just tomatoes sauce. My cooking skills also got better and learned to make meals I loved.
I kept on eating out once in a while but I made sure I did it because I felt like it, not because I was starving and wanted to eat something right away. This is a big problem in North America: food is everywhere and available at all time, it’s very easy to eat just because you are bored. The amount of crap food people eat is scary and it’s very easy to get dragged into thinking that chicken wings with pizza and beer is a balanced meal. We lost touch of reality… completely.
Junk food is also a business. You think they get a good deal at all-you-can-eat restaurants, when they get a buy-one-get-one-free burger, when the orders are supersized. The truth is, eating well is harder and more expensive. Plus, junk food is not always where you expect: most people would rightfully blame McDonalds or KFC for the extra weight gain but wouldn’t necessarily think their super-sized fancy coffee with whipped cream on top is part of the equation.
As I understood what makes us fat and how to eat healthier meal, I naturally lost weight. Seriously, that easily. I also lost the guilt associated with food that I had somehow picked up in Canada. It took me a while but I think I got it now.
Now, if you’ll excuse me… gotta go cook!