For French women, so little time for la cuisine

Sacre bleu! French women do not know how to cook anymore.

Whip up a soufflé? More of them would rather call out for a pizza. Lovingly tend to a bubbling pot of rabbit stew? Bring on the fish sticks.

That, at any rate, is the finding that emerges from a number of recent studies suggesting that the kitchen is losing its place as the holy of holies in a growing number of French homes.

"The French have a fairly exalted view of their culinary skills, but there is a disconnect between what they say they do and what they actually do," says Agathe Couvreur, a researcher at CREDOC, a lifestyle research institute in Paris.

Just look at the amount of time women spend in the kitchen - an average of 36 minutes for a weekday dinner in 2000, down from 42 minutes in 1988, according to a CREDOC study. And that's not because your average French cook can dash off a cordon bleu meal in under an hour.

She simply does what she has time to do. "She" because women still do almost all the household cooking in France (even if the top chefs tend to be men). And the shopping. And the child care.

But they have also been going out to work more. More than 70 percent of French women have a job, up from about 50 percent 25 years ago, and they cannot spend hours slaving over a hot stove.

"I love French cuisine, but it's a question of time," says Mathilde Levitte, a young Parisienne. "It's not just the cooking, but the shopping. I can roast a chicken and make a meal that looks like a meal, but it is rarely a pleasure.

"I have my friends round to my sister's," Ms. Levitte adds. "She really knows how to cook. And one day I expect I'll learn."

Magnificent meals are furthest from the minds of younger women - who work most - who live in towns and don't go home for lunch. Many grew up with post-1968 mothers who discovered feminism and did not think cookbooks were the right reading matter for their daughters.

But even those who valued cooking skills, and would have liked to have passed them on, found that their daughters moved away from home much earlier than they did. They had nobody at their elbow, learning the secrets of a Hollandaise sauce.

Not that French women deprived of a culinary education are uninterested in food. The number of food magazines on sale and cooking courses on offer is evidence of that. So are the freezers at Picard Surgelés, a nationwide chain of frozen-food shops, where the choice of precooked meals, ready to be popped into the microwave, caters to the most discriminating of gourmets.

Alongside the standard pasta dishes and coq au vin, Picard offers such fare as cassoulet of scallops with crawfish and snails in a basil sauce, or a civet of ostrich with a puree of celery root, apples, chestnuts, and cranberries.

(Among Ms. Levitte's favorites: Asian specialties, such as samosas, and a chocolate cake that she says melts in the mouth.)

A diet heavy on TV dinners, however exotic, is hardly good for the waistline, though. Especially when nibbling between meals is on the rise, growing numbers of office workers grab lunch at their desks, and takeout-pizza sales have doubled since 1995.

A recent study done for the Milk Industry Information Center (CIDIL) found that in the parts of France (the North and the East) where women were most likely to describe cooking as "a chore" or "an obligation," people are also more overweight than the national average.

In the Paris region, where women associated cooking more with "conviviality," "hedonism," or "culinary arts," the incidence of surplus weight is 10 percent below the national average.

What makes it worse for women who don't like cooking is that in France - home of haute cuisine, where delectable dining is a pillar of national identity - they cannot admit their distaste.

Changes in French eating habits - some call it modernization; others, horror-struck, call it Americanization - "are seen as a degradation of the traditional alimentary order, transgressing social norms and values ... in a psychosocial universe of anxiety and blame," says Jean-Pierre Poulain, a sociologist at Toulouse University.

So the French still talk of the four-course meal - appetizer, main course, cheese, dessert - as their standard fare, but not many often eat like that, Mr. Poulain found. In 1995, 51 percent of those he studied ate a "proper" French lunch. By 1999, that number had dropped to 37 percent.

Still, the French still like to eat as a family. Eighty-five percent of mothers surveyed last year by OCHA, which researches French food and eating habits, said that everyone they cook for eats at the same time, and 73 percent said they all eat the same thing.

Weekend traditions are still vibrant, too. A study last September by the national statistical bureau found that families spend more time at the table on Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtimes today than in 1986.

The difference, says Poulain, is that people care less about cuisine now than about conviviality, and that depends on the company, not on the carte. "What is culinary skill, anyway?" asks Ms. Couvreur. "Must you know how to make choux pastry? At least I know how to boil pasta."

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