Living in Europe has shaped some profound changes in my lifestyle. One of the most significant is how I view food.
Gone are the microwave meals and fast food mega-combos. I’m exposed to produce I’ve never even seen before and I consider the dining process much differently than I once did.
Attitudes toward food in Canada are slowly starting to shift as people begin to contemplate what the food they are consuming is doing to their bodies. But while organic foods and restaurants are becoming more widely available, the line up at the drive-thru window still seems as prevalent as ever.
Then there was me … a veggie hating, deep-fried loving, junk-food junkie. Reflecting back on it now, it wasn’t even that I liked the stuff that much; it was just available.
I worked in a business park, surrounded by big box stores and fast food joints. My meals consisted of a burger or deep fried ‘chicken’ part, way too many fries and a litre of cola.
At home I ate white bread, white pasta and foods that I could pull out of the freezer and eat within five minutes.
Life conspired to change my evil ways. Slowly, I began to consider what my lifestyle was doing to my body. Then we came to Europe.
The first time I went to a grocery store here, I observed some major differences. My Canadian supermarket had aisles and aisles of frozen foods and pre-made meals. There was a whole aisle dedicated to sugary breakfast cereals and another for potato chips and still another for soda.
But here there was produce; fruits and vegetables I hadn’t even seen before, let alone knew how to cook. There were hardly any chocolate-frosted marshmallow puff type cereals and the potato chips and soft drinks were fewer in number than the fresh fruit juices.
Most notable to me was the bread. It was all freshly baked. There was no bleached white Wonderbread here. When I took it home, it lasted two days before it went stale. That really opened my eyes to what was keeping my Canadian white bread ‘fresh’ for two weeks …
In addition to the foods themselves, I quickly noticed that the whole ritual of food consumption is different in Europe.
In North America, food tends to be about quantity. We don’t even seem to care about how good it tastes anymore, as long as it’s served quickly and there is loads of it. We gobble it down and are then hustled out the door so the next customer can wolf down their meal.
It took me a while to get used to actually asking for the bill. I altered between thinking it was bad service on the part of the waiter to have to be reminded, to thinking myself rude for asking before he had time to bring it to me.
Then I learned that here, your table is yours until you choose to vacate it. You can linger as long as you like — and are in fact expected too.
On our first few occasions of dining out, Andrew and I ate our food quickly and immediately requested the bill. The waiters looked at us like we were crazy and then gave us that pity-filled: “Ah, you’re tourists” look. It was a look that said: “I’m sorry you haven’t yet learned the art of enjoying the dining experience”.
Now, Andrew and I enjoy a drink while we linger over the menu. We don’t think the service is dawdling if we have time for a conversation between courses. Moreover, we take the time to enjoy our meal and each other’s company afterwards.
And as for those veggies I didn’t know what to do with … I am taking pleasure in experimenting with new recipes and cooking meals from scratch.
None of this is to say that I never indulge in junk food or that Belgium is a fast-food free Eden where everyone eats tofu and drinks soy-milk.
The North American take-out spots are all here and they don’t show any signs of dwindling business. It makes me sad to think that attitudes here could shift and become like those in North America.
But, so far anyway, it seems that Europeans still view eating as an important event, where quality still wins out over quantity.