Apart from such marathon feasts, your derrière better be ready to sit for a good three hours even for an ordinary weekend dinner.
The second test is one of table manners. I've learned not to be ashamed when most of the small children at the table brandish their steak knives with more grace and agility than me. Or when my dinner companion asks why I keep switching my utensils from hand to hand when I need to cut something. Or when someone points out that, technically, it's rude to cut salad. (Why am I the only one left with salad dressing on my chin when shoveling a lettuce leaf the size of a quilt into my mouth?) But, the third, and most important, is the challenge of the food itself.
We simply haven't been introduced to many foods that commonly feature on a typical French menu. Of course, this is changing as the foodie-culture continues to rise in the States. These days you can find whole restaurants dedicated to using all parts of the pig and hear tales of Manhattan investment bankers retiring at thirty to become artisanal cheese makers in Vermont. But, still, in many cases, French food has the power to shock Americans. Or, if not shock us, at least shut us and our taste buds up with trepidation, and the French get a huge kick out of this. They like putting your Francophilia to the test: "Oh, you like our wine and our literature, but what do you think about our headcheese?"
Over the years I have worked out that there are certain levels in the quest to full French acceptance in this regard:
Level One: Things Found in the Forest or Pond
Level Two: Mold
Level Three: Parts Cruelly Prepared
Level Four: Viscera
Level Five (The Ultimate Test): The Animal's Periphery, aka Face and Feet
In general, French people love to discuss food, and when they dine with an American it's a great chance for them to relive some of their favorite dishes, while simultaneously freaking out their guest, so this is a familiar conversation:
Host: "Have you tried frog legs? How about escargot?" (Level One)
Guest: "Sure! It's easy to love anything bathed in garlic, butter and herbs."
Host: "I'm glad to hear you're not like most Americans. Here, try this nice Pont L'Eveque." (Level Two) And, you are presented with the source of the stench that's been knocking you over for the past three hours, the king of stinky cheese, which has been ripening at room temperature on the counter.
Guest: "Why thank you, that's delicious." They're annoyed when you don't protest.
Host: "And foie gras? We've heard that some American cities have banned this delicacy!" (Level Three)
Guest: "Actually, I think that ban's been lifted." Now, they're truly disappointed.
Host: "What about blood sausage? Andouillette? Tripe? Kidneys?" At this point, they're trying anything to stump you, but when you've finally passed Level Four, you may be the proud recipient of a French nod-frown of "not bad".
But, I'm ashamed to admit, I flunked Level 5 completely.
Over the years a friend from Lyon, which some French people consider to be the culinary capital of the country, had heard me repeatedly profess my love for various scary French foods and seen me flaunt my hearty appetite, and I'm convinced she decided to test my mettle once and for all. So, one evening she invited us for a simple, light dinner outside on one of those mild summer nights when twilight hits late and lasts long.
When the aperitif began, I should have recognized the bad omen lurking in the lawn. A black cat hovered over a patch in the grass, unmoving for what seemed like an hour. Finally, he pounced in a frenzied, brief attack. In the alien blue of the evening it was difficult to see what he had succeeded in capturing, so the guests took a stroll over, champagne flutes in hand, to discover the cat batting around the detached head of a gopher. We watched the grisly game, fascinated.
At the same time, our hostess was laying out the repast: fresh bread, a bottle of cellar-cooled red, and two large salads, one of museau, the other of pied de cochon, which in French sound beautiful, but when translated are immediately stripped of their appeal: snout salad and pig foot salad.
In concept, I didn't object. Our hostess is an amazing cook, and I knew she was serving the best, and indeed, the other diners tucked in and sang the salads' delicious praises.
The first forkful of cartilage did me in. Usually I have no problem with texture. Chewy, slimy, gooey, mushy? No problem. But I had the distinct impression that I was affectionately nibbling on a cold pig's ear. It was too much. Of course, I kept my proud mouth shut and hoped my uneaten salads were somewhat hidden in the shadows.
Did I imagine a mischievous crinkle at the corner of my friend's mouth when she offered me seconds? Perhaps we both knew that I had been vanquished, that I hadn't passed Level Five.
The cat was still busy with his savage playtime in the lawn. The guests at the table elegantly chewed their thin pink squares of museau and pied. I tore off a chunk of baguette, took a big swig of Burgundy and promised myself to do better the next time I'm presented with a gourmet foot on my plate.