09 February 2012

Le Goûter

When I was teaching English at an engineering firm in Lyon several years ago, I overheard a conversation between two colleagues that called into question one of my all-time favorite habits — the afternoon snack.

It was morning break time and I had just plunked 35 cents down the slot in the coffee machine. As the coins dropped down into the metal belly, two engineers walked up behind me and were talking about the weekend:

            So what'd you do on Saturday?

            I was home with the kids. Maxime had some school friends over.

            For his birthday?

            No, that was last week.

            Oh right. What'd you do?

            We all played some football out back for a while, then went inside, played             some Wii, then had a goûter.


Then came the question:

            "Est-ce que tu prends un goûter, toi?" (you mean to tell me that you still                 eat a snack in the afternoon?)

The question was asked with an equal mix of surprise and disgust, as if his friend had just admitted to indulging in some socially or morally forbidden act. He could have just declared he still wears diapers.

            No no no, of course not, just the kids, came the quick reply.

I quietly slipped away into the corridor, suddenly feeling like a kid with my hand caught in the cookie jar.

Probably because for as long as I can remember, and despite all modern health and dietary warnings that advise against the practice, I still enjoy, given the opportunity, and whenever the occasion presents itself, taking an afternoon goûter.

The goûter has as much staying power as any other French institution and can rightfully be compared to, say, eating oysters at New Years, taking holidays in August or shaking hands with your colleagues.

Every day between 4 and 4:30 pm, millions of tiny hands (and others not so tiny) reach for their afternoon snack at the end of school. The ultra-traditional goûter is a baguette or roll with chocolate or butter and jam.

But the wonderful thing is that when it comes to goûter, the possibilities are endless. No matter what the combination though, they do tend to share a common trait: sugar and carbs.

Here are just a few variations I've seen (and eaten on occasion) over the past 12 years:

1) crepes with jam, honey or Nutella
2) waffles with powdered sugar or other sweet spread
3) cake, sweet buns or sweet bread
4) spice bread
5) cookies
6) fruit tarts
7) croissants and other pastries
8) candy
9) rice cakes (for the health conscious)
10) fruit (for the really health conscious)
11) ice-cream cones (seasonal)

In fact, anything will suffice, as long as it fills that inner gnawing and holds one over until dinner, which typically doesn't get put on the table until 7 or 8 PM.

I don't know why Engineer no. 1 made it sound like immoral misconduct for adults to have a goûter. My gut feeling tells me that many more people do it than openly admit.

And the critical question is: at what age are we expected to stop the goûter? To this day I have yet to hear or read any authoritative decision on the matter.

But even if there were, it wouldn't hold much sway. Decades of habit — and memories — of young and old alike have seen to that.

No, the French goûter, despite what anyone might say to the contrary, is going to be around for a very long time.

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