February 4, 2016


Americans's knees buckle when they rip into their first croissant, fresh from the local bakery in France. Though cliché, it is the definitive French treat in the morning. Surely a warm croissant with butter and jam and a cup of hot coffee belongs in the Hall of Fame of Great Gourmet Combinations, joining peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese, the BLT, mint and chocolate, raw fish and rice, pasta and tomato sauce, Rice Krispies and marshmallows, and red beans and rice. (Any I missed?)

But it is not a staple of the French diet in the way you may imagine. From time to time, people might venture out for croissants or pains au chocolat in the morning, but, for the most part, in the rural countryside when the nearest boulangerie is 5-20 minutes away by car, there is simply no time in the morning. 

So what do they eat for breakfast, or le petit déjeuner?
  1. Tartines. 100% national, ubiquitous, and mandatory. It can be anything bread-like, but is oftentimes yesterday's leftover bread, toasted and slathered with any number of toppings: butter and jam or honey; perhaps a quick coat of Nutella; maybe a weighty portion of rillettes, the shredded pork bits that melt your anxieties faster than they corrode your arteries. Some people use cancoillotte, a heavenly spreadable cheese product. A tartine can also be a pre-toasted, dried, crunchy thing you get in a box. They are delicious, though crumbly, and can be from baguettes, brioche, or other bread-types. They are like an empty canvas for the spreadable food items in your pantry and refrigerator
  2. Cold breakfast cereal is also a huge part of the breakfast rotation.
  3. Coffee (see below).
  4. Fruit juice.
  5. Piece of fruit (though rare).
  6. Kids get hot chocolate in a bowl. Because my kids can't read this post, never do sleep overs, and never ask their schoolmates what they have for breakfast, we have been able to dodge this one so far.

More interesting than what they do eat is what they do not eat for breakfast. Below is a list of things I have never seen a French person eat for breakfast:

  1. Waffles: Exclusively a mid-afternoon snack, served with jam, Nutella, or sugar.
  2. French toast: Called pain perdu here, or "lost bread," it is a dessert or afternoon snack, sprinkled with sugar.
  3. Pancakes: the closest they have is crêpes, which we all know aren't pancakes.
  4. Fruit salad: I have seen it in some hotels, I suppose, but never in someone's home for breakfast.
  5. Bagels, English muffins, blueberry muffins, honey buns, scones, biscuits, coffee cake, doughnut: If you find versions of these here, they are pathetic imitations of the real thing.
  6. Smoothies: The average French person would faint if you told them you ran the blender for breakfast.
  7. Grits: Never seen them here.
  8. Johnnycakes: Jean-le-Gâteau n'existe pas.
  9. "Bottomless cup of coffee": Espresso, please. Drip coffee in small mugs, like 3-4 ounces maximum. Never ever ever "to go" as in "I am going to walk around with this cup of coffee for six hours." "To go" means "I am taking this coffee back to my office to drink, seated, with my colleagues."
  10. Peanut butter: And this despite my personal ardent advocacy.
  11. Breakfast burrito: Not a big wrapping crowd, the French, though lunch wraps are starting to make some inroads. It's pretty depressing to watch, but not as bad as the calamity they call "club" sandwiches. (One French cooking website's ingredient list for a "Club Sandwich": One hard boiled egg, green salad, mustard, mayonnaise, flaked tuna fish, four pieces of bread. Something is seriously wrong.)
  12. Bacon, link/patty sausage, or hash browns: These people love them some meat products and potatoes (frequently the only vegetable you will see in a four-course meal), but if you have to cook breakfast, you are weird.
  13. Pop-tarts: This one is surprising, because I bet people would wolf them. I will scour the supermarket and see if they are simply lurking in my blind spot.
  14. Cold pizza: I suppose this is one instance where if you were caught in the act, they might possibly jail you. 'Tis a shame, because we all know it is exceptional. An ABC News poll recently stated: Eating cold pizza for breakfast seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon: Just 16 percent of seniors have done it, compared to 48 percent of people under 45."
  15. And the Big One...Eggs. Never for breakfast. In France, the idea of eating a quick scramble or an omelet for breakfast is as popular as celibacy or teetotalism. Some recent visitors pointed out to me and my wife that there is no real reason we have to subscribe to this philosophy; we can easily make eggs for breakfast. No French police are going to kick in the door. But we almost never do, which is a big departure from US life, where scrambled egg and cheese on an English or two over easy with bacon, wheat toast, and coffee or an omelet with an everything bagel with cream cheese or a weekend huevos rancheros or a good Benedict were all in steady rotation. While this can leave me feeling a little wistful in the a.m., there is a positive side to not eating eggs first thing. The midday meal has infinite possibilities when eggs are available. Quiche works. So does a salad with a hard-boiled egg. Oeufs en meurette, a local Burgundy specialty of poached eggs in red wine sauce, studded with lardons and mushrooms, is a great first course. Eggs in aspic have made it into our house on more than one occasion, though I get these from the local butcher. Everyone loves an omelet. One of our latest favorites is baked eggs, cooked in a buttered ramekin with slices of ham, chopped dried prunes, crème fraîche, salt, pepper, and, why not, a little shredded cheese. Next to a green salad, your meal is off on the right foot.

Whoa...that second list got a lot longer than I thought it would when I started typing. Some of it I miss desperately. (Bacon, egg, and cheese...two years without one!) But one of the things about living abroad is you just kind of accept to play by the rules of the local culture. It seems strange and exciting at first, and then gradually normal, and then, finally, natural, as in it no longer ever occurs to me to make eggs for breakfast, even though I ate them for more than 30 years at home. The type of realization that makes me wonder if, should we head back to the U.S., I would be in a for a bout of reverse culture shock. 

If so, probably nothing a bagel couldn't cure.


  1. Great read! No eggs for breakfast? Interesting. Also, we have four restaurants here in Sacramento centered around waffles. One being the "The Waffle Experience". America.

    I can get on board with tartines. This is going on my to-do list.

    1. The idea of four different waffle places is amazing. Guess how many people go out for breakfast in rural Burgundy? Zero. Not a single restaurant open for breakfast within 20 minutes of my house...including -- egad! -- one McDonald's, which is not open for the most important meal of the day.