Cookbook Authors,  Diet

French Women Don’t Get Fat?

It’s the time of year for resolutions and a host of diet advertisements and articles to accompany them, which makes it the perfect time to review The Low Calorie French Cookbook by Marguerite Béhotéguy de Téramond (1964). In many ways, The Low Calorie French Cookbook is an earlier version of French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano (2005). Though were published forty years apart, the books have the same premise: France is known for its gourmet cuisine, bread, wine, pastries, and cheeses. How do French women partake of all this goodness without getting fat? What secret knowledge do they possess?

A 1965 review of The Low Calorie French Cookbook put it this way:

Yet despite her slim appearance, the chic French woman wearing the Chanel suit hasn’t been compromising at dinner time. Unlike her American cousin who dines on lettuce and skim milk, she’s been eating very well.

Caroline Gray, Feast or Famine — a Happy Medium,” Palo Alto Times (California), December 28, 1964

Somehow our mythical French woman is able to lose weight while indulging, as if by magic. Her diet and her style are effortless. How does she do it?

De Téramond and Guilano had similar experiences as young women. They both came to America as exchange students. According to the book’s dust jacket, while in America, de Téramond became interested in dieting, “something unknown in France at the time.” She worked with a French doctor to develop her book. Guilano gained the proverbial freshman fifteen when she came to the U.S. as a student. When she returned home, her father told her she looked like a sack of potatoes. She eventually found a doctor who helped her diet off the excess.

Both married Americans and returned to the U.S. At the time of publication, de Téramond’s husband was serving as an ambassador in Africa, where she was continuing to “practice her culinary arts.” She wrote diet articles for Marie Claire magazine and published other diet books in France with titles like “250 Recipes for Diabetics.” As far as I can tell, The Low Calorie French Cookbook was her only American publication. Guiliano moved to New York to serve as president and CEO of Clicquot, Inc., and eventually started sharing her advice with American friends and co-workers. Why French Women Don’t Get Fat is still in print, and she has written several additional lifestyle books. Clearly the idea that dieting and indulgence can coexist hit a nerve with American audiences both then and now.

Marguerite Béhotéguy de Téramond from the dust jacket of The Low Calorie French Cookbook

Historically, American fine dining – whether at the homes of the wealthy or in restaurants such as Delmonico’s – was rooted in French cuisine. Béhotéguy de Téramond’s book came on the heels of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. Child kicked off a new craze by making French food accessible to American home cooks. She and her co-authors asked American friends to test each recipe. They extensively researched the cuts of meat, fish, and other items available in the average American grocery store. As she says in the foreword, these are not recipes for someone who is short on time or concerned about their waistline, but they are functional recipes that anyone can make with American ingredients and patience.

If you’ve ever perused Mastering the Art of French Cooking or seen Child’s cooking shows, then you know she did not shy away from butter, or fat of any kind. Food is meant to be enjoyed with gusto, which is what makes The Low Calorie French Cookbook so odd in comparison. There is no joy in these recipes. Compare de Téramond’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon to Child’s. De Téramond allots 6 ounces of beef per serving. The beef is browned in oil with an onion, then braised in one cup of wine and half a cup of water with seasonings and some mushrooms. Child starts with a big old slab of bacon, and then browns the beef in the bacon fat, reserving the bacon to add to the stew later. She allots 8 ounces of beef per serving, uses twice as much wine, three times as many mushrooms, beef stock, and additional pearl onion. They’re both beef stewed in wine, but I can guess which one tastes better.

So how do French women stay thin? De Téramond starts the book with a list of thirty-six tips to “quick start” the diet, followed by a chapter on “dangerous” foods. It doesn’t take long to realize that this looks just like any other diet, except that the recipes have fancy French names. The recipes in The Low Calorie French Cookbook are as advertised – low calorie and low fat. Sauces are made from a base of either yoghurt or tomato juice. The few dessert recipes in the book use Sucaryl as a substitute for sugar. Calorie counts are listed with each recipe.

Butter, fat, sauces, pies, pastries, cakes, sugar, and alcohol are all out. Especially butter and pastries. De Téramond mentions them more than once. She says that you must “stoically leave the crust on your plate if a piece of pie is offered to you.” For a pie lover like me, that is one of the saddest sentences in the English language. All cheeses, except cottage cheese, are to be avoided. All calories must be counted. She extols readers to “drink skim milk or buttermilk faithfully.” I guess our French counterparts were living on skim milk and salad after all. If this all sounds a little depressing, then follow de Téramond’s advice: look in the mirror and imagine your new “slim, sleek silhouette.”

Advertisement for The Low Calorie French Cookbook alongside other popular books of the era. Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1964.

Early reviews of the book were positive. A 1965 review by Barbara Swetz in the Bridgewater, New Jersey Courrier-News, said the book “would “brings pleasant surprises to weight-watchers.” She specifically mentioned the Beouf Bourguingnon, the 150 calorie souffles, and a mayonaise substitute that clocks in at 17 calories a tablespoon. Caroline Gray, food editor for the Palo Alto Times, said “the recipes are so good that you can secretly put your whole family on a diet. They’ll praise for your culinary skills without realizing you’re counting calories.” Doris Schacht of the Chicago Tribune praised de Téramond for her “delightfully sensible approach to dieting.” Her only complaint was that some of the measurements are in ounces rather than tablespoons. This all sounds very promising. To be sure, most of the recipes include plenty of herbs and garlic to add flavor, which is a vast improvement over the bland cottage cheese, boiled chicken breasts, and aspics that I’ve seen in other diet books of the era.

I did find some criticism of the book. Ann Rudy, a columnist for Copley News Service, took a humorous aim at the book’s rare ingredients. “How’d you sit down to a big plate of brains au gratin with a little marinated kidney on the side?” she opined. “For fennel miraflores I’ll need a small bunch of fennel and a Gypsy to get it for me — along with the left foot of an elderly owl.” Rudy’s larger criticism is not about the book, but about the act dieting itself. When a friend asks how the diet is going, Rudy muses, “Since the book weighs 24 ounces, I think I’lll leave it on a park bench — that way I can honestly tell her I’ve lost a pound and a half. How’s that for thinking thin?” I have to wonder if the person who donated my copy to the thrift store had similar feelings.

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