PARIS — In France, eating is supposed to be an art. Foodies from around the globe flock to the world's gastronomic center to discover the true meaning of fine dining — a convivial sharing of dishes, lovingly prepared, which capture the imagination, the taste buds and the essence of the land.
The Europe-wide uproar over horse meat being sold as beef has exposed a labyrinthine network of companies and countries that trade the meat used in packaged meals. And even the French, it appears, head to the microwave at night after work to zap frozen meals created in far-off factories.
Up to 41 percent of French expenditures for meals go to factory-prepared dishes and frozen products, France's national statistics agency said in a 2008 report.
"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote 165 years ago in his treatise on taste.
Today, the French are caught in a contradiction: The pleasure of eating good food still defines them but their busy lives increasingly determine what they eat.
France set the standards long ago and upholds them today with coveted Michelin stars for top chefs and annual "taste weeks" devoted to cultivating a discerning palate for its children. In 2010, the French gastronomic meal was declared an "intangible cultural heritage of humanity" by UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural arm.
Deep pockets will still get diners a quality meal at even no-star restaurants, but at home or at work it's another story. Gone are the two-hour lunches. Traditional bakeries stand in as sandwich shops while supermarkets provide industrially-prepared meals.
"The French need prepared dishes because women work. We don't have time to cook. It's really a change in lifestyle" that began in the 1970s, said Pascale Hebel, director of the consumer affairs department at CREDOC, a research center.
Hebel said France has the highest proportion of households in Europe with working parents and "these markets are growing."
"When you have an adolescent at home, you have to leave something to eat, so you leave a prepared dish," she said.
Indeed, the youth of France are propelling this trend, less eating at home, snacking more and relying more on fast food, experts say. Even still, French snacking between meals is more than two times less prevalent than in the United States, according to a report by Celine Laisney, who monitors trends for the French Agriculture Ministry.
Supermarkets — where up to 70 percent of food spending takes place — are also making traditional open-air markets and specialty food shops seem quaint.
"From the moment you have big supermarkets, you have a completely different, new relationship between eating and food," says leading food sociologist Claude Fischler.
"There is a sort of anxiety over ... products transformed by industry. At the same time, these transformed products, we eat them more and more," he said. "They're omnipresent. That's how we shop. We use kitchen time for other things."
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