Puis-je prendre votre commande? – Can I take your order?
In the nearly two weeks that I have been in Paris, I have eaten many local cuisines. Baguettes. Croissants. Cheese. Baguettes. Macarons. Pasta. Pizza. And yes, more Baguettes. Conveniently for me, I live right above Le Fils de Boulanger which means most mornings I get a croissant and apple juice on my way to class. For lunch, I usually stop in the first boulangerie that catches my attention and order a baguette sandwich. Dinner is usually a toss-up, meaning it could be anything from another sandwich from a nearby café, pizza from the nearest Italian restaurant, or a quick grab dinner from Franprix. While I do love the food that Paris has to offer, every now and then I have a craving for food from home, whether it’s a burger and fries, a tex-mex burrito, or a steak dinner on occasion. It wasn’t necessarily because I was sick of the pasta, cheese, or bread (especially since it would take a lot for me to get sick of bread), it felt more like I just wanted something that was familiar to me. Don’t get me wrong, France is a beautiful and amazing country with great food, it just sometimes feels exhausting being submerged in a culture that is not your own. From the language barrier to the different social norms to the different food experience, I realized that the reason that I was craving food from home wasn’t that I desperately wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it was just that I wanted a moment of familiarity in an environment that is highly unfamiliar.
The few times that I have eaten American food since being abroad, I noticed that I became more relaxed than I was previously. This may be due to the fact while I am in a new environment abroad, I have a slight amount of natural stress that comes with being abroad, not to mention also taking classes for my major at the same time. This stress can cause changes within a person’s prefrontal cortex, specifically, stress can cause dendritic expansion into one’s orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in saliency of a reward or punishment (B. McEwen, 2012). Since a person’s saliency of reward is affected when the individual is stressed out, it is possible to see how a rewarding experience, such as eating familiar foods, may cause an increased pleasurable effect on emotion. Stress can also cause activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. When a person feels stressed, neurons in the hypothalamus release corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which leads to the stimulation of the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (M. Stephens and G. Wand, 2012). Additionally, another recent study determined that comfort food can dampen the activity of the HPA axis (A. Tomiyama et al., 2011). The HPA axis usually increases activity in stressful environments, meaning that by eating foods that are of a familiar comfort can decrease the activity of the HPA, leading to decrease in any feelings of stress. This finding makes my observation that after eating American food that is familiar to me, I feel more relaxed, makes biological sense as I am impacting the activity of my HPA axis.
Back home in Alabama, I am rarely inclined to stop at a McDonald’s for lunch and only during exam weeks do I ever crave a 10-piece McNugget. So why would I choose to eat at one of the most popular fast food chains in the U.S. while spending only six weeks in Paris, France, surrounded by local restaurants that may only be experienced here? While eating this fast food isn’t necessarily an overly pleasurable memory back home, it certainly evokes familiar emotions that remind me of late night runs with friends to get food on the way back from studying in the library or to take back dinner for a movie night in my apartment. According to a study by B. Ford and M. Tamir, if there is any quality to a familiar emotion that makes it desirable, then the familiarity of those emotions would be positively associated with wanting to experience those emotions (2014). So looking back at me and my craving for familiar food, it now seems that one of the reasons I indulged in American food abroad is to elicit familiar emotions that would ease the stress of being in a new environment. Moral of the story: enjoy the food that Paris has to offer, but don’t feel guilty for eating foods that are still found at home, it’s just one way to have familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.
Ford, B. Q., & Tamir, M. (2014). Preferring familiar emotions: as you want (and like) it?. Cognition & emotion, 28(2), 311–324. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.823381
McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: how the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185.
Stephens, M. A., & Wand, G. (2012). Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol research : current reviews, 34(4), 468–483.
Tomiyama, A. J., Dallman, M. F., & Epel, E. S. (2011). Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(10), 1513-1519.
Image 1 – Le Fils de Boulanger, taken from tripadvisor.com
Image 2 – HPA axis (2017), taken from https://everfit.co.nz/articles/hpa-axis-dysfunction
Image 3 – screenshot of google maps