Gourmande, or Bon Vivante?

gourmand, english

a person who enjoys eating and often eats too much.

A connoisseur of good food.

usage: The words gourmand and gourmetoverlap in meaning but are not identical. Both mean ‘a connoisseur of good food,’ but gourmandmore usually means ‘a person who enjoys eating and often overeats.’

 gourmet, french

Personne qui sait distinguer et apprécier la bonne cuisine et les bons vins.

  gourmand(e), french 

Qui aime manger en quantité les bonnes choses.


I cannot deny that I love to eat. According to the definitions above, I think I walk the fine line between them, and fall from time to time into the cushy seat of one and then the other.

Is it just me, or does the meaning of gourmande carry a negative connotation? Of course, “too much” has the meaning of overdone, and is negative. In French, though, it is one who likes to eat a lot of good things. It does not say too much, but rather, en quantité. There is not necessarily a judgment there. Amongst francophones, does gourmand carry a negative connotation? Chances are, in English and in French, the image conjured is one of a chubby man or woman with rosy cheeks and a big appetite.

I think I was born loving food. As a little girl, my mother used to have to tell me I’d had enough, and that no, I could not have another helping of macaroni and cheese (my favorite dinner, along with chicken wings from Bread and Circus, the Whole Foods, in Boston, of the early 90s). Did I not know I had had enough? How did it come to be that my taste buds were more persuasive of my action that my physical feeling of fullness? Why did my sister want to run from the table, while I wanted to stay longer? My sister would eat her weight in candy, it seemed, but was uninterested in a real meal, and my mother had to deal with her in the opposite manner she dealt with me. If only I could have split my interest in food, or my lively tastebuds, with my sister—we would have made dinner easy for my mother.

But there was a guilt associated with eating a lot, one that I became particularly ashamed of at summer camp, when each camper got publicly weighed in front of all the other campers. There must have been some banter about being fat, or skinny, even amongst 10,11, 12 year old girls. I do remember wondering why I weighed more than a friend of mine who was my very same age. Why should I be bigger? Bigger did not mean better, this was clear, even to a pre-adolescent who had not yet had her first kiss.

No counselor or adult said anything to address the different sized of different people, or told us it was OK and normal. Who knows if it even would have helped amongst the backdrop of larger pressures to look a certain way.  Eventually I took out some anger I apparently had and used it as a weapon against my body. I became very skinny, very quickly, because if there is another quality I had besides being a gourmande, it was a determination and resolve. I could not eat if I so chose.

These days, healed of any eating disorder but still carrying on a complex relationship with food, I feel that food is as complicated as ever. As a woman, I feel no less pressure than when I was younger to look good and to be thin. Thinness seems to be a requisite for attractiveness, and to be attractive, well that seems a requisite for success in life. Thinness is necessary for love, of course, or at least initial romance, but also for work, and even for the attention of those who know us most fully and least superficially: family. Family is concerned if there is weight gain, and might warn us to watch our weight and ask what is wrong in our lives, and they gush and congratulate us if there is a weight loss. The only time in my life when this was not true was when I was sick of course, and gaining weight actually made me look, quite objectively, more alive.

But today, I have the experience and perhaps the confidence to ponder what is so bad about being somewhat subservient to my thriving taste buds. If I deny my taste buds, I can be thinner. If I indulge them, I may carry some more weight. But there is another piece to that equation which can affect the sum total. Good food plus gourmand(e) may not always equal a bigger person. The other variable is companionship and ritual. Making a ritual of a meal and eating with other people can allow us to enjoy delicious food at an appropriate pace, and be satisfied with just enough, but not too much. For, after the reward of a good meal, we have the lingering reward of good company, too. This is total satisfaction, this is being satiated, mind body and soul.

I think there must be a word created for one who eats in such a way. Not gourmand, because eating delicious food, but not too much of it, is an incorrect meaning of that word. Not gourmet, because it is not only about distinguishing particularly great cuisine. This is about enjoying delicious food, enjoying the nourishing feeling that good food gives us, and enjoying the environment created around that food, by the atmosphere, location, and company. Maybe there is a word for this. It might just be bon vivant. 


One thought on “Gourmande, or Bon Vivante?

  1. Thank you so much for sharing Gaby! I remember learning the difference between gourmande and gourmet while I was in France. Tiny little french women would say sheepishly “Je suis un peu gourmande” because they like dark chocolate. As always, I love your philosophy that good food should be shared – that a meal almost isn’t complete without having other people to share it with.

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