It’s no secret that the French love their cuisine.
The hexagon boasts some of the best chefs, restaurants and ingredients in the world.
So it’s not all that surprising that this love has made its way into the very language… occasionally in very surprising ways!
As you’re learning French, you might hear phrases popping up here and there referencing food items. Often, these expressions will be confusing out of context, particularly if they’re unfamiliar. But French food idioms are fairly commonplace, and many of them are used in everyday conversation.
Here are seven of the most common French food expressions. Get to know them, and you’ll be seasoning your French conversations with them before you know it!
7 French Food Idioms
1. Raconter des salades. (Telling salads.)
In English, we call them tall tales. But in French, when someone tells a story that seems a bit too crazy to be true, it’s called a salade.
The connection may seem farfetched, but this expression, which dates back to the 19th century, actually has a very interesting origin. The metaphoric expression operates with the understanding that a successful lie or tall tale is just like a good salad. A salad is a mix of ingredients that comes together to form a flavorful, varied dish, just as a good lie or tall tale combines exactly the right amount of humor, imagination, truth and untruth.
In France, the expression is often used in the same way you might hear an Anglophone saying, “Stop pulling my leg!” When Oncle Guy is telling you about the enormous poisson-chat (catfish) he caught on his last fishing trip, so big he had to carry it home in his brouette (wheelbarrow), feel free to say, “Mais arrête de raconter des salades!”
2. Occupe-toi de tes oignons! (Mind your onions!)
When someone’s putting their nose in things that don’t concern them, this phrase will definitely come in handy. And don’t worry; it has nothing to do with the unsavory breath that can sometimes come with consuming one of France’s favorite alliums.
Occupe-toi de tes oignons is fairly similar to the English phrase, “Mind your own beeswax!” The only difference is that where Anglophones tell would-be meddlers to concern themselves with honey, French busybodies are told to tend their onions. In a country that’s not only an agricultural powerhouse but also well renowned for onion and garlic consumption, it’s really no surprise!
3. J’ai la pêche! (I have the peach!)
If you hear someone say this phrase, don’t go looking for a peach in his hands. Someone who says, “J’ai la pêche” means that he’s in high spirits or has a lot of energy. Americans often find it confusing or frustrating that there’s no real translation for the “I’m excited!” that we use so liberally, so those who enjoy declaring their good spirits will find this expression quite handy.
But peaches aren’t the only ones to be attributed to such a good mood. While “J’ai la pêche” was once a fairly slang expression reserved for youths, older folks said “J’ai la banane”, an expression that compares the shape of a smile to that of a banana. Nowadays, nearly everyone is saying “J’ai la pêche” though.
Good moods aren’t reserved for fruit either. “J’ai la patate” and even “J’ai la frite” can be used to mean the same thing. Pick your favorite; edible props are optional!
4. C’est du gâteau. (It’s cake.)
The American expression “easy as pie” is somewhat unfitting. After all, a good pie’s difficult to get right! The same holds true for the French equivalent expression; where we’d say easy as pie, the French say easy as cake. And cake in France, with its many layers of genoise, fondant and crème pâtissière positioned just so, is just as difficult to get right as the perfectly flaky pie crust and latticed design Americans aspire to.
As with the English expression, “c’est du gâteau” can occasionally be used ironically. It’s perfectly appropriate to utter “C’est du gâteau” after the successful – if arduous — completion of a not-so-simple task. Don’t go too crazy, though, or people may accuse you of telling salades!
5. Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre. (Wanting the butter and the money from the butter.)
Wanting the butter and the money from the butter. Sound familiar? It should; this French expression is very similar to our “Have your cake and eat it too.” Just as you can’t have cake and eat it, you can’t have butter and the money you made from selling it. The French will often accuse their interlocutors of wanting just that when they ask for too much.
A slightly less polite version of the expression tacks on yet another desire having to do with the milkmaid, but you’ll have to get Oncle Guy drunk on Pastis to get the punch line!
6. Ça ne mange pas de pain. (It doesn’t eat bread.)
When something “doesn’t eat bread,” it means that it’s not problematic or too expensive. Similar to “no skin off my back,” this expression is used to mean something like, “it couldn’t hurt.”
Careful with this one; it’s not used to describe something beneficial, but rather something that isn’t negative or couldn’t do any harm. Want to double-check that you locked the door? Why not? It’s quick and easy to do, and it couldn’t hurt. Ça ne mange pas de pain. Your shoulder’s still hurting after three days? Maybe you should see the doctor. After all, ça ne mange pas de pain.
7. Oh purée! (Oh mashed potatoes!)
One of the first things that many foreign language students attempt to learn are the gros mots or curse words and dirty expressions. What they might not learn right away are all of the expressions so frequently used to replace these less-than-savory phrases.
While the French tend to be quite liberal with their gros mots, they have just as many toned down versions, designed to be used in mixed company, phrases such as punaise (thumbtack), mercredi (Wednesday) and fils de sa mère (son of his mother).
One of these watered down expressions can be quite humorous if you’ve never heard it before; after all, seeing someone accidentally hammer his thumb and scream out, “Mashed potatoes!” could seem a bit surreal. But purée does fall into the category of gros mots safe to say in front of great-aunt Marguerite, so be sure to keep it in mind.
This is far from an exhaustive list. The French language is brimming with foodie expressions to discover!
One French slang expression uses the word “wheat” for money (the way that we sometimes say “dough” in English). Yet another compares an unwelcome visitor to a hair on a dish of soup. The best possible way to learn them all is to get talking!
With your FluentU skills under your belt, pull up a chair with a native speaker, share the expressions you’ve learned, and ask them if they know any more. After all, ça ne mange pas de pain!
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