Amy Finley, author of “How to Eat a Small Country: A Family’s Pursuit of Happiness One Meal at a Time” will talk about her family’s six-month moveable feast odyssey through the French countryside as the next author in Eduardo Santiago’s Idyllwild Authors Series. Finley’s account of that journey, is not just about food, it is also about making choices to preserve family, accommodations she made to ensure her marriage’s continuation, and how food, family and relationship became deeply interwoven in the process.
Finley, a UCLA political science graduate, who worked as a science and technology policy analyst at U.C. San Diego, later moved to Paris after meeting her Franco-American husband Greg. There she enrolled at Gregoire-Ferrandi’s Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Francaise and later worked as pastry chef at the trendsetting Rose Bakery in Paris.
In 2007, Finley was named winner of the third season of The Next Food Network Star and received a show of her own, “The Gourmet Next Door,” which taped in New York. At the time Finley, her husband and two small children were living in California. After six episodes, Finley quit the show and opted to move her family to her husband’s native France, eschewing celebrity for familial integrity.
Asked about celebrity and how it dominates American culture, Finley said in many ways it is wired into our DNA and that it comes from human nature. “There is some biological grounding,” she observed. “The drive for recognition is very old.”
Finley recounted that she didn’t anticipate what price celebrity would exact on her family and marriage. She said she sent a tape in on whim to The Food Network and that winning was a surprise. But after winning, experiencing how it felt to cook on television for strangers while not cooking at home for her family in California felt completely and totally alien. “With celebrity you become a brand and have to keep growing that brand and that was something I could not do,” she said, noting how much time would have been required taping in New York away from her family.
Finley, who has a solid background as a policy analyst, said she realized that her choice between family and a demanding career was similar to what most working women with children must contend every day. “It’s almost impossible to have a career after you have that first baby, it’s not as simple as that,” she said. “We’ve created an economy that requires two incomes. It’s a problem in general for American families, not so much in France where there is available childcare and school hours organized around a normal workday. There the child minders and teachers are qualified and available when they are most needed by working women. In the U.S. it’s tough for parenting. Our priorities are not skewed to making it easy for people to have families. Countries that make it easy for people to have families also build stable societies. And happy communities foster happy nations.”
Regarding fast food and obesity, Finley said they also are linked to the need for two incomes in working families and lack of available childcare. “People are time challenged and stressed,” she said. “And making meals at the end of long days is more difficult here than in Europe. In Europe there are specialty food purveyors who make fresh food that working mothers can use to augment meals. You keep a village alive by supporting these vendors. For the most part, we don’t have those choices here, so it takes more research to find healthy sources.”
Finley said quality food availability is inextricably tied to social justice and societal values. To promote social justice, better food access and choices, and to help address workplace challenges, Finley advises becoming actively involved in integrating food with community. “Don’t be passive, take active steps, constantly reground and realize that each person is part of something bigger. The community grows as individuals take action. Use your buying power to influence food quality and availability and make decisions to change your own buying and cooking habits. Don’t think of just your own narrow personal or family interests; think of the wider community.”
Santiago interviews Finley on Sunday, July 8 at 2 p.m. at INK Book Gathering on North Circle Drive. The event is free to the public.