Food, Wine and the End of France
Bloomsbury USA (2009), 256 pp., $25
The French are not like us. That’s their view, perhaps more than ours. We all think we’re special, but French exceptionalism has long been at the heart of France’s understanding of itself, shaping the nation’s history and underpinning to a remarkable degree almost every aspect of its politics, culture and everyday life.
Many, perhaps most, of the manifestations of that dogged French determination to do things differently, always accompanied by the confident belief that the French way is not merely better but uniquely right, can strike foreigners as irksome. Entrepreneurially minded Anglo-Saxons, above all, tend to be appalled by an economic dirigisme that they see stifling enterprise with high taxes, red tape, a 35-hour working week and a labor force that regularly expresses—and is allowed to express—its grievances by blockading roads and ports or even poisoning rivers.
At the same time, some consequences of the “exception française” prompt at least grudging admiration. There’s the stubborn insistence that multiculturalism is not the most effective way to assimilate a large immigrant population. There’s the hybrid public/private health system, which mostly avoids the iniquities and inefficiencies of both Britain’s statist National Health Service and profit-driven healthcare in the United States. And personally, I might put in a plea for the sublime regulatory complexities of the Tour de France, which turn a gruelling bicycle race into an enthralling three-week chess match on two wheels.
Above all, however, it is France’s distinctive culinary traditions that for centuries have prompted in foreigners a near-universal appreciation and delight. This is just as the French would want it. Gallic exceptionalism has always been the principal driver in the effort to unite—to create, really—a French nation where none existed before, and then to proclaim its superiority. Louis XIV tried to found a kingdom on the basis of “une loi, une foi, un roi.” Take the monarchy and the Catholicism out of that equation, as the French so uncompromisingly did in 1789, and the legalistic realm that’s left may not sound like too much fun. That’s one far from trivial reason why French cuisine came to add a vital celebratory note to the work of national self-assertion, as France built and consolidated its bourgeois, secular state through the 19th and 20th centuries and into our own.
There was nothing accidental about the rise of French cuisine. As that tireless historian of France and student of human nature Theodore Zeldin observed in his monumental work France 1848–1945 (1980), the history of French food in some ways parallels that of the country’s political development. It’s arguable that no other nation has so consciously given food and cooking such a central place in its quest for a political identity.
The history goes back many years. In her entertaining and informative study of “the iconic status of the culinary in French culture”, Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine (2004), Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson notes the appearance in the mid-17th century of a flood of prescriptive and patriotic cookbooks proclaiming the superiority of French cooking above all others and attempting to codify the practices that make it great. The whole enterprise, Ferguson suggests, fits “the legislative mode so characteristic . . . of the France of Louis XIV.”
A century later, haute cuisine celebrated and reinforced the supremacy of the haut monde. Thomas Jefferson, as American minister to the court of France, delighted in it, using Parisian caterers when he gave dinner parties and sending his own private servant to be apprenticed in the kitchens of the prince de Condé. When the Revolution brought that elegant world crashing down, many chefs to the aristocracy became urban cooks, opening restaurants, translating the ostentatious cuisine of the now-vanished great houses into more democratic forms. As the 19th century progressed, and with it the determined extension of Parisian administration over a vast wilderness of barely charted districts whose inhabitants mostly didn’t speak French, there developed a three-way culinary exchange between the peasant traditions of those far-flung regions (or a sanitized, parboiled version of them), the aristocratic fare of a previous age, and the developing cuisine of the bourgeoisie. This mirrored, and to a degree abetted, the political unification of north and south, urban and rural, capital and provinces, into a nation that was finally and recognizably, if still tentatively, France.
Simplifications there must be, of course, in such an account of the evolution of what came to be regarded as classical French cuisine. But the interesting point is that the cookery of France can be written about in this way at all. French cuisine has—and from its earliest days was given—a history, in the way that Italian opera, English literature and American art have histories. It has its supreme artists (Escoffier, Carême, La Varenne) and its influential philosophers and critics (Curnonsky, Brillat-Savarin, Grimod). It has its quarrels and its rival schools, its innovators and its conservatives, its small revolutions and its grand tradition. Its developments both reflect and illuminate developments in the wider world. It is and has long been regarded as an art. The same simply cannot be said for English or American cooking, or even for Italian cuisine, at least not in quite the same way.
Celebrated in the France it helped to forge, this elaborately constructed art also became the vehicle of a kind of culinary imperialism. Its great practitioners were revered not just at home but around the world, engaged at high salaries to cook in European stately homes and palaces, in London gentlemen’s clubs, on Transatlantic liners and in fashionable grand hotels. “The art of cooking may be one of the more useful forms of diplomacy”, the great chef Escoffier wrote.
And then it all went wrong. That, at least, is the thesis of Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That. Steinberger offers a persuasive overview of France’s culinary traditions and of how they became so intricately woven with the broader social and political history of the nation. But when it comes to the present, his book reads like an account of the bitter end of a long and once happy love affair.
Steinberger—gastronome, francophile and wine columnist for Slate—first visited France on a family holiday at the age of 13. During that very first trip he experienced a kind of culinary and cultural epiphany, what he describes as his “Great Awakening—the moment that changes entirely one’s relationship to food.” In his case the revelation was brought about by nothing more elaborate than a dish of buttered peas served in the dining room of an unremarkable provincial hotel. But, somehow, those lowly if tasty peas caused him “to realize that food could be a source of gratification and not just a means of sustenance—that mealtimes could be the highlight of the day, not simply a break from the day’s activities.” Subsequent visits reinforced those lessons. “In France”, Steinberger writes, “I didn’t just learn how to dine; I learned how to live.”
This is a well-rehearsed trope, the upside of almost every Anglo-American encounter with the edible forms of French exceptionalism. In French cuisine and in the French relationship with food, we seem to find something that we think we lack. For Jefferson it was a kind of refinement and sophistication. For more recent enthusiasts, it’s a combination of simplicity and precision. Julia Child’s epiphany, for example, came with a dish of sole meunière. As she described it in My Life in France,
It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: ‘Bon appétit!’
I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.
Elizabeth David, who shaped British perceptions of France and its culture in the years after World War II perhaps even more decisively than Child shaped those of Americans, celebrates a sort of simple plenitude. Writing during a time of food rationing in Britain, she takes a Rabelaisian delight in sheer enumeration, savoring culinary names and memories as once she savored the dishes themselves. In a passage, selected almost at random, from her French Provincial Cooking (1960), she recalls a lunch by the Seine: a bottle of Muscadet, an earthenware terrine of duck paté, a mound of rillettes de porc. Then little dishes of plain boiled langoustines, shrimps freshly boiled, winkles with a cork stuck with a pin to extract them from their shells, anchovies and sardines served in their tins to show they were a superior brand. Little salads in white-lined brown dishes, “thinly sliced cucumbers, little mushrooms in a red-gold sauce, tomatoes, cauliflowers, vinaigrette, carrots grated almost to a puree, herring fillets.” She conjures the colors: pale-rose pinks, pebbly black, different browns, muted greens, creams and greys, a splash of red, an orange glow, the shining yellow of the mayonnaise. And that’s just one meal.
It’s not gluttony she’s relishing, however, but purity, authenticity, a cornucopia of good, unadulterated things served and prepared with style and restraint. It’s a vision of a land of plenty, where everything has its value and its place and its time. Mrs. David liked to quote Escoffier: Faîtes simple. She was echoed by Richard Olney, her rather more austere American counterpart, author of an inspiring, exacting cookbook misleadingly titled Simple French Food (1974). Olney quotes the great gourmet Curnonsky: “La cuisine! C’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont.”
So what happened? Steinberger is remorseless in chronicling his disillusion with the culinary France that he and those earlier writers loved. He sees renowned and long-established restaurants close down. He returns to old favorites and suffers through disappointing meals. He deplores the tendency of too many leading French chefs to overstretch themselves, leaving the stoves to their juniors while they market themselves as global brands. He considers the pernicious influence of the guidebooks, especially Michelin, accused of promoting a particular kind of expensive and over-elaborate cooking to the exclusion of all else, and he studies the suicide in 2003 of the leading restaurateur Bernard Loiseau, supposedly driven to kill himself by the threatened loss of his third Michelin star. (In fact, Loiseau had a history of bipolar disorder, and his restaurant retained its third star; in any case, the meal Steinberger eats there before the chef’s death leaves him thoroughly unimpressed.) He notes the rise to global eminence of chefs who are not French—Ferran Adrià in Catalonia, Heston Blumenthal in England, Thomas Keller in the United States—and with them of a rarefied cuisine that seems remote both from the rich elaboration of traditional haute cuisine and from the straightforward pleasures of everyday French fare.
This decline within the higher reaches of French professional gastronomy would be bad enough, if Steinberger convinces you that it is so. Worse, though, are the changes in attitudes he detects within France as a whole. The French, he writes, seem to be losing their passion for food. Housewives serve their families ready meals. The long, leisurely lunch, a defining institution of French life, is on “the way out, replaced all too often, as elsewhere, by a snatched sandwich eaten in the street or at a desk.” Young people, especially, are opting for fast food. By 2007, McDonald’s had 1,100 outlets in France, attracting between them more than a million hungry customers a day. France was that muscular fast food company’s second most profitable market in the world. Annual turnover was growing at twice the rate it was in the United States. José Bové, you romantic with a tractor, take that!
Simplicity, as Richard Olney remarked, is a complex thing. When the American foreign correspondent Waverley Root celebrated France and its cooking in The Food of France (1958), he was attracted above all by the ways in which French regional cuisines were so clearly the products of the landscape and culture from which they came—the fact that each region’s food was, quite literally, grounded in a particular terroir. But as Steinberger’s neat summary of the history of French cuisine reminds us, that apparent authenticity is a by-product of the complex historical process that forged those disparate and often fractious regions into a unified political, cultural and culinary realm.
Some of the failings Steinberger now detects may be laid at the door of the French exceptionalism that so annoys Anglo-Saxons. The three decades of postwar French prosperity, les trentes glorieuses, gave way to years of crisis and gloom. An over-regulated economy and restrictive labor laws have made good food expensive and good staff more expensive still. No wonder many restaurants struggle to survive.
Other culinary disasters, however, may mark the weakening of that same exceptionalism, and perhaps the end of those French differences we had grown to love. The unsustainability of the exception française has been much debated in France and elsewhere over the past decade or two. Nicolas Sarkozy, though perhaps not anyone’s favorite political leader anymore, has pushed through at least some of the reforms first promised by Jacques Chirac. France may still view the whole process of what it calls mondialisation with some suspicion, but the country is probably more open now than it has ever been to foreign influences, not least that of free-market capitalism of the Anglo-American kind. There goes the long lunch.
As even its adherents probably knew, the gastronomic France that attracted Steinberger as a boy, that captivated English and American visitors from Jefferson to Elizabeth David, was to some extent a fiction. It was the France of Inspector Maigret and Jean de Florette, a projection of our hopes, desires and memories, a place that never quite was, for all its undoubted and convoluted history. A place a bit, perhaps, like the American West.
Here’s Mrs. David, writing in 1951:
A certain amount of nonsense is talked about the richness of the food to be found in all French homes . . . the chances are that a food-conscious foreigner staying for any length of time with a French middle-class family would find the proportion of tough entrecotes, rolled and stuffed roast veal, and sautéed chicken exasperatingly high.
Two and a half decades later, here she is again: “Nobody would pretend that the deep freeze isn’t everywhere, or that restaurants don’t sometimes serve disgraceful prefabricated sauces and inadmissible travesties of famous dishes.”
The somewhat idealized France of most writing about French food was no less real—to its inhabitants as well as to its visitors—for being juxtaposed with brutal little realities like that. French cuisine, even at its most authentic, was always a matter of artifice; it still tasted good, however. And for all that, it still does, so I’m not sure that things are as bleak as Steinberger paints them. Nor, I suspect, is he. His disappointment may be as much at the loss of a long-cherished certainty of his own as at anything actually happening in French kitchens today. Perhaps it is largely a matter of his own tastes changing without his being aware of it. The simplified narrative that gave us French cuisine has grown more complicated, that’s all.
There’s still good food of all kinds to be found in France, even if we have to look a bit harder than before. French exceptionalism may not be what it was, but it’s still not what it would be if it were not French. When France belatedly, after much wrangling, enforced a ban on smoking in public places in January 2008, the leading daily Le Figaro responded with outrage, as though the whole business were somehow un-French. The State “is trying to supervise our behavior. It wants us to drive less fast, drink moderately and stop smoking, on pain of being treated as a criminal.” In fact, the French state has always tried to supervise all kinds of things. France is mired in bureaucracy, even exceptionally so. Mostly, though, the French just get on with their lives, and let the regulations go hang; hence the recent outdoor extensions of so many French restaurants.
Alien impositions—legal or cultural—hold no real fears. As Steinberger discovers, all those Gallic branches of McDonald’s are crowded, night after night, but their French customers tend not to grab a takeout burger and run. They arrive for dinner in groups and they sit down. They eat with knives and forks. They linger, and they talk. In fact, they manage to turn the world’s most famous fast food joint into something quite like a French restaurant. Plus ça change…