Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whither France?

For centuries the French seemed to hold a monopoly on top-notch dining, but their gastronomic reputation has recently simmered down. The average French dinner has shortened from 105 minutes to a cursory half-hour, and the very déclassé "steak-frites" was voted France's favorite dish.

Multiple courses and wine at lunchtime seems extravagant to les américains. But in France it is a traditional practice, under siege by a streamlined culture. Edward Cody identifies a Sarkozy-era push to "modernize" France, that is, to make her competitive on the global marketplace. This movement serves up a distinctively Anglo efficiency to eating, first developed by the fourth Earl of Sandwich.

But the real story is not the lapse of food-seriousness within France, it's the extent to which France's culinary traditions have sopped across borders. Guy Savoy cannily recognized this when the Michelin Red Guide was taken over by a German woman. These were not spaetzle-noshing barbarians at the gates. The first foreigner at the helm the famous restaurant guidebook is a sign that French cuisine has become global fine-dining. The French after all are universalists--but of course their universe is a thoroughly French one.

Mike Steinberger, on the other hand, has a few choice words for those ostensibly prestigious Michelin stars. He claims that the narrow-minded obsession with fulfilling mysterious criteria has a negative effect on the French dining scene, driving one ill-starred French chef to suicide. Michelin-starred restaurants after all are part of an outdated, royalist tradition. They serve only a few tables a night, and do not at all reflect the way real French people eat. Michelin rarely celebrates the Middle Eastern cuisine that is served in some of the country's best restaurants.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Alain Passard (whose vegetables ride the TGV each morning) is Denis Hennequin, who helped turn France into McDonald's number two market, in spite of José Bové's 1999 attack. The Illinois-based fake meat juggernaut has ironically become popular in the land of foie gras, although it's interesting to read about how the French enjoy McDonald's in their unique way: they go almost exclusively at mealtimes, in groups, and they linger much longer than North American fast food customers. These conscientious diners probably have a hard time relating to Morgan Spurlock's point.

"Fast food," translated literally into French becomes "la restauration rapide," a contradiction in terms. Bové and his anti-GMO crowd have coined the term "la malbouffe" to describe the pablum that threatens to destroy both public health and French culture. But the French still love McDonald's, and in spite of all the cultural degradation at work, one still eats better in France than just about anywhere else.