Is French cuisine in decline? Let's ask the French.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 25 2011 5:52 PM

From Macarons to McDonald's

The French respond to the argument that their national cuisine is in decline.

(Continued from Page 1)

But Demorand, currently a judge on the French version of MasterChef, felt that I had overstated the extent of France's culinary decline, and I had to admit that his critique was thought-provoking. He said that when not bashing France, we Americans tend to mythologize it, and that's particularly true with regard to food. Julia Child, Alice Waters, and countless others, myself included, had their culinary epiphanies in France, and the recollections of that moment are so powerful that they invariably lead us to idealize the past and to scorn the present. Was the sole meunière that Child ate just off the boat in 1948 really that good, or did it just stand out in her memory because it was her first taste of France and was so different than anything available in the United States at the time? Demorand said that perhaps the real issue wasn't that the quality in France has plunged but that the quality of the food at home had soared; nowadays, eating in France no longer seems so special, so unique, and perhaps that frustrates Francophiles like me and colors our judgment. The problem, in other words, was as much in my head as my stomach.

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I had expected to be scrutinized in France; I hadn't anticipated being put on the shrink's couch. There was some merit to what Demorand said; food memories are nothing if not potent, and those of us who had our formative eating experiences in France seem especially prone to sentimentality. But the belief that French cuisine is in trouble is hardly a case of nostalgia run amok. The extinction of raw-milk cheeses (they now account for barely 10 percent of all the cheeses produced in France), the huge drop in wine consumption (down more than 50 percent since the 1960s and continuing to slide), the disappearance of thousands of farms, and of thousands of bistros and brasseries, the fact that France has lately been the most profitable market for McDonald's outside of the United States—these are persuasive indicators of a fading gastronomic culture.

Demorand said that we Cassandras wanted it both ways: On the one hand, we condemn the French for failing to preserve their traditions, for not maintaining the "postcard France," as he put it, and on the other hand we criticize them for their reluctance to change and to accept the vicissitudes of global capitalism. I suggested that it was not necessarily an either/or proposition: Economic dynamism and culinary dynamism often went hand-in-hand. The United States has a flourishing artisan food movement, a development that I believe can be credited in part to the boom times that we used to enjoy. But I had to acknowledge that people like me were asking a lot of France. I told Demorand to consider it tough love.

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