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.

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I published a book two years ago called Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. It was about the rise, fall, and future of French cuisine, set against the backdrop of France's diminished fortunes generally. From the outset, it was my hope that the book would be published in France, and from the start, I was told that no French publisher would be interested in a book written by an American chronicling the decline of French gastronomy. (The apocalyptic subtitle probably didn't help my odds.) But several months after the book came out here, the publishing house Fayard acquired French rights to Au Revoir, at which point my desire instantly turned to fear—about how the book would be received in France, and more to the point, about how I would be received. The French edition, titled La cuisine française: un chef-d'oeuvre en péril, will be released on March 2, and last week Fayard flew me to Paris and gave French journalists the opportunity to flambé me if they so wished.

As if to prepare me for the anticipated onslaught, I was on the receiving end of a broadside just days before I left for Paris. The March issue of the Atlantic includes a lengthy rant by one of its resident scolds, B.R. Myers, modestly titled "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies." Myers attacked those of us who take pleasure in what we eat as depraved philistines, and as evidence of our degeneracy, he cited the opening passage in Au Revoir, in which I recounted an evening in which I had let a chef flirt with my wife because I was so smitten with his foie gras preparation. From the feedback that I received, it appeared many readers thought the story was funny, even slightly charming. Not Myers: He considered it indicative of just how debauched we live-to-eat types are. Chacun à son goût, as they say. But his article at least helped put me in an appropriately combative mood as I headed off to France. (I hear Myers is now working on two new moral crusades for the Atlantic: one against people who enjoy sex, the other against people who smile too much.)

Although I made clear in Au Revoir that I was an ardent Francophile, the perception that French cuisine is in eclipse is understandably a sore subject in France, and one that the French culinary establishment has been fighting. Last autumn, it claimed a victory when it got UNESCO to declare the "gastronomic meal of the French" to be part of the world's cultural patrimony. A few weeks ago, a group of top French chefs led by Alain Ducasse (to whom I devote a chapter in the book) joined together to form an organization called the Collège Culinaire de France, whose objective, apparently, is to remind the rest of the world of the singular genius of French cooking. While the French generally say all the right things about Spain's gastronomic revolution and the culinary bustle in cities like New York, San Francisco, London, and Tokyo, I don't think they have quite given in to the idea that we now live in a multipolar world as quality eating goes. Deep down, they still believe that France is the center of the food universe, and I expected some serious pushback once I was there—assuming, of course, they let me in.

They did let me in, and to my surprise, the journalists I met generally seemed receptive to the book. Sure, there was some caviling: One magazine writer felt obliged to point out a single typo—the name "Barbot" was misspelled as "Bardot" on one page; I mumbled something about the translator having blondes on his mind that morning. For the most part, though, the response was pretty enthusiastic; my interlocutors didn't even mind when I butchered their language. (The most challenging interview was on a French radio program, although the problem there was the sultry hostess; she opened the show by purring into the microphone, "Bonsoir, good night," at which point I lost all ability to make sense in French—or English, for that matter.) The most gratifying praise came from food critic Sébastien Demorand, who told me that in addressing the lack of minorities in the kitchens and dining rooms of many of France's restaurants, I had raised an issue that the French press had avoided and that he hoped would now be forced into the open. That comment made my trip.

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.

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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