People throughout history reveal their preoccupations through their architecture, artifacts, and the written word.
These aspects reflect what matters to societies at various times. It comes down, in a way, to questions of taste, not just alimentary, but cultural and moral. The fashions, the trends, the modes of the day pass and morph into others as the years go by.
Like all ideas, current preoccupations – with simple, natural, sustainable, green – mirror the concerns of a certain segment of society. Each society believes that their philosophy, their ideas, are the “right” way to approach the messiness of life.
The fight is between tradition and the demands of living in different times.
And nowhere do you see this contradiction more than in a country like France, where you breathe in tradition as you sniff discreetly while passing a boulangerie and feel the past the moment you step outside your door. History literally props you up, as you march across cobblestones or lean against stone walls, taking in views little different from those seen by the artists and writers, courtesans and politicians of years long gone.
The “green” movement prevails there, too, in the land of canard fat, foie gras, and frisée. Everything now seems to be “bio,” whether Monoprix sells it or you buy it from the vendor standing all day in the stone passageway of the neighborhood’s bi-weekly market.
You see “le fast food” more now on the streets, where people actually eat the food as they walk, something unheard of not all that long ago, sacré bleu! That in itself is an interesting marker of cultural change. This fast food appears everywhere, too: in the open-air markets where vendors sell roasted chickens and tiny fried potatoes in their skins, paella thick with bruise-black mussels and flamingo-pink shrimp.
Monoprix now provides food for the hoof, so to speak, at miniaturized versions of itself: baby Monoprixs called Monops dot the streets of Paris, where you can dart in and grab “wraps” in many flavors – the Chicken Caesar wrap tastes particularly good, just in case you want to know. And then there’s Picard, a chain selling only frozen food, most of it ready-made, boxed or packed sous-vide, and emblazoned with names of famous chefs like Joel Robuchon, most just right for the microwave. (The food, not the chefs, that is.) You might walk right past one of these places, because the interior looks like the sterile set of Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, Sleeper.
So although many reacted negatively to last year’s UNESCO designation of the French gastronomic meal as cultural heritage, I still hold that the French gastronomic meal as portrayed indeed represents a disappearing entity and like a cathedral must be preserved in some way. For example, you see far fewer charcuterie shops today than you did twenty years ago, many falling victim to the perception of the unhealthiness of their products, best served to stave off hunger in people working at physical labor and at times when refrigeration did not exist and seasonality determined the production of food stuffs that would last during long months of scarcity.
In spite of the “bio” and the “green” and “le fast food,” one French institution still prevails: the café.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen