Speaking of France …

You’re not supposed to begin a piece of writing with a question. Why not?

No idea, except that the “experts” seem to think that it’s an easy way out. “You can do better,” they say.

So what was my question? Oh yes.

Why is traditional French food so terribly unpopular at the moment?

Many authors and pundits have addressed that question in recent years, from Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France (2010) to Paul Freedman in a 2016 article in Quartz. Other writers such as Edward Behr and Eric Ripert poke at the question, arriving at similar conclusions.

French food is pretentious, snobby, dull, trite, and too heavy for modern tastes. Or so the litany goes. The blogging choir sings the same tune, preferring instead to sing the praises of every obscure cuisine in the world.

You can hardly blame these critics, when statistics suggest that 70% of restaurants in France resort to industrialized pre-prepped meals meant to be reheated on site. A proud sign—”fait maison“—hangs in the windows of many establishments in France, meant to assure customers that the food they eat is cooked just yards away from they’re sitting.

And then there’s the warped Michelin-star rating system. A strait jacket for chefs, discouraging innovation.

The growing disdain for French cuisine originated in part from this rigidity of thought and practice. But there’s something else going on here. French cuisine—made up of regional cuisines actually—is not, and never has been, limited to haute cuisine. It is true that people like maître d’hôtel Henri Soulé of New York’s Le Pavillon did much to surround French cuisine with an aura of snobbery and pretentiousness.

But defining all French cuisine into the snobbish and the pretentious is not fair. France, and her cuisine, influenced American cuisine a great deal, more than some people would like to admit. Upper-class  and influential Americans, beginning during the colonial period, looked to France for culinary inspiration.  President Thomas Jefferson sent his slave, James Hemings, to France to learn French ways in the kitchen. None other than Karen Hess wrote in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: “The imprint of royalist French cuisine is especially strong in Virginia  because of the vast and continuing influence of [Mary Randolph’s] The Virginia Housewife.” (p. 369) It is well known that members of the English aristocracy— the Duke of Newcastle, for example—fell all over themselves trying to hire French chefs. Charleston and New Orleans also took to French cuisine because of the people who settled there early on. French culinary techniques still provide the framework for most curriculums taught in American culinary schools.

Cooking French food doesn’t mean spending hours fussing with sauces (but they add a lot of flavor!). Just to prove my point, I encourage you to look at Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking or her French Country Cooking… .

I think I’ll go and dig into that cherry clafoutis I just made.

 

Cherry Clafoutis (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

5 thoughts on “Speaking of France …

  1. Very good questions you pose. I think that people now forget that nearly all cooking techniques we use in the European countries and North America do indeed stem from France. Wealthy people and nobles from these countries did not eat the same way as their poorer fellow people and their chefs were either French or trained in French cuisine (the Russians too). In the region of Campania and the island of Sicily, which were under Spanish inspired aristocratic rule for a while, one of the kings married Marie Antoinett’s sister Caroline. This inspired a sortie of French chefs to this part of Italy, and their name was prefaced by the title “Monsieur”. The Italian pronounciation in the kitchen had a bit of trouble getting it just right and in the end it turned into “Monzù”. And the more learned Italians know of and still speak of the “Cucina dei Monzu”. Ironically, historically previous to all this, it was the Italian Caterina de Medici who brought Italian cooking skills to France. But the modern cooking techniques that are vital for good results in the kitchen were definitely developed in France. Personally, I have seen Italian cuisine morph into something that I have no trouble admitting is culinarily of a higher quality … but at the same time worries me. It’s turning into what I call French-style cuisine using Italian ingredients – could be dangerous in the long run because the whole point of traditional Italian cuisine is that it be simple, easy to prepare on the whole, and with few ingredients – which is why it has been handed down from generation to generation no problem. Now that the standards in terms of ‘technique’ keep rising, with restaurants presenting food more and more in what I call the instagram-compulsive-disorder way, and TV food programmes aiding and abetting the trend, it may be that people in Italy will cook less, meaning find cooking more time consuming. And this might well lead to less home cooking, sigh. One of the saddest thing I notice in Italian restaurants now is the demise of the vegetable side plate, the “contorno”, which had to be ordered separately, giving the customer the choice of what he or she preferred. The vegetables are now increasingly presented on the same plate as the main course, the way I’ve always seen it done in the UK and in North America. The word for jazzing up a traditional dish in Italian is “rivisitato”, translated literally this means “revisited”, meaning ‘updated’. The reason for ‘updating’ many traditional Italian dishes is that they relied on a heavier fat content, I presume, or overcooked the ingredients – so the idea of improving on the original is not a bad thing per se. It’s all the other frills that bother me, the lengthier gilding-the-lily procedures and the disappearance of an actual name for the dish. Nowadays, the dish has to be described, listing all the ingredients. Who the hell is going to remember it ten months from now, let along ten years from now? “Rivisitato” is the Italian answer to yesteryear’s Nouvelle Cuisine. We all know of the dangers of fast food … we should now start awakening our senses to the dangers of haute cuisine techniques entering the kitchens in our homes. I do hope people will continue to read Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking or her French Country Cooking… .

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  2. Cherry clafoutis..like my grand-mere used to make. I thought the trend was going back to la bonne cuisine bourgeoise.

    How can you strike coq au vin, and blanquette de veau from your life?

    Mince alord.

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