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)
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