Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Au Revoir to All That
I just finished reading Michael Steinberger's recent book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France. The title caused me to initally think that this book had been written by a critic from the food industry who hated France. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Steinberger is actually a Francophile and was honestly trying to investigate the so-called "crisis" in French cooking.
Steinberger has the enviable journalistic privilege of managing to interview the most famous chefs and food critics in the world, some of whom died within a year or two of his speaking with them. Paul Bocuse, Pascal Remy, Jean-Luc Naret, and the widow of Alain Chapel were among his subjects.
The author does raise some valid points about the changes evident in French culture that began as recently as the late 1970s, and my heart did ache for him in his tale of Au Chapon Fin, a Michelin-starred restaurant at which he had dined with his parents as a child. He later returned as an adult to find the ambiance and food seriously lacking, and later to find the restaurant closed and its host town, Thoissey, wiped from the Michelin guide entirely. He uses this story as a framework for his investigation of France's restaurant industry and, to a certain extent, its food industry, though the latter seems more lightly researched and treated in the book.
Steinberger makes the point throughout the book that many producers of poor-quality breads, wines and cheeses still manage to survive and, in some cases, are edging out their higher-quality competition. I admit to having experienced this aspect of the "crisis" myself.
I was horrified that the only boulangerie in the small town in which I resided for part of my time in France had incredibly dry, nearly inedible bread. Yet this bakery was packed with people every day around 6 p.m with commuters who worked in nearby Tours. Folks who had forgotten to stop at Paul for their bread before coming home settled for this inferior product. I was perplexed that a shop with such bad bread could manage to survive in a French town, but it seemed that enough people in the town put up with the terrible bread to keep it in business. When I inquired about the situation, my host father explained that there had been a second bakery in town that sold much better bread, but it had moved closer to the city since it hadn't attracted enough business out in the country.
Despite Steinberger's vehement argument, I'm still doubtful that there's actually a crisis. In addition to this book, I've read several articles on the subject and none of them have convinced me that it is the cooking that is in crisis. Rather, what is in crisis is France's cultural identity. A government that has denied for years the influences of its former colonists has also denied the changes they've brought to the "French" way of life. When an entire culture changes so gradually, the things that were continually swept under the rug for so many years come as a shock when finally brought into relief.
I don't think that French people value good food any less; they are simply struggling with the issues that Americans struggled with in the 1980s. Women were entering the workforce and trying to manage the juggle between work and family. I like to think that there is more balance in this area today than there was when my mother was raising three daughters and working, but French women seem to still be in the "first generation" of women who spend more waking hours at work than at home each day.
Yes, it's sad to find that supermarkets with their snack aisles and convenience foods have become an integral part of daily life in France, but there will always be those who value freshly prepared seasonal cuisine and who will seek it out.
I would definitely recommend Au Revoir to All That to anyone interested in France's dining industry. I would not recommend it to anyone with a fear of repetitive words: the world 'eponymous' appears about 30 times. That word is just as bad as dry, tough bread.