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The End of French Cuisine?

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Daniel Rogov

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The End of French Cuisine?

by Daniel Rogov » Tue Aug 03, 2010 4:18 pm

Thanks to my most singularly faithful correspondent, a fascinating article from the London Review of Books in which Steven Shapin reviews the new Michael Steinberger work "Au Revoir to all That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine".

Let it be known far and wide that I disagree with much of Steinberger's hypothesis. So long as chefs break down and cry when their sauce curdles; as long as there remains even one Frenchman or woman who claims that no-one other than a French chef can make a proper sauce blanc; and as long as there are those who moan aloud every time they walk past a MacDonald's in Paris, Nice or Marseilles, the world of French cuisine remains safe.

Agree or disagree, definitely worth the read at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n15/steven-sha ... cream-puff

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Joel D Parker

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Re: The End of French Cuisine?

by Joel D Parker » Mon Aug 09, 2010 5:43 am

Thanks for pointing that article out.

It's certainly provocative, and well written until it sort of peters out at the end with no real conclusion. I disagree also with Steinberger's hypothesis. First of all, haute cuisine is not in a crisis at all, though perhaps in a period of rapid change. The rapid changes we see particularly in the Anglo-Saxon-oriented world is partly due to the so-called 'food revolution' of the last 20 years. Indeed, there may be some sort of connection between the political atmosphere and trends in food consumption. But, I don't think you can go very far with that correlation. Yes, Mitterrand ironically had a negative impact on food in France: he was a gourmand and a socialist, i.e. a bad combo. Just look at the building projects he undertook to realize the aesthetic brutality he promoted. But no, Mitterrand did not destroy French cuisine any more than he destroyed French architecture.

So what if people prefer a less formal atmosphere? In the future, one can imagine food as part of the multimedia entertainment culture. At the same time, in the internationalized world we live in, no chef can afford to be ignorant about non-French foods. In fact, this is not a problem, but a good thing. As long as French-trained chefs are schooled in the basics of French cuisine, they will innovate from within that tradition and borrow, blend, and build on other types of food as well. Who's to say you can't have French-Thai, or any other hyphened category? This miscegenation of food will not spell disaster for the French.

As long as romance exists, French cuisine-tradition will have a role, at least at the foundation of much though not all Western haute cuisine. Hopefully, the notion of food as a meeting place for two people, or several people who deeply care about each other and enjoy each other's company will not die. That would be far worse than the end of French-tasting food. Unlike art, music, theater, or cinema, food is something that is both experienced by the individual and shared in limited quantities. The limited nature of food makes enjoying it with another person something like listening to music through earphones--you can share your experience with one person perhaps, but not a crowd. In that sense food is exclusive and cannot be amplified and simply sent out to the masses (unless you have Jesus and the fish). So in a way, haute cuisine is the antithesis to pop music--though theoretically many people could enjoy a large amount of food distributed on a wide-scale. We usually associate this image with disaster relief, not pleasure or culture.

What's French about private dining? Nothing, many cultures share this notion. But anyone who's spent significant time in France and dined or dined in the finer French-based cuisine establishments of the world, knows that the French have taken this concept pretty far. The way the French immersed the dining experience into a grand aesthetic must be looked at from a distance to see the big picture. It's not just how the food tastes, but how it looks, how the server pays attention to you and leaves you alone when you want to be alone, how quiet or loud the restaurant is, how the restaurant looks. And the wine...Need I say more? The French designed the wine and the food together, and wine is a serious part of the haute cuisine culture that may be imitated, but is not going to be replaced by some wholly other tradition any time soon. (Even the new trend to drink fancy beer with food is a parallel to the wine and food concept, not a radical departure.) We could go on about the silverware, dishes, and other aspects of the table and chairs, and all of this is part of the French aesthetic that leaves no detail out of the larger equation.

As to the simpler pleasure in life, moving away from haute cuisine, I don't see les croissants, pains au chocolat, baguettes, or any other basic morsel of French cuisine going away any time in the near future. Perhaps other items will compete along side them, but not replace them entirely. Maybe the Italians do coffee better, but is cappuccino versus café au lait a cultural batter for supremacy? We're splitting hairs now. Multiculturalism is not a zero-sum game.

End,

Joel

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