8/24/11 - the decline of french cuisine

In today's excerpt - as reported by Steven Shapin in the London Review of Books, French cuisine is declining in its creativity and influence:

"The statistics tell much of the story: in 1960, there were 200,000 cafés in France, now there are about 30,000, an average of two closing every day; the French home meal a generation ago took 88 minutes to prepare, now it's 38 minutes; the great majority of French cheeses were unpasteurized in the 1950s, now only 10 per cent are made from raw milk; French family-owned wineries and farms have been going out of business at an alarming rate, and the proportion of the labor force employed in agriculture has dropped from 20 per cent in the 1960s to about 5 per cent today. And you surely have to give attention to some of the good things that have also eroded traditional foodways in France, as they have in many other countries: for example, slightly better pay for restaurant workers and the unshackling of women from the domestic kitchen. In Distinction (1979), Pierre Bourdieu addressed the declining 'taste for elaborate casserole dishes (pot-au-feu, blanquette, daube)' in terms of women's changing role in France, and also as an illustration of the concept of 'cultural capital'. Your food is supposed to get lighter as you move up in the world.

"The second most profitable national market for McDonald's is now France. The Great Satan of dietary mondialization is now woven into the fabric of French life and, while Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine author Michael Steinberger has no taste for fast-food malbouffe, he also has no time for the facile notion that this is a story about Americanization: 'The quarter-pounded conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job, and not merely in the sense that the French public was lovin' it—the architects of McDonald's strategy in France were French.' The French buy 'Les Big Macs' because they like them. McDonald's French executives have successfully argued that it is a French company, supplying emerging French needs, adjusting its facilities to French habits, and sourcing its beef, bread and condiments from impeccably French sources. One of McDonald's advertising campaigns posed the question 'D'où vient ton McDo?', since the company was happy to supply the answer.

"American and British foodies appear at times 'plus royaliste que le roi', reminding French food culture what it owes to the world and, specifically, to those whose lives were turned inside out by a French epiphany. Steinberger visited Philippe Alléosse, owner of perhaps the best cheese shop in Paris. Shopkeeper and foodie shared their alarm over the decline of raw-milk cheeses and the rise of industrial junk, and then Alléosse told Steinberger where he thought the blame lay: 'No French chefs come to visit here. We get foreign chefs, but no French chefs. The French think that good cheese is too expensive. It is the Americans and other foreigners who support quality. I have Americans coming into the store saying: "Philippe, you must continue, you must protect lait cru cheeses, you have the best métier in the world." I never hear that from French people.' Here, as elsewhere, the natural allies of terroir and Slow Food are the technologies of globalisation: the internet and the 747.


Steven Shapin


"Down to the Last Creampuff"


London Review of Books


5 August 2010


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