(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Thursday, December 31, 2009


so I was involved in a comment exchange on a blog I like reading ... Ask A Frenchman on a topic that often seems to surface there ... food.

I've noticed that there seem to be 3 camps that regularly comment on that blog. The expats living in France who enjoy deriding everything French (and why was it they live here again .... ?), the French who read out of curiousity and defend their culture vigorously, and the rest odd bits and bobs like me.

On the topic of food ... camp 1 seems to think the French have their heads up their asses and that their food is either a bore or a legend in its own mind. After all ... they (the French) screw up everything (which really consists of those things that aren't really even that french like barbecues and sheet cakes... lol).

camp 2 stridently believes that France is the cradle of cuisine and everything is better in France. even things like Mickey D's. end of discussion.

I believe that no culture understands and reveres food in quite the same way as the French. Sure, every culture has its 'cuisine' ... the history of why it eats what it eats ... methods of capitalizing upon the local products. But no other culture has made food... its cultivation, preparation and consumption, the science AND the art AND the fabric of life that France has.

And this to a certain degree is an Achilles heel of many of the French I know.

On this most recent blog exchange ... the topic was what is missed by American expats living in France. It was jokingly commented that it certainly couldn't be the cuisine. That American food is regrettable and there really is no 'there' there. The idea that American food could be missed was (and I quote - ha) "ludicrous".

Here is where camp 3 pipes up again. Because frankly I agree that there really is very little in the way of "American" cuisine in the context of French cuisine. This is of course using the context that the only 'real' Americans were the Native people living there and everyone else just arrived. bringing their food ideas with them. and hell since its only been a little over 200 years ... in comparison ... yadiyadiya.

And in fact I even mostly agree with this. But I also think no one plagiarizes the wide variety of cuisines out there better than Americans do. probably for the simple fact that we DIDN'T have our own. I'm probably referring more to restaurants and such as opposed to cooking at home ... which I think the French have beat hands down.

But what I do think about the context of food in France is that because there is such an amazing history and culture of French foods here ... that many French are missing out on the delicious flavors of the rest of the world. There exists an attitude that we created it, this is our history, our trademark ... nothing else would even come close ... so why bother?!

I've even seen the internal variations (Basque as an example) mocked a bit as not being 'true French'.

Many of the French I know would not want to even try (or be interested). Last year when I prepared my birthday dinner (Mexican ... but with a variety of tastes ... prawn ceviche, sauteed fish tacos, chicken enchilada casserole, beans and rice and guacamole) ... about half the table picked at the plates ... eating only the rice and guacamole really, because they were afraid it would be 'too spicy'. The other half, mostly the fellas, devoured it and had seconds.

I see many of my French friends assuming that other cuisines will be too 'spicy' and won't venture there.

And the restaurants here cater to that mindset. They have equated spicy with HOT and different and change the recipes (Chinese for another example) into unrecognizable versions. Spicy does NOT equal everything folks...Chinese, Indian, Mexican foods ... in their most authentic versions...are savory more than spicy ... and utilize unfamiliar spices and flavors that have been lumped into one bowl here.

So when you do find a supposed 'int'l' restaurant here, most often the sauces taste like they've come from a jar or can or packet. With lots of sugar and gelatin.

It's disappointing.

I expected that with the reverence for food and flavors, the French would be adventurous. Would display more interest in experiencing and experimenting with other foods.

I would love to be wrong. I would love for someone to clue me in to some examples to the contrary, even if they are in the bigger cities such as Paris, Bordeaux, Marseilles and the like.

Just no one from camp 1 please. because if you really believe that American food is "cuisine" and you jump to defend it and deride French food ... well, your judgement is automatically suspect!!!

(ps-okay ... I absolutely DO miss American breakfasts... they are easily replicated at home here but not the same as going to a warm inviting café and lingering a couple of hours with friends)...and bars with great cocktail menus .... but I'm sure those are found in Paris.


The Pliers said...

Good Last Morning of 2009, Kim!

I enjoyed reading your post here today. I admire your endurance for wading through a site called "Ask A Frenchman" (no doubt lifted from "Ask A Mexican"), I don't know that I would have the heart.

With respect to cuisine, I would prefer to keep things in perspective by mentioning that France is a very small country–approximately the size of Texas–with a relatively aging population–with the exception of its immigrant population from France's old, unsuccessful colonial wars waged and a variety of other sources.

Within that very small country there are even smaller regional areas, each with its own unique approach to preparing and cooking the foods that the nature of its geography provided to the farmers and raisers of livestock–Dordogne purple, green, black, and white; Alsace; Bretagne; Haute-Savoire; Provence; blah, blah, blah.

Those farmers/practitioners of animal husbandry provided the food to the townspeople as well as the labor in the homes to clean and cook for centuries. (The cult of the big chefs came out of the pocket of the monarchy, obviously.)

Other people opened restaurants in their regions to feed those passing through or those too tired, lazy, or disinterested to cook labor-intensive regional dishes. And there were no hypermarchés.

With every war soldiers and economic immigrants flowed into the capital of the country from outlying regions and out of economic necessity sold their services as cooks–whole neighborhoods in Paris are dedicated to the comfort foods of specific regions of France, as you, I'm sure, know well.

Some people in France with National Identity Cards are fine, even exceptional cooks, like my sister-in-law and her daughters. Some people in France with National Identity Cards can't cook for shit, they shall remain unnamed.

"The Cult of French Cuisine" is just that, a cult:

5 a : great devotion to an idea, object, movement, or work (such as "French cuisine"); especially b : the object of such devotion c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

The rest is renomée, hardwork, publicity, word of mouth, marketing, the cachet of the French language, and beauty being in the mouth of the beholder.

I have always found it difficult to get too worked up over something that I chew, swallow, digest, and, ultimately, flush down the toilet. Good food in bad company is bad food. Mediocre food in good company is a joy. Bad food in good company is a bonding right, ask any soldier.

Great post, Kim. I can hardly wait to continue this conversation in the flesh!

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness, there is no American food here. I'm almost in the pure French category about French food even though I'm an old-time expat.
I do add Tabasco sauce to my cooking on the sly.

Bonne Année!

Stacey said...

Can an American comment?

I believe that cuisine is morphing very quickly on the West Coast, and although "American Food" might sometimes be equated with "fast food," I think that our cuisine is, in its infancy, using the highlights of many cultures to create a fused cuisine.

We borrow sauces from the French, and add tabasco. We borrow marinades from the Pacific Rim, and put them on local fish. We put fruit from South American in desserts we've borrowed from the British. We've learned to put chocolate in our chili, but we've also learned to pour a bottle of microbrewed beer in it - which beermaking skill we've adapted from Germany and Belgium.

We've learned to eat our fish fresh and raw (or mostly so,) accented by the most savory accents the Japanese offer. Our winemaking (oh yes, I just went there,) has grown and improved exponentially, by the introduction of French vinestock, and a carefully adapted blend of winemaking techniques.

Our cuisine has developed partly out of backlash to the explosion of fast food and chain restaurants. If the rest of the world has their primary exposure to our food through Taco Bell and Applebee's, is it any wonder that they say "thanks but no thanks!"?

Sadly, as you point out, most of that cuisine evolution is happening in restaurants, in little isolated pockets throughout America. Sure there are cookbooks, but we Americans are driven along in our everyday world, and who has time to make home-made stock, stew their own tomates, oven roast their own chilies, marinate a perfect piece of flank steak for three days before grilling and serving with moo shu pancakes?

In America, who has time to go to the store (because the closest we get to a daily "grocer" is the boutique style supermarket,) every day for the freshest produce? Even in season, the farmers' markets are held, at best, twice a week, and you must drive, drive, drive to the edge of town.

And once you have sourced, driven and purchased all of your freshest ingredients, who has ever been taught to prepare them properly, even if it wouldn't be 10pm before you can eat?

The thing the French, and indeed many food-oriented cultures do far better than we, is MAKE TIME for food. They LEARN to cook, not just to open packages and sealed bags and foil wrappers.

We're learning though. And we're young. Look out.

JChevais said...

Personally am not keen on the Ask A Frenchman site. It seems to beg snarkiness rather than anything constructive (also, at the time, I think he moderated his comments which I think is cowardly). Lord help you if you disagree with him. I've had the run in to prove it. LOL.

Food. Sigh. I'm learning. It isn't easy, but I'm learning how to un-north americanize my outlook. I think that if I had more time to really get into it, I would enjoy it a lot more. Until that time, I struggle a bit.

Non Je Ne Regrette Rien said...

wow, I have been sorely lacking in my comment responses... but here goes!

laF~... as usual... thought provoking response. We do differ, however as I have a somewhat more reverent view of food and cooking etc. but I do agree that in good company, all cuisine is elevated.

dedene~yep! me too.

stacey~at certain levels, one just has to chalk it up to semantics I think. I do think that the states has a cooking and eating style that is developing ... one can find certain regional specialties, but in general US food/cuisine lacks the history that would define it in the same way as other cultures.

you do know that I appreciate so many aspects of the best of what can be found in the states...

JC~you are right about the 'begging snarkiness' but I also confess that sometimes I like that! my dirty little secret!

boulet said...

"But what I do think about the context of food in France is that because there is such an amazing history and culture of French foods here ... that many French are missing out on the delicious flavors of the rest of the world. There exists an attitude that we created it, this is our history, our trademark ... nothing else would even come close ... so why bother?!"

And this is an attitude to laugh at. If anything French cuisine has been brilliant in the way it appropriated foreign ingredients and reinterprated recipes from far away. For instance Kim, cassoulet, which you probably had more than enough of by now, owes everything to the American continent: tomatoes, peppers, beans... Without those it's just a regular ragout like people have made variations of for centuries around the world. Foie gras? Well consider this: no corn, no foie gras. Corn, as far as I know, is necessary to fatten our delicious feathery friends. And one could unroll similar anecdotes up to when France was called Gaule and like many times in history Italians (or Romans) brought us new vegetables and spices... Even the concept of Chef was inspired by Italians: Catherine de Medicis was the one who started the tradition of those glorified vain cooks.

Fortunately the assimilation of international cuisine didn't completely stop. Genuine Asian cooking is very popular in big towns, and North African couscous and pastries are almost tradition now.

I agree with other commenters that AskAFrenchman's tone is sometimes annoying, even for a frog like me, with its superiority complex and snark. Sometimes, sometimes, he doesn't present the best side of France. But it's honest. I mean he's actually using the typical voice of the average loud mouth you would meet at a party who's trying to belittle you and have the last word. He may claim that pricks are mostly Parisian in France but he could look in the mirror once in a while (Hi David! if you read me;))

I agree with you about the creativity that exists and shines in American restaurants. Away from rigid ageless rules that stiffens French cuisine, American cook are inventing suprising futures. One problem though: what portion of the population in the US is eating regularly at fancy innovative restaurants? I'd love to see American families give time to meals and thought to recipes. As you mentioned it's mostly a matter of how American think about food more than traditions.

I'm discovering your blog and as an expat' myself (though on the opposite side of the pond) I'm enjoying it a lot!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post as well as those comments... thoroughly, Thank you so much for sharing.