An Unsavory Holiday: Lamenting the Decline of French Cuisine

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

It was a puzzlement, really. After all, we were in Paris -- I'd pinched myself enough times to be sure of that. It had been years, but now, ensconced in a cozy corner brasserie, my husband and I were looking forward to one of the great delights we remembered from our previous travels in France: wonderful, cheap food, everywhere you went.

Well, okay, nothing's cheap in Europe anymore; we knew that. But the food. How could the food be so . . . awful?

My onion soup was a pale, watery broth. I swallowed the cheese in one spoonful and eyed the few sad onion slivers floating in the bowl. My husband's grill platter looked greasy and, well, kind of gross. He's like Mikey, so he chewed gamely away on some gristly sausage, but this time Mikey wasn't liking it.

I felt his hunger pains. I mean, the man loves food. And food was what France, as we remembered it, was all about. It was about cassoulets and pot-au-feu and escargots and croque-monsieur and foie gras and so much more. But where were all those dishes? Where, in fact, were any dishes affirming the country's rep as the great culinary stronghold of the Continent? Because it wasn't just one bad meal, you see. In a week, we had maybe one good, never mind great, meal. True, we didn't eat in any three-star restaurants, but we ate in some well-known locales. And you'd have thought we might have stumbled on at least one fantastic feast. Mais non. The food wasn't always bad, but it was reliably mediocre. Uninspired. Blah.

It was enough to make Julia Child roll over in her grave. And to think that her movie self (a.k.a. Meryl Streep) could be leading a whole new generation of Americans down the kitchen-garden path to believing that La France is still the world's food mecca. But it hasn't been that, says Michael Steinberger, for quite some time.

I can't tell you how relieved I was when Steinberger's recent book, "Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France" (Bloomsbury USA), came across my desk not long after we got back from Paris. For weeks, I'd been thinking it was me. After all, my memories of magnificent French repasts were a couple of decades old. Maybe they were too rosy. Maybe my palate had changed. Maybe it was because we hadn't really planned out where to eat, assuming that we'd walk into deliciousness without any effort. Maybe we were just old and out of it.

Even if all those things are a little bit true, reading Steinberger, a wine columnist for Slate magazine (which is owned by the Washington Post Co.) and admitted "food-loving Francophile," reassured me. Because there's more to it than that, he writes. Way more.

Here's the thing. If you're a food expert, you'll know where to go to find tasty food in France. Joe Yonan, who runs The Post's Food section as well as this one, knows his vittles, so when he visited Paris a few weeks after we did, he planned well, used his contacts and had lots of fine meals. But if you're a casual tourist, you need to know: You're not going to find a fabulous meal around every corner. And mostly, the French don't care.

Take a look at these facts: From 200,000 cafes in 1960, France was down to 40,000 -- and dropping -- last year. Bistros and brasseries are likewise disappearing rapidly. Certain kinds of cheeses are dying because no one knows how to make them anymore. The wine industry is in upheaval as the French quaff less of the fruit of the vine. Forget the quaint little French outdoor market; they still exist, but the French now buy 75 percent of their food in supermarkets, just like Americans. And "most ominously," Steinberger writes, "the bedrock of French cuisine -- home cooking, or la cuisine familiale -- was in trouble. The French were doing less cooking than ever at home and spending less time at the table: The average meal in France now sped by in thirty-eight minutes, down from eighty-eight minutes a quarter-century earlier."

Well, no wonder the city seemed to have lost so much of that laid-back feel of folks just sitting around, whiling away the time over wine or coffee. Why numerous eateries stood half-empty at the height of the lunch or dinner hour. Why people were buying those prepackaged lunches from takeout shops and probably heading back to the office. Wine with lunch? Seemed totally passe.

There were still lots of pedestrians munching baguettes as they hurried along the street, but the baguettes themselves? Not always the delicacies they once dependably were. No surprise there, either, says Steinberger. In some places these days, he writes, it's "a struggle to find even a decent loaf of bread."

And the origins of these woes? Oh, there are beaucoup. Steinberger fingers everything from a bloated, micromanaging bureaucracy to the new creative cooking wave out of Spain and England to the rise of the celebrity chef and the tyranny of the Michelin Guide.

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