letter from paris

A lunch for the whole world to behold

In France, demands of a modern economy encourage quick, alcohol-free lunches. Sandwich consumption is rising by 10 percent a year,
In France, demands of a modern economy encourage quick, alcohol-free lunches. Sandwich consumption is rising by 10 percent a year, (Alastair Miller)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Among humanity's most cherished cultural treasures, the United Nations declared Tuesday, are Peking opera, Spanish flamenco dancing - and lunch in France.

The decision by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include French food among new additions to a list celebrating the world's "intangible cultural heritage" came as no surprise in Paris. For centuries, people here have been convinced that nothing is so fine, so culturally satisfying, so spiritually uplifting as sitting down for a good French meal with friends and family. (Or maybe a lover, but that is another heritage.)

President Nicolas Sarkozy summed up the views of most of his compatriots when he blurted out at an agricultural fair two years ago that French cuisine is the best in the world and should be put on the UNESCO list. Although he quickly added, "at least, in our view," his culinary chauvinism inspired tut-tuts from gourmets in Italy, Spain and many other places where people think they eat pretty well.

UNESCO honored traditional Mexican cuisine as well, although that fact tended to be lost in the din of self-congratulation in France over the world body's acknowledgment of the country's flair for orchestrating the perfect cascade of mealtime pleasures: from aperitif to appetizer, on to the main course, salad, cheese, dessert and perhaps fruit, with the appropriate wine bringing out the best in each dish.

It was that ageless choreography - epitomized by Sunday lunch at Grandma's rather than three-star preciosity - that UNESCO singled out as worth preserving for the good of the human race.

"The meal is a profound part of French people's identity," said Jean-Robert Pitte, the president of the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), who led the effort to win UNESCO's blessing and explained the reasoning. "This exists in a lot of other countries. But we have a certain form of gastronomy, with the marriage of food and wine, the succession of dishes, the way of setting the table, of talking about it, that are specifically French."

A 24-member UNESCO committee, meeting in Nairobi this month to weigh 47 nominations from 29 countries, agreed, honoring gastronomy for the first time. It added the French meal because, a citation said, it is "a customary social practice designed to celebrate the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups."

France's ambassador to UNESCO, Catherine Colonna, expressed delight at the decision, saying in a statement that it "contributes to cultural diversity."

In fact, the traditional French meal has been meeting with growing indifference on its home ground as the demands of a modern economy encourage quick, alcohol-free lunches, particularly among the young. Sandwich consumption is rising by 10 percent a year, and experts estimate that only half of France's 64 million people still sit down to eat regular family meals of the kind honored by UNESCO.

Nevertheless, a multicourse lunch with wine at an expense-account restaurant remains the most popular way to celebrate a contract, seal a friendship or pass along a tip. Lunch at Grandma's is still imperative for many families, particularly in the provinces. Television programs devoted to cooking and dinner parties have also proliferated in recent years, generating a mini-renaissance of home cooking.

"This means that people are rediscovering that in cooking, there is conviviality, competition, health, roots, a discovery of the world," Jean-Louis Missika, an aide to Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. "And we see in these programs that setting a beautiful table is not at all fuddy-duddy."

In many ways, the drive to get French-style meals on the UNESCO list arose from a desire to preserve the tradition of home-style gastronomy despite the onslaught of pressures against it. Francis Chevrier of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures in Tours, who participated in the campaign, expressed hope it would inspire the French to make sure their heritage is passed along to future generations. Although the emphasis was on family tradition, several big-name chefs also supported the cause, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon.

The cultural heritage list, which was started in 2003 as a parallel to the UNESCO monuments list begun in 1972, had designated 178 customs before the current round, most of them folk traditions such as dances or ceremonies.

According to the regulations, UNESCO's designation implies an international obligation to preserve the honored tradition. French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand and Agriculture Minister Bruno Lemaire pledged to help French gastronomy survive and noted that school programs are handing down techniques.

One of France's most famous zealots of culinary tradition, the European Parliament member and food purist Jose Bove, was cited Tuesday for his own kind of preservation. Bove, who won fame a decade ago for trashing a McDonald's in the name of good eating, was sentenced to 120 days in jail and fined $68 for tearing up a field of genetically modified corn.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company