We have been teaching the French a thing or two in the past decade. Not about our fads of the moment -- Cajun and Southwestern cooking are still little known in France, where the most trendy American entree is likely to be surf 'n' turf. No, the French have been learning some basics from us: broccoli and cottage cheese and corn on the cob. So says Patricia Wells, an American food writer who has also been teaching the French about themselves with "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris" (Workman, 1984, $8.95) and now "The Food Lover's Guide to France" (Workman, 1987, $14.95).
Wells, who had been a food writer in Washington and New York, moved to France eight years ago when her husband Walter was assigned to the International Herald Tribune. What she found was that while Paris was a food writer's -- and cook's -- dream, there were certain things it lacked, gastronomically. Runny fresh white French cheese just wasn't cottage cheese, and no Wisconsin native can abide a summer without an ear of fresh sweet corn. Now these things are readily available in Paris, and Wells' neighborhood supermarket (yes, there are such things in Paris) carries taco seasoning, not to mention taco shells.
She still can't get American chile peppers or soft shell crabs (but then a lot of Americans can't get them here either). In all, though, she has seen more and more American influence on the French diet.
In the meantime, America has changed. While Wells was trekking to France's goose farms and roquefort caves to preserve in her new book the history of near-extinct food crafts and point visitors in their direction, a new generation of artisans had begun springing up in America. On her return to the U.S. last month to promote her book, Wells found locally made mozzarella in Dallas, and in that same city a farmers' market of astonishing quality that has designated one selling area for people who grow what they sell and another for those who buy what they sell. And Wells found more around the country: People raising catfish and people making goat cheese. She found food editors, such as at the Minneapolis Star, actually going out to the fields to interview farmers who grow blueberries. In Atlanta she found an indigenous recipe -- hot buttered saltine crackers -- which she had never encountered before. And when Wells cooked as she traveled around the country, she now found it necessary to make very few adjustments. The bacon is fattier and saltier than in France, but the monkfish is fresher than what she finds in Paris, and she no longer has to make allowances for different butter, cream, vegetables or herbs.
Another change Wells found is that American people -- the food editors she met, particularly -- talk about recipes much more than they did when she was promoting her Parisian book three years ago. Furthermore, Americans now seem more interested in what is going on in America than in France.
So what does she think these days of the new American cooking, which was inspired by France's nouvelle cuisine of the last decade? It is too often a mishmash, says Wells. "It is as if you went out and bought five new outfits and couldn't decide which to wear, so you wore them all at the same time," she says. And she has other criticisms: Most farmed fish have no taste, but nobody seems to investigate and write about that. And the cheeses America imports from France can't compare in taste and variety with those found in France. An even more important difference is the easier availability of excellent food in France. There are four high-quality food shops near Wells' house, as in most neighborhoods; in American cities there is equally good food, but you have to know where to find it.
Most surprising, though, is Americans' conception that France is culinarily even better than it is. "Americans really don't want to believe that there are microwave ovens in France, and frozen foods and McDonald's hamburgers," says Wells. And the French have traditionally thought the worst of America, but that is changing with their interest in California wines and the publication of "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1982, $10.95) in France. Even Wells' book is being translated into French; her Parisian book was not.
Maybe some day someone will do a Food Lover's Guide to America, predicts Wells. Maybe it will be someone French.
Tabletalk What's next after the New American Cuisine? The New Old American Cuisine. Cunard lines, which has branched out from such cruise ships as the QEII to managing such grand hotels as the Watergate in Washington, has taken over management of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia and is planning to restore its menu from 1904. It is even so old-fashioned as to call it American-Continental food.
California's foie gras -- fattened duck liver -- has begun to show up in the East, so now it can be compared with that being raised in New York state. My first taste found it a different texture from the New York or French foie gras: slightly chewier, which was not to its detriment. More important, my first sample had more flavor than the foie gras I have had from New York, almost as good as the best French. And no bitterness. Delicious stuff; competition should prove an advantage to diners who pay for such luxuries and expect them to be the very best of luxuries.
CHUTNEY DE COURGETTES PIERRE ET MICHEL TROISGROS (Zucchini Chutney) (4 servings)
3 medium zucchini, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons sugar
24 whole black peppercorns, crushed
1 walnut-size nugget fresh ginger, minced
Salt to taste
Cut all the peel and white pith from lemons and discard. Cut lemons into thin slices and discard seeds.
Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and cook, covered, over medium heat for 1 hour. Stir from time to time to make sure it does not burn. Chutney should have the consistency of marmalade.
Serve as an accompaniment to grilled meats, fish, or roast poultry. The chutney is good served warm or cold.
From "The Food Lover's Guide to France" by Patricia Wells
1987, Washington Post Writers Group