I know -- old Paris hands keep going on, ad nauseam, about how much better things used to be. Paree was really Paree, with a jaunty beret on every head, a baguette under every arm, a red-scarfed accordion player in every bistrot, lovers clinging under every bridge. And the platform buses! You could take a tour of the town from the back platform for practically nothing, watching the rilling cobblestones drop behind like the wake of some urban cruise ship. And don’t get us started on the food.
The hell of it is, it’s true. Especially the part about the food. From workingmen’s bistrots to raucous brasseries, you could just point to something on the menu and be sure of a copious, well-prepared meal at a fair price. This was the stuff that inspired paeans from great American food writers in Paris like A. J. Liebling and Waverley Root. But French cuisine couldn’t resist the Decline of the West. Eating habits here have finally caught up with the rest of the world.
Consider that fewer and fewer Frenchmen any longer go home for the traditional lengthy lunch with their wives--followed by God-knows-what afterward. As for the wives themselves, they no longer make their daily rounds to the local butcher’s, baker’s, fishmonger’s, and cheese shop for the freshest produce and the latest neighborhood gossip. Instead, they trip off once a week to an impersonal, cavernous hyper-market with 40 or more checkout counters. There they stock up on frozen and canned foods, along with bread wrapped in plastic and tasting much the same.
How about those famous 400-odd kinds of cheese, each so subtly different in texture, aroma, appearance, and je-ne-sais-quoi that it’s worth dying for? Out of sight, figuratively and literally. Decent cheese is now at least as expensive as beef, forcing most French diners to choose. And when they can afford it, it’s becoming harder to find because the small country producers who gave French cheese its cherished regional diversity are closing up shop and heading for the towns and cities. In their place are huge industrial producers going for the global market with bland, even pasteurized (pasteurized!) cheeses, which connoisseurs used to consider an abomination. A recent book is symptomatic: Camembert: A National Myth.
As for eating out, le fast food is now so prevalent that the traditional four-course French meal, preceded by a leisurely aperitif and followed by coffee and digestif, should be classified an endangered species. (Unwitting proof is the current government campaign to have French cooking added to UNESCO's World Heritage list, like some archaeological dig dating from a long-lost civilization.) There used to be only a handful of fast-food outlets lurking in all of France. Today there are thousands, including one named Quick, which says it all.
With virtually every corner café now calling itself a restaurant, patrons have to practice defensive dining, trying to decide which item on the menu is least likely to be botched or phonied up with the latest fad like mango chutney in the pot-au-feu. And if you dare peek into the kitchen, you will glimpse in microcosm one of France’s burgeoning social problems: from cooks to bottle washers, most of the help will likely be recently arrived from Africa and working illegally. But oh so cheaply.
To be sure, there are still exceptions to the encroaching mediocrity, the few, the proud temples of haute cuisine where gourmets gather reverently for a stylized dining ritual which will cost them, as the French saying goes, the eyes in their head. Classical French cookery, though becoming harder to find among all the junk, can still be an unforgettable experience. But besides a kitchen staffed with a numerous brigade of skilled chefs and apprentices, it also takes customers with the time, money, and taste to appreciate it, all of which are increasingly rare.
BUT DESPAIR NOT OF French cuisine, help is on the way. And from the usual source, the USA. French trenchermen and the restaurants serving them have now seen the country’s culinary future and decided it works. C’est le hamburger!
It began a while back, when McDonald’s golden arches started to spread, almost surreptitiously and with a certain amount of rear-guard resistance from local gastronomes, across the landscape, with Burger King hard on its heels. By last year, the Big Mac had been officially enshrined at a major Paris show in the Grand Palais entitled “Objects of the Century.” Now every self-respecting Paris trendsetter can talk knowledgeably of le ketchup, le pickle, le finger-food, and even, with a delicate shudder, le junk-food. New burger recipe books fill the bookstores; magazines give tips on where to find the best buns (something Frenchmen used to know instinctively).
It didn’t take long for some of France’s top chefs to spot the trend. Of course, they didn’t cook up just any burger, but one so irresistibly chic, intricately complicated, and ethereally refined that it has become, as Le Figaro says, “the must-eat of the moment.” Restaurants from Paris to Saint-Tropez are getting upwards of $40 a pop for it.
For that you can have duck fillets, juniper berries, and a dash of red wine on a sesame bun. Or a fish version of bass fillets with exactly eight perfect mushrooms, 12 spinach leaves, 12 slices of dried tomato, and one red onion, sprinkled with fish stock, shallots, cream, and white wine. Or how about ground beef fillet topped with pan-seared foie gras, chanterelles, mayonnaise, and two tablespoons of olive oil? At the Hotel Prince de Galles on Avenue George V, they serve the Love Me Burger in tribute to Elvis; with more complications piled on, it becomes the Star’s Caprice. Top-of-the-line nouveaux riches models, served on snowy white tablecloths, are jabbed with a silvery little lance set with a huge faux diamond.
Rejoice, then, all ye faithful, that France has finally come to appreciate our contribution to world gastronomy. Whether it will replace a savory pâté or salami between long halves of crusty, buttered baguette as the national sandwich remains to be seen. For the moment, the current gastronomic/philosophical debate is less over the revenge of the lowly burger than whether wine is a food or a condiment. (Purely academic, since the French are abandoning wine in favor of sodas with their hamburgers.) In any case, the latest restaurant fad, le fooding, prizes atmosphere and background music over whatever happens to be on the plate.
The ominous new word going around today: la malbouffe. Literally, bad grub.