Archive for August, 2009

Cuisine de France

August 9, 2009

In reflecting on my post the other day (in which I waxed snide about French cooking) I realized that what I meant was “classic” French cuisine (whether haute or bourgeoise), and not necessarily the cuisine of France, which has evolved considerably in the half-century since I first experienced it and since Julia Child (and her French coauthors) first brought its gospel across the Atlantic.  Unfortunately most Americans still think of “French cooking” as what Julia Child, and such other apostles as Jacques Pépin, has taught them on television and in cookbooks.

I still remember hearing, from the French professor under whom I had done my postdoc at the Ecole Polytechnique, about his amazement at the salad bar that he had encountered when attending a symposium in Providence, RI, in 1962. Well, by now the buffet de salades is quite common in restaurants in France (though not in “French” restaurants elsewhere).  Under what foreign influence it got there, I don’t know.

What I do know is the influence on the cooking of France from her neighboring countries, whose cultures overlap into French territory. On its fringes, the population of France is, for the most part, not ethnically French. This is true in particular in the six corners of the hexagone: it’s Flemish in the north, German (Alsatian) in the northeast, Italian (Ligurian) in the southeast (Corsica is also ethnically Italian), Catalan in the south, Basque in the southwest and Breton in the northwest.  What’s more, the Camargue in the Rhone delta is populated by descendants of Andalusian Gitanos (it’s the homeland of The Gipsy Kings). The cooking of these regions reflects the influences. So, for example, all along the Mediterranean coast you can find, besides the overrated bouillabaisse, some wonderful Spanish and Italian food.

I still remember that, in the 1980s, the sidewalk restaurants of Port-Bou (on the Spanish side of the border on the Mediterranean) were overflowing with French gourmands gorging on tapas and paella. No more: you can now get great paella and tapas in France, at least in the south and southwest (and of course in Paris). Especially memorable is an exquisite assortment of tapas that I had as an entrée (i.e. appetizer, not entree in the US sense) at a restaurant in Montpellier in 2003. I have no recollection of the main dish.

And tapas are called, in French, tapas. Traditional French cuisine has no equivalent of the Spanish tapas, the Italian  spuntini, the Eastern Mediterranean meze, the Korean banchan or the Chinese dim sum/dianxin. In France, everything — cold cuts and other hors d’oeuvre, cheese, fruit, soup and fish and meat — somehow had to be crammed into the confines of a super-heavy meal.  I had only one such meal in my life, in 1961 at a restaurant in Dijon. It was tasty, but overwhelming. I could not eat for 36 hours, and it killed whatever enthusiasm I might have had for la cuisine française (originally kindled, before I had ever set foot in France, by the writings of Ludwig Bemelmans and Joseph Wechsberg). But la cuisine de France, de nos jours, c’est autre chose.

French chef?

August 7, 2009

The film Julie & Julia is being released today, and once again the media abound with references to the late Julia Child as a chef (even Wikipedia calls her that). Of course Julia Child hosted a TV show called The French Chef, but she was no more a chef than she was French. As Tom Colicchio, a television host who really has been a chef, pointed out more than a year ago, “Julia Child was a great TV personality, but when you say the word ‘chef,’ it means ‘boss,’ and I don’t know what she was boss of, but it wasn’t the kitchen. Not to take anything away from Julia; she was brilliant. But she wasn’t a chef.”

The reviews of the film that I have read so far seem to focus on Meryl Streep’s uncanny “channeling” of Julia Child. Good for Meryl Streep; I don’t really care. I never particularly liked Julia Child’s shtick, which, as I understood it, was demystifying something that was never mystical to begin with, namely, the “art of French cooking.”

Her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961, just after I had spent a year as a postdoc in Paris. Back in New York, I reveled in the rich variety of non-French food that was available there, tired of the blandness of steack [sic] pommes frites and the heaviness of bœuf bourguignon and cassoulet, not to mention the invariably overcooked vegetables. (When in 1969 the French discovered – probably by accident, as with the invention of champagne – that vegetables did not have to be overcooked, they promptly called the discovery nouvelle cuisine.)

The relative dullness of French cooking had already struck me during my first trip to Western Europe in 1958, when I traveled through France between Spain and Italy. In both of these countries I was amazed by the variety of the food, if only by the dozens of different kinds of tortillas in the one and of pastas in the other. In France I had to seek refuge from the monotony in North African and Vietnamese restaurants, and briefly thought that maybe colonialism wasn’t all that bad.

I believe that the mystification of French cuisine in the US is due to the very scant immigration of French people to this country, which meant that there was no need for real French restaurants, the kind that ordinary French people go to, to be established. This gave enterprising French cooks an excuse to serve (or to have served by intentionally surly waiters), at exorbitant prices, something that they called haute cuisine.

Julia Child’s aim, to make this kind of cooking accessible to everyone at home, may have been laudable. But it seems to have led to the sad spectacle of the Julie/Julia Project (the basis of the film), where a young woman spends a little over a year cooking every recipe in Child’s book, and ends up (in her words) “old, crazy, and worn-out.”