Tuesday, September 9, 2008

France is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: I love France, and it’s a pleasure to live here. But I think that many people (including the French themselves) have a romanticized view of France as some kind of gastronomic paradise where everyone automatically buys the freshest organic produce grown only a few kilometers away, and the healthiest farm-raised meats from animals lovingly hand-fed by some guy named Jacques who knows them all by name, and on every street corner there’s a rustic, artisanal boulangerie selling baguettes so glorious that they will bring you to tears.

That may once have been so, and there may still be localized areas where life continues in the same fashion, but the reality today is that in much of France the food is no better than it is in the United States, and in fact, it can often be distinctly worse. I thought about this yesterday, my first full day back from New York City, as I was shopping at my local Champenois supermarket attempting to find something at least marginally appetizing to eat for lunch. This depressing activity brought to mind the immortal words of my wonderfully outspoken, 78-year old landlady, who once said as we were out shopping together and struggling in vain to find an edible tomato, “On vend toute la merde ici,” or, loosely translated, “Everything they sell here is shit.”

Now, my views are certainly colored by the fact that I live in Champagne, which aside from possessing an abundance of grape vines, is not a land of natural bounty. (They might be improved if I lived in, say, the middle of the Loire Valley, or next to Les Halles in Lyon.) My views are also colored by the fact that on my last day in New York I had lunch at Franny’s in Park Slope, which is just about my idea of a perfect restaurant, and which is certainly one of my very favorite restaurants in all of NYC.

Committed to supporting sustainable and seasonable agriculture as well as creating an environmentally friendly business, Franny’s buys all of their produce, meats and fish from sustainable and organic sources, and locally wherever possible. They also extend their ideas of sustainability to other areas of their business: energy, for example, comes from wind and hydroelectric power; paper products and containers are made from recycled and biodegradable materials; and kitchen grease is converted into biodiesel fuel. You’ll find all of this and more, including specific sources of various products, listed on the back of their menu. But as cool as all of that is, that isn’t the reason I like Franny’s. I like Franny’s because the food is damn good.

A salad of dandelion greens, crisp guanciale and fresh nectarines was sublime, each element playing off of the next, with the whole infused by porky goodness. Summer squash with pinenuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano was as simple as it sounds, yet when each ingredient is itself perfect, the combination is elevated into something magical. A lot of things at Franny’s are like that: the philosophy here emphasizes less rather than more, seeking to highlight the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Simplicity creates its own profundity. A crostino of house-cured pancetta and scallion butter sounds mundane, nearly banal on the menu, but put it into your mouth and you’ll want to order another. We must have eaten half of the menu, finishing with a plate of heirloom tomatoes from Maxwell’s Farm that was more sweetly satisfying than any dessert I could imagine—in fact, I’m too depressed to buy another tomato for the next twelve months, just because of those extraordinary examples from Bill Maxwell.

Not to get all “America! Fuck Yeah!”, but I often sense that Europeans don’t hold American gastronomy in very high esteem. Of course, we can hardly blame them, considering that we shape their views by exporting such atrocities as McDonald’s, KFC and Starbuck’s. But today when I visit American cities such as San Francisco, New York, Portland or Seattle, I find a gastronomic sensibility and cultural consciousness that equals or surpasses much of what is here in France. People are more aware about food, and care much more about where it comes from. Beyond that, there is a much greater diversity of food in America than in France, and so more people know what to do with the ingredients (especially esoteric ones) once they are actually able to procure them. I realize that I am speaking only about a small cross-section of the population, but I am increasingly finding that this cross-section is significantly larger in the United States than it is in France, and it is continuing to grow quite happily and healthily. A cynic might remark that this comes out of necessity, as eating in America has grown so dire that one is now forced to pay careful attention to one’s food in order to survive, but that doesn’t really matter to me as long as organic farms and urban greenmarkets and locavore restaurants continue to exist.

I would rather eat at Franny’s than at any restaurant anywhere in Champagne, and honestly, I’d prefer Franny’s to many, many restaurants in Paris. What many people, even Americans, don’t realize is that the United States (at least the blue part of it) is one of the best places in the world to eat in.


Tobias Ø said...

That did get to be a little "America, fuck yeah!" but point taken. It's the generalized adamant contentions of superiority that get to you. In terms of modern food production and logistics, France has nothing on.. anyone. Except, the small chance of finding an undisturbed little pocket of the pure and simple culture, which I think it has in common with many other places in the world, old and new.

An air of superiorty from anyone is a turnoff, except maybe when in the context of irony like "America, fuck yeah!"

Jack at F&B said...

Peter, I think you're dead right.

The US really has passed France in food and wine.

Produce: We have a greater diversity, higher quality, and more small farms selling real organic produce.

Wine: All of the great wines of the world are available here. Few non-French wines (relatively) are easily available in France (esp. big cities). Most of the US wine in France isn't wine a US wine geek would ever drink.

Cheese: The US has blown by France for cheese. Every top restaurant in France has the same cheeses (practically) - US restaurants that care about cheese have a more more interesting and diverse selection (but lacking perfect raw milk European cheeses).

But France scores big for: raw milk cheeses, great $4 wines, fish diversity, and growing grapes in what seem half the country.

In summation: There are just so many more people Who Care about Food & Wine in the US than in France.

(And let's remember that France and California have the same size economy...a tie for fifth in the world.)

Dr. Vino said...

You'll love this book!

Gemma said...

But your point about certain areas of France probably being better is relevant to the US aswell. I have moved to Indianapolis from England and the food here is not close to being as good as at home. When I've visited other cities e.g Washington and New Orleans I've found great restaurants just using trip advisor but so far after a year of Indianapolis there's only really 2/3 places that I would recommend. In some Walmarts they don't even sell scallians/spring onions and I remember the offer buy one get one free on mouldy strawberries. There's not really a lot of variety for restaurants either, there's a fair few Mexican restaurants but only one Spanish, one Indian place and nearly all of the restaurants are chains. I've heard many people saying that they don't like ethnic food, have yet to meet an American that likes Indian food.

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