Just as it has for so many North Americans, Michael Steinberger’s love affair with French cooking began with a childhood trip to France. And equally common, it was a vegetable that did the trick. The English-speaking countries, after all, can grill a hunk of meat as well as anybody, but in the not so distant past, any foodstuff that wasn’t previously ambulatory was in danger of being boiled to mush. But for the American journalist, 13 years old on that 1980 visit, baby peas “drowned in butter” were a life-changing moment, when he realized that food could be a sensory experience, not just a fuel stop in the day’s activities. It’s that devotion, now sorely tested, that adds a certain Proustian douleur to Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the Death of France (Doubleday), Steinberger’s lament to the passing of 250 years of culinary supremacy.
It’s a sweeping claim, of course, a sitting duck ripe for the plucking by dissenters: no one, least of all Steinberger, denies the viability of French cooking in the world’s great cities. And, even if his assertion about the situation within France were to be accepted, it would mean the death, not of the country itself, but of a certain foreign francophile idea of France. But that would still be a loss to a nation whose culinary reputation has always been a diplomatic plus, and Steinberger’s eye for the telling detail goes far to build his case. When New York’s French Culinary Institute—a key driver of Gallic cultural influence in the U.S.—threw itself a gala in 2006, it couldn’t find a single Frenchman to include among the 10 top foreign chefs invited.
Indeed, even the French seem to be having trouble identifying superstar compatriots. Last year an influential national guide crowned Argentinian-born Italian Mauro Colagreco France’s chef of the year. The nation’s cafés have shrunk in number from 200,000 in 1960 to 40,000. Charles de Gaulle’s famous remark—“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”—grows ever more hollow. Prized cheeses are dying out as their makers retire unreplaced: in 2005, septuagenarian Célina Gagneux hung up her ladle and a two-centuries-old Alpine cheese, Vacherin d’Abondance, went extinct. Other raw-milk varieties—real cheeses, in the judgment of connoisseurs—even the iconic Camembert, are also under threat.
But those are the surface symptoms of a bone-deep malaise. French modernity includes the dual-income family, and home cooking, that core of any national cuisine, is suffering there as elsewhere. Meals now rush by in an average of 38 minutes compared to the 88-minute count of a generation ago; one supercilious chef told Steinberger that stressed-out bourgeois mothers were feeding their children “processed ham dipped in ketchup.” There are two, equally indigestible, consequences to that. Future French chefs may not be fuelled, at least not entirely, by ketchup-drenched industrial pork, but they are less likely than in the past to grow up seduced by the smells and tastes of the family kitchen.
And it was Jean-Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin, one of the gods of French haute cuisine, who said, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” Eat like North Americans, become like us: French obesity rates are increasing; on track, according to Steinberger’s data, to match U.S. levels. Frenchwomen, contrary to the title of one of 2004’s bestselling books, do get fat. The French, in fact, love malbouffe, their wonderfully evocative phrase for junk food. With over 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants, France is now the fast-food giant’s second most profitable national market. Remarkably, McDonald’s 50,000 French workers—many of them minority youth from the suburbs who suffer from sky-high unemployment rates—make it the country’s largest private sector employer.
Steinberger pins the blame for all this on a country caught in sclerosis—economic, social and cultural. While innovative French cuisine flourishes outside France, inside labour laws and high taxation make it difficult to establish a small business like a restaurant, flight from the land and regulations imperil old cheeses, and the weight of tradition chokes culinary novelty. Major French chefs were backers of a 2006 move to have UNESCO formally declare French cooking part of the world’s cultural patrimony. In other words, no longer a live, evolving, exciting cultural dynamo, but something more akin to . . . opera. For Steinberger, still suffused with a lover’s devotion, it’s not all over yet, but readers of Au Revoir can hear the fat lady tuning up.