During the next quarter century in close proximity to the French, I rocketed through the foreigner's usual love-'em, hate-'em stages, but experience confirmed what was obvious from that first taste. Good food, with all that is behind it, is the defining metaphor of France.
France is a feast, all right, but there is nothing movable about it. Its richness is a broad blend of ingredients, artfully put together and laid out with purpose. Taken individually, some aspects are about as pleasant as a mouthful of raw garlic. Together, it all works to exhilarating effect.
It is simply a matter of point of view. Even before the new American virility drug was approved in France, a chef in the Alps smuggled a supply from Switzerland to make "beef piccata in Viagra sauce with fig vinegar and fine herbs." Pfizer declared, "The objective of a medicine is not to be in a sauce." But the New Jersey drugmakers were wrong. In France, one way or another, everything is a sauce.
I saw that to appreciate the French, a foreigner had to keep in mind the same three cardinal rules for enjoying a fine French meal: Remember that France is essentially prix fixe with service, such as it is or isn't, compris. Take things on the terms offered, without asking too many questions or demanding substitutions. And, always, eat the cheese.
Encroachment by microwaves and McDonald's has not altered the proprietary notions that the French hold over anything edible. This extends from star chefs in Paris to housewives on backstreets in Béziers. Most would rather reveal to foreigners the location of missile sites than the secret of keeping an endive safe from bitterness (don't get it wet).
Something new does not threaten, it is simply digested. Fast-food burgers came to France just before I did, and I stopped with a friend at a local franchise on the Lyon autoroute. She was from Idaho, a "catsup" state. That's what she requested. "Comment?" demanded the teenaged girl behind the counter. "C'est quoi, catsup?"
"You know, for the fries," my friend said. "Sauce tomate."
"Ah," the girl replied. Correcting my friend's French with a slight condescending sneer, she said, "Vous voulez dire: ketchup."
Ketchup soon joined the everyday vernacular along with doughnut and double cheese. When something suddenly flows smoothly after some sort of obstacle, that is l'effet ketchup.
When I first got to Paris, the only place to find tacos was in my kitchen. Now they are everywhere, sort of. A French taco, known as un tacos, is usually lettuce, some cheese, meaty bolognese sauce, and a sweet tomato salsa piled onto a flat tortilla. How else could you eat it with a fork, as any Frenchman can tell you is the proper way to do it?
The French have plenty that is all their own. Producing superlative edibles for centuries has made up the framework of socioeconomic structures. Roquefort, for instance, is not merely cheese. It is a complex network of shepherds, dairymen, fromagers, geologists, hewers and haulers, and business executives. New space-age industries may have nothing to do with food, but, when dinnertime rolls around, watch how the salaries are spent.
Frenchmen also love ideas. A standard encyclopedia of homegrown intellectuals runs to 1,200 pages. And none of them meet to muse without at least a Proustian madeleine.
And politics. France remains a world power. Yet for all the effort François Mitterrand put into defining his place in history, what many Frenchmen remember most is a last supper described in a biography by Georges-Marc Benamou. Nearly gone with prostate cancer, Mitterrand called in close friends for a final forbidden feast.
The president began with oysters, flat belons, not too salty, the way he liked them. He had called from a state visit to Egypt to be sure they arrived. Alone in a corner, he ate a dozen, then another, and then, pausing briefly to let pass a spasm of pain, yet another.
Copyright 2000 Mort Rosenblum. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Hyperion.
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