French food, life, and culture

Firstly, I want to make a quick and to-the-point apology for leaving my blog so untouched for so long: I’m sorry, ketchup kept me busy. There, now that that’s through with, let’s move on.

I just finished a wonderful trip to Bordeaux with a friend and I was lucky enough to have three outstanding meals, which I’ll talk about on Black Napkin in due time. I was most struck, though, not by simply these individual experiences, but instead by the dining culture in which they occurred.

I’m no stranger to French dining: I’ve travelled to France many times and I lived there for 6 months while studying abroad last Spring. I’ve always wanted to write something, a quick essay or short memo, that put into words the differences I feel exist between dining in America and dining in France. I’m reading a great book right now called The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner, and he has a passage that puts my thoughts into words better than I could, so I wanted to share it with you here:

In France the food culture is a bottom-up affair, with high gastronomy only being its ultimate expression. The notion of ‘le terroir’ to which every Frenchman cleaves – that there is a specific piece of land from which their identity comes – may well encourage gastronomic conservatism, but it does at least lend the whole business a certain democracy.

I once asked Albert Roux [of Le Gavroche in London] the gastronomic difference between France and Britain. ‘In France,’ he said solemly, ‘every taxi driver would know the price of black truffles and would save up to eat them at the Tour d’Argent.’ By contrast in Britain, he said, every taxi driver would know the price of a box of Black Magic chocolates and would save up for a bag of chips.

While Rayner is speaking specifically about Britain here, I think it rings true stateside as well. In Bordeaux, I went to a one Michelin star restaurant named Le Chapon Fin to ask for a reservation, and the maitre d’ simply counted the number of tables in the restaurant, decided there were enough, and told us to come back anytime after 8pm when we were ready to dine. We had the table to ourselves for the whole night, and we left around 12:30am after a fantastic meal and, more importantly, and memorable experience.

Even one- and two- Michelin starred restaurants in America fall prey to requesting patrons to relinquish their tables after only two hours. They turn them over like a business-two, even three times a night the tables welcome new guests who arrive to consume and leave for other entertainment. Dining is more of a need, something done to satisfy a craving or desire, rather than an experience and evening in-and-of itself. I would prefer a four-hour, relaxed, absorbing dinner any day over a two hour meal and two hour show.

Food can be (and certainly is for me) a wholly fulfilling and pleasurable source of entertainment. This does not have to always take the form of expensive, fine dining restaurants, but rather it is a mindset that encourages one to always be knowledgeable and excited about food, the source of the ingredients, the art behind each dish, and the craft of the chef, regardless of price of the meal and the company one is with. I would never claim that people who enjoy food on this level are not present in America–I’m living proof that this isn’t true! My favorite dining companions are those that share this view of food with me. I’m musing as to the differences between food cultures, and simply put, the French culture is an altogether more-obsessive one where food is concerned.

Mark posted this on June 14, 2008 and is filed under Musings.

One response to “French food, life, and culture” so far, care to add your two cents?

  1. Mark! Glad to see you are back in the Black Napkin action, you’ve been missed. I’m excited to hear more about your Frenchie adventures. I just arrived in your fair home state and am liking it so far! Apparently farmer’s markets abound here in Monterey and I will keep you updated on the status of the produce down here. Miss ya!

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