If you’re traveled France for 20-30 years, you likely have Madelaine cookie-style memories of French food that are conjured up every time you have a good glass of wine or a hearty boeuf bourguignon. But, if you’ve been to France recently, you may also wonder if France has lost it. I always thought I could take my wife to any old French bistro and get a good meal. I sighed at her reams of articles from Vogue, Bon Appetit, and and Gourmet. Why go to across Paris to get an over-priced meal surrounded by Americans when the little place on the corner had all the classics.
The question still remains whether I changed or whether the food has gotten worse, but I now mostly follow my wife onto the métro across town because I can’t tell the good from the bad looking at a menu placard in the window.
Here’s a review of a new book that tries to deconstruct what has happened to France. It’s a similar description to what has happened to food everywhere.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Steinberger’s recent book, “Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France” (Bloomsbury USA), came across my desk not long after we got back from Paris. For weeks, I’d been thinking it was me. After all, my memories of magnificent French repasts were a couple of decades old. Maybe they were too rosy. Maybe my palate had changed. Maybe it was because we hadn’t really planned out where to eat, assuming that we’d walk into deliciousness without any effort. Maybe we were just old and out of it.
Even if all those things are a little bit true, reading Steinberger, a wine columnist for Slate magazine (which is owned by the Washington Post Co.) and admitted “food-loving Francophile,” reassured me. Because there’s more to it than that, he writes. Way more.
Here’s the thing. If you’re a food expert, you’ll know where to go to find tasty food in France. Joe Yonan, who runs The Post’s Food section as well as this one, knows his vittles, so when he visited Paris a few weeks after we did, he planned well, used his contacts and had lots of fine meals. But if you’re a casual tourist, you need to know: You’re not going to find a fabulous meal around every corner. And mostly, the French don’t care.
Take a look at these facts: From 200,000 cafes in 1960, France was down to 40,000 — and dropping — last year. Bistros and brasseries are likewise disappearing rapidly. Certain kinds of cheeses are dying because no one knows how to make them anymore. The wine industry is in upheaval as the French quaff less of the fruit of the vine. Forget the quaint little French outdoor market; they still exist, but the French now buy 75 percent of their food in supermarkets, just like Americans. And “most ominously,” Steinberger writes, “the bedrock of French cuisine — home cooking, or la cuisine familiale — was in trouble. The French were doing less cooking than ever at home and spending less time at the table: The average meal in France now sped by in thirty-eight minutes, down from eighty-eight minutes a quarter-century earlier.”
We’ll be in Paris on Monday and we have plenty of old standards to go to (some not as good as they used to be), but I’m glad that we don’t have to try to find places to eat “au pif.”
By the way, I lived above the Vagenende (photo above), a beautiful Belle Epoque restaurant at 146 Boulevard St. Germain, and can attest that the food there was once edible, and not the over-done garbage that is served with a sneer there today.