The French Cooking Paradox

Foie gras is the star of delicacies on any well-appointed French table dressed for a special occasion.

The French ought to be proud. Their world-famous cuisine has just made the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, next to Argentina’s tango, Chinese calligraphy, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and over 200 other cultural expressions and practices inscribed by UNESCO since 2008.

The French also ought to be worried. In modern daily life, their cuisine famously glorified by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in the early 19th century, has become a rarefied expression of the French alleged exquisite taste for art de vivre. Like everybody else, the French are succumbing to the pressures of modern life and giving in to the convenience of ready-to-eat food, even junk food – as demonstrated by the worrisome expansion of their waistline. Meanwhile, kitchen skills are going by the wayside. How long before the French food culture falls into the category of traditions in “need of urgent safeguarding” by UNESCO, next to the secular and liturgical oral tradition of Corsica?

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1755-1826

Of course, the current situation is not quite as dire as it sounds. I am enough of an optimist to believe that centuries of culture don’t get wiped out in one or two generations. Farmers’ markets still flourish in the face of a very successful agribusiness industry. If anything, enough people in France live outside of big urban centers to be still exposed to, and proud of, their local food production and maintain direct relationships with producers. And lest the public forget, the farmers’ union Confédération Paysanne is working hard to remind them of their country’s rural roots and to defend the wholesomeness of the ancestral farm-to-fork cycle.

This being said, France is undoubtedly at a crossroads. In one scenario seemingly under way, a financially or culturally privileged urban elite enjoys the best that French cuisine has to offer, thereby keeping it alive, while the tired, huddled masses go for cheap, microwavable fare. Meanwhile, the closest you’ll ever get to experiencing French gourmet tradition at its most authentic will be in the countryside, at the farmers’ table.

The alternative scenario I still prefer is this one: let’s make cooking cool again; let’s have it be a fun part of life; let’s adjust French cuisine to the demands of modern life. For all their fame and glory and Michelin stars, our French chefs have done nothing to inspire people to cook at home. If anything, they have intimidated us into believing that cooking is a rare art form requiring the skills of an alchemist. In truth, preparing a meal from scratch does not imply hours in the kitchen laboring over rich sauces and impossibly intricate recipes. The French at large need to rediscover that a good meal prepared in timely fashion is highly feasible. All that it requires are 1/ great ingredients 2/ an understanding of how to prepare them simply and combine them to enhance their natural flavors.

The crew of evening daily TV show "C A Vous" (France 5) in their set kitchen.

A couple of recent events have me believe that a shift in the right direction may be stirring as we speak. For one thing, recent programs on French television reflect a collective awareness that cooking can not be taken for granted anymore and should be encouraged. The successful introduction of Reality TV shows Top Chef and MasterChef to the French audience is certainly worth mentioning. What I find even more interesting, however, is the concept of evening daily talkshow “C A Vous” whose host and columnists receive a guest around a dinner table – the meal is prepared in the open kitchen that serves as a backdrop during the first part of the program and the recipe is made available on the website.

Finally, I was elated last month to discover a gem of a recipe book in a Paris bookstore: celebrity chef Alain Ducasse’s own take on easy home cooking, “Nature – Simple, healthy and good”. So good to see that French gastronomy can also be acknowledged and cherished by one of its high priests as being just that – all of that.

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2 Responses to The French Cooking Paradox

  1. Tom Foremski says:

    It seems that interest in cooking is greater today than at any time previously, in the US, and especially on British TV where there are cooking shows throughout the day.

    I agree with you that there is a need to simplify great cooking…

  2. Having been a French cooking enthusiast for many years now I have finally decided to take a French Cooking Vacation. I have always wanted to lean the magic behind all the great French recipes but never was able to afford the cost of such a lovely trip. Save, save, save is what Ive been doing and this spring I will be on my way to the vacation of my dreams!

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