Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France

By MICHAEL STEINBERGER

Have the French lost their mojo at the stove? Has the toque of big cooking ideas and breakthrough flavors been passed to, say — zut alors! — Spain? If so, why? Was it a smug, king-of-the-hill complacency, with the handmaiden of blinkered chauvinism in attendance, that doused the French kitchen?s sizzle? That helped, writes financial journalist and wine columnist Steinberger, though he figures the root of decline is more likely to be found in the shambling French economy. Grand cuisine, with its emphasis on indulgence, has always needed big bucks to sustain its brilliance. Nor was nouvelle cuisine any different, Steinberger suggests: if defiant in its portions, its impossibly expensive, voluptuous artistry was more a palace revolt than a revolutionary turn. As the governments of Reagan and Thatcher toiled mightily to make the rich richer, thus circumstantially helping to bankroll the culinary revolutions in the U.S. and U.K., the French governments of Mitterrand and Chirac were elephantine bureaucratic nightmares, with taxes and regulations seemingly designed to thwart the entrepreneurial spirit. Not just the crème-de-la-crème establishments were hurt: where once 200,000 cafés, bistros, and brasseries brightened the French landscape, tightened purse strings reduced that number to 40,000, and McDonald?s colonized the province of cheap eats. Steinberger, who writes with the leisurely pace of those good old French lunches and a with salubrious measure of humor, convincingly argues that the Michelin Guide made matters worse with its greater concern for the bells and whistles of d‚cor than what was on the plate, coaxing restaurateurs into financially ruinous incidentals, while hyper-sanitized edicts from the European Union slipped a garrote around the necks of artisinal food makers. Imagine a world without stinky French cheese or, heaven forefend, all those French women who don?t get fat; with fast food on the uptick, 40 percent of the French population is now overweight.