You know how gaga I am over the food I’m eating in Paris. I still cannot get over the fact that the best bread on earth is available to me for about $1.10 a loaf. Stuff like that. Go Paris! Go France!
But being here and savoring the riches Paris has to offer has made me proud of my country’s culinary scene in a few ways. When I first started coming here in the 1980s, the coffee was way better than what you could get in the US, with the exception of southern Louisiana, which had Community and Cafe Du Monde brands. Now, I find myself on the verge of going to Starbucks to get ground coffee for our home coffeepot. I bought a bag of some non-cheap ground coffee at La Grande Epicerie the other day, and it was mediocre. When we finished it, I bought a bag of some premium store brand from Monoprix, and it’s even worse. I’ve had restaurant coffee a fair amount, and it’s been pretty good, but the truth is, it’s a lot easier to find a great cup of coffee in America these days than in Paris. For that matter, I’ve been drinking coffee every day, often more than once a day, in Paris for an entire week, and I haven’t had a cup as good as what I can get at the Bird Man in St. Francisville.
I don’t think the coffee has gotten worse in Paris. I think the coffee has gotten so much better in America.
To my taste, there really isn’t any better beer than what they make in Belgium, though I’m also fond of German and Dutch beer (English beer, not). When I first started visiting Europe, it was, for beer drinkers, like going from a black and white world to Technicolor. That’s not true anymore. I haven’t yet found anything in the US that makes me as happy as a sour Belgian lambic does, but man, we have lots of craft brews in the US that can easily hold their own with the best of Europe.
I’m not a big drinker of California wine, but an actual Frenchman told me the other day that he considered them the equal of French wines, and the refusal of his countrymen to recognize that a sign of misguided patriotism, even snobbery. That same Frenchman said that the food scene is far more exciting in big American cities than here in Paris. True, he said, nobody can beat the French at making classic French food. But they are so hidebound to tradition that they cannot innovate, and no one goes to French restaurants to try new and interesting things. For that, he said, you have to go to London, or to America.
This is not a new or a novel observation. Adam Gopnik wrote about it for his New Yorker readership 15 years ago. And again, please notice that it’s not that French food has gotten bad; it’s just that other places have gotten so much better. For me, as a visitor, I’ve got no complaints about that. I want real Alsatian brasserie food, and real cuisine de grand-mere at the bistro, and the world’s best bread and butter and confiture when I wake up in the morning. But if I lived here, I’d probably see things somewhat differently, only because I’ve lived in a great food city (New York), and in good food cities (Miami, Washington, Dallas, and Philly), and have come to associate eating well with a certain sense of innovation and adventure.
A thought: I wonder to what extent the stasis many food critics and writers see in French cooking has to do with the broader sclerosis in French political and cultural life others have identified? Anybody know?