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America: How We’ve Changed For The Better

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.  [1]

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.  [2] 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?

 

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "America: How We’ve Changed For The Better"

#1 Comment By collin On October 10, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

You should have honoring the Peanut President for deregulating home brew beer in 1979. I know there are a lot of other changes as well but this doe suggest that good policy does have long term improvements.
Just think Coors Beer was considered Premium sstuff back in the 1970s.

CR

#2 Comment By Samn! On October 10, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

So what is annoying you here is French cultural conservatism?

#3 Comment By J.J. Gonzalez On October 10, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

I remember the days when Folgers, Sanka and Maxwell House were the only coffees you could get. The horror!

#4 Comment By Thursday On October 10, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

Modernity good vs. modernity bad. A lot of places had a culture that was not so good for a lot of things, like food. So, globalization helped spread good food culture to those places. But I can’t help but wonder if it was globalization that destroyed the local food cultures in the first place.

#5 Comment By David J. White On October 10, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

From my point of view American food has gone down from its midcentury Golden Age. 😉 I guess part of my problem appreciating so-called “good” food is that my mother got married and started keeping house in the 1950s, and her cooking reflected it; and that’s I what I grew up with and what formed my tastes — and I like it. For me, bring on everything canned, boxed, frozen, dehydrated-just-add-water, and encased in a jello mold. When I was growing up, we sometimes had TV dinners as a treat — and I miss them! Do they even make real TV dinners anymore, with the foil tray? (Probably not, because in a foil tray they can’t be microwaved.) What about Shake-and-Bake chicken? Is that still around?

I think this country reached its middlebrow, convenience culinary apogee in the Betty Crocker 1950s, and since then we’ve just gotten snooty and pretentious. As others have observed, we’ve gotten judgmental about food the way we used to be about sex. For me, James Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food ( [3]) is both a trip down memory lane and a wish list. 😉

As for coffee, my mother always drank Maxwell instant, so that’s the coffee I started drinking, and I’ve always thought it was just fine. All I’ve ever wanted from coffee is something hot and caffeinated.

Anyway, I’m glad you’re enjoying the culinary aspect of your trip, I really am; I really enjoy reading your reactions to the food, and I sometimes envy you and others who seem to appreciate “good” food in a way that I just don’t, or can’t. But, as I’ve remarked before, France is the one country I visited in Europe where I didn’t like the food. Maybe my tastes have just been too set in my formative years by Pillsbury, Hamburger Helper, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup for me to be able fully to appreciate anything else. I’m lucky that my wife seems to have tastes similar to mine, for the most part.

#6 Comment By Fred On October 10, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

Actually, good Parisian restaurants and cafes serve italian coffe: Illy, Lavazza, etc… Real French coffee is bitter and will mess with your heartbeat! Oddly, McDonald’s expressos are really good.

#7 Comment By Markk On October 10, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

Australians (disclaimer: I am one) consider their own coffee better than that in France. My parents were in Paris a few months ago, and the best place they found was run by an Aussie expat. One of the French staff there lived in Sydney for a year and told my dad that the coffee he had there was better than in France.

All of which probably sounds unbelievable, but Melbourne in particular is in the midst of an espresso coffee craze that was kicked off by Italian immigrants some years ago. Like America we aren’t afraid to adopt and mess with other countries traditions, as described by Rod here.

Coutume Cafe at 47 rue de Babylone is one place recommended on coffee websites, and may be the one described above. Care to try it, Rod?

#8 Comment By Jim On October 10, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

I don’t know if the food/politics sclerosis would be a fruitful route of enquiry. Meaning, I’m not sure one would be asking a question whose answers would provide insight not only into the issues of food and politics, but of France generally speaking.
The French complain alot – “ils râlent” – and its not always the expression of something that is terrible awry, or when things have gone badly wrong. Perhaps this would be the flipside to their joie de vivre, non-chalance and “que sera, sera” attitude. They don’t brood, but many are inclined to be pessimistic and grouchy.
Whereas complaining is frowned upon in Anglo-American stiff-upper-lip culture, it is largely viewed as just being part of the way they pursue conversations or debates.
Thus, when coming across the worry of their being a stasis or a sclerosis in French cuisine, I’m inclined to think that, despite the dramatic airs this issue may be taking, it may not be so serious after all.

I don’t mean to minimize the problems facing France and the French. Indeed, France has problems vis-à-vis innovation, taking risks and mastering the balance between old and new. But these problems are common to other domains of activity and human endeavor, not just food, politics or the arts.

#9 Comment By Peter Fallow On October 10, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

WOMAN AT TABLE: “Remember Paris?”

SECOND WOMAN: “The café!”

FIRST: “And the waiter, who was he?”

BOTH: “JEAN LUC!”

Sorry for the obscure early 90s reference. It was just a ridiculous commercial and I’m in a weird mood.

#10 Comment By Tony Pivetta On October 10, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

I am reminded of Dave Barry’s line circa 1984: “The whole world drink Ray Charles beer; Americans drink Barry Manilow.” Belgian and German beers may still have the edge, but American microbrews are giving them a run for the money.

#11 Comment By Richao On October 10, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

I’ve said it in comments on this blog before, but the dining experiences in Paris were my one disappointment, with a couple of exceptions, on both trips. While I admit that the fault was partly my own, food writer Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That suggests that it wasn’t entirely me. He makes a compelling argument for the decline of French culinary life and does a pretty good job of describing some of the lifestyle, economic, and political forces that may be contributing to the decline. He also has a chapter arguing that Japanese chefs are the true bearers of the tradition of French haut cuisine at this point, which my experience in Japan largely confirms. Well worth a read.

#12 Comment By pat On October 10, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

Your food critique pieces are becoming annoying. What happened on your trip to Normandy invasion beaches?

There must be something of interest beyond the food.

#13 Comment By Gene Callahan On October 10, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

“I haven’t yet found anything in the US that makes me as happy as a sour Belgian lambic does”

Those have made it to NYC.

#14 Comment By Matt On October 10, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

Maybe the authenticity fetish is to blame. The French are very good at making authentic French food, which of course just means a few certain styles. Since no one wants anything else, and innovation would actually be disparaged (it’s not authentic!), nothing ever changes. America, on the other hand, was never afraid to “Americanize” foreign cuisines, often times making them better.

#15 Comment By cameyer On October 10, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

I agree about Belgium beers. I still like Chamay and Orvis. Not sure but you may like Canadian brewer Unibrou (sp?) A range of Belgium style beers. “La Fin de Monde” is gaining in popularity here: more fruity, less hopps. Ommegang in upstate NY puts out a good abby ale. Again, not sure of spelling. Too late at nite to look it up!

I’ve been to Paris 4 times, and your posts make me anxious to get back!

Bon soir!

#16 Comment By alcogito On October 10, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

When I was a kid, Mom used to send us out in early spring to the front lawn with paring knives to dig out dandelions. Then she would cook them. We didn’t think much of them, but we liked the bacon she cooked with it. We just wrote it up to another of her oddities. Later I realized that she learned this in her country childhood when dandelions were the first greens available after a long winter. Much of our earlier habits of plain food were related to the scarcity of many items we take for granted today.

#17 Comment By M_Young On October 11, 2012 @ 2:29 am

“Illy, Lavazza”

Exactly. Go down to the hipermarche, get a can of Illy, pick up a stove top cafetera (or whatever they call them in France), and Robert is your uncle.

Whatever you do, don’t use a so-called ‘French Press’ and don’t use a drip maker. And frankly, a lot of Euros just put on the electric kettle and drink Nescafe in the morning.

#18 Comment By Scott Locklin On October 11, 2012 @ 2:50 am

I used to think American beers were more interesting than European. They’re not. They’re just overhopped. Never had an American pilsner as subtle and good as Urquel or Radeberger.

I live in California: there is no way the grape juice here compares to French, Spanish, Italian or even Portuguese wines. None of the individual ones stand out particularly, and on a cost/quality basis, California wines are a joke. It’s rare you can get me to buy something from the states, other than the occasional zinfandel.

I don’t remember the coffee being anything special in Paris, but anyplace in Italy or the former Austrian empire beats American stuff. Then again, Starbucks is a nice refuge of civilization in the large swathes of the earth which thinks nescafe is coffee.

#19 Comment By JonF On October 11, 2012 @ 6:02 am

Rod must be in seventh heaven over in Paris– he’s posting something about America changing for the better 🙂

#20 Comment By Beyng On October 11, 2012 @ 11:00 am

Scott Locklin,

That was quite possibly the snobbiest comment on anything I have ever read anywhere.

#21 Comment By Sam M On October 11, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

Isn’t this separating food from its purpose, in much the same way that conservatives often criticize modern sexual practices?

You seem to be seeing on your visit that much of the”Frenchness” that led to great food is not longer extant. The Catholicism is gone, for instance. There appears to be a veneer of racism and/or xenophobia.

But I so often hear that what’s great about “French food” is not just the aesthetics, but the way it represents something else. Something deeper and more important. A certain approach to life.

But if you go in and grab the tastiness without having the rest… how’s that different than some kind of sodomy? I am not talking about some kind of asceticism where we can only eat enough calories to get by. I am talking about a celebration of feasts, which are in essence a celebration of all aspects of a culture and a place.

But if you have a feast without the festival, all you have are the calories and the molecules and the deliciousness, which is representative of nothing, and in pursuit of nothing.

Like I said, you can celebrate it because it’s delicious. But this seems not all that different than a non-procreative roll in the hay.

#22 Comment By J.J. Gonzalez On October 11, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

Sam,

You’re being a food prude. As a penance, you must watch “Babette’s Feast. And enjoy it.

#23 Comment By Scott Locklin On October 12, 2012 @ 12:06 am

@Beyng: you don’t get out much, do you? Most things are overrated. Nothing snobby about saying so.

#24 Comment By JaredK On October 12, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

Scott – I agree about beers being overhopped. This problem is especially prevalent here in San Diego.

Rod – regarding this statement:

But they are so hidebound to tradition that they cannot innovate, and no one goes to French restaurants to try new and interesting things.

Be sure to re-think this sentiment after you’ve dined at Frenchie!