The Experience Of Greatness
Above, my friend Philippe’s lunch today at Breizh Cafe, in the Marais. He had a buckwheat crepe with an egg over easy and roasted duck breast. He and Julie and I shared a bottle of terrific artisanal cider from Brittany. It wasn’t expensive, but boy, was it extraordinary. For dinner, all I had was some fresh-baked baguette from a place around the corner, and some blue cheese from the farmer’s market. It was all I wanted. It was so, so delicious.
What I enjoy so much about eating in France — and, well, most things in France — is how well done they are, with such amazing attention to detail, and appreciation for craftsmanship. It can make something ordinary into something extraordinary. The experience of eating in France has not made a French cook out of me, but it has taught me to pay more attention to how I cook, because it has shown me what can be accomplished with quality ingredients and care in preparation.
I was talking the other day to a French interlocutor about the difference between American and French food culture. I told him Julie served quiche lorraine the other night, and it was really good. “Where did you get this?” I asked. She smiled, and said, “Out of the frozen food section at the Franprix down the street.” (Franprix is a chain supermarket). Seriously, this frozen supermarket quiche was better than many fresh quiches I’ve had in the US. I can’t tell you why, but it’s the truth. It seems to me that in France, as a general matter, people expect more from their food. I’ve been saying that for a long time, and it’s a banal observation. But here’s the thing: in France, it’s not unusual to have a serious interest in gastronomy, same as you would have a serious interest in sport, or art, or any other thing. Why is it that in our own country, outside of somewhat elitist circles, this kind of thing is considered snobbish and effete?
I know that’s changing, but still; in fact, French attitudes about food are a big part of the Anglo-American stereotype of the French as fussy dilettantes. Of course I think that’s an ignorant slander, and that France’s food culture, both high and low, is one of this country’s great glories. The old Norman lady selling the delicious cider she and her husband make on their little farm, right there on the side of the road — what do you make of her? She’s a country woman who comes from a family and a tradition of taking what you have and making something exceptionally good from it. You can buy a 750ml bottle of their cider for the equivalent of four dollars, and it can make you so happy to discover that something so delicious can be produced from the apple trees you see growing in orchards lining the roads in Normandy. It’s an expression of their local culture, and they take it very seriously. I find that deeply admirable, and not only admirable, but also exciting. As you have seen.
I wish Americans who sat on their reverse-snob high horse looking down on the French for their gastronomy could walk with me around the corner tomorrow morning to buy a baguette straight from the over, for only $1.50, and bring it home and smear it with Breton butter from Franprix, and confiture. The proof is in the tasting. You eat a simple breakfast of French bread, butter, and jam, and it’ll make a convert out of you. These people are doing something right.
Philosopher Julian Baggini eats one of the finest and most expensive restaurant meals available on the planet, and reflects on the meaning of exquisite food. Excerpt:
Take, for instance, the bone-marrow with caviar and smoked parsley. Delicious but, for all that, you might say it’s just an ephemeral experience. The obvious rejoinder is that of course it’s ephemeral: all experiences are; life itself is. The difference is that unlike, say, opera, when you are eating food you can never forget that fact. Certain aesthetic experiences of high art create a sense of transcendence, a feeling that you are somehow transported beyond the merely mortal realm to taste something of the divine. Indeed, that is precisely why some people believe art is so important.
I would argue the other way. The problem with art is that it can fool us into forgetting that we are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. The culinary arts, on the other hand, remind us that we are creatures of bone and guts, even as they delight us with creations no other animal could ever produce. Fine food is about the aesthetic of the immanent, not the transcendent. A mouthful of Frantzén’s diver scallops, truffle purée and bouillons transports you to heaven while never letting you forget it is a perishable place on Earth. Through experiences like these you come to know the potential intensity of being alive, what it means, as Thoreau recommended, to suck out all the marrow of life.
So yes, eating is ephemeral, but some experiences are so extraordinary they are worth it for their own sakes. Life is not just about such peak moments but it is very much enriched by them. ‘Mere experiences’ can also provide a kind of first-hand knowledge of the heights to which skill, flair and determination can take us. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which of the myriad forms of human excellence we most enjoy. Frantzén [the head chef at the restaurant — RD] actually started out as a professional footballer for the top Swedish club, AIK Stockholm, before injury ended his career at the age of 20. I wondered whether he agreed that excellence is the thing that matters, not its particular vessel. He nodded in agreement, saying, ‘It happened to be cooking now, it could have been anything.’
I think that’s wonderful. I will almost certainly never eat at Frantzen’s restaurant, and that’s fine with me. Tomorrow night we’re meeting friends at Les Papilles, a small neighborhood place not too far from where we’re staying. I ate there earlier this spring with Fred and my niece Hannah. It was a local joint, but really something special. There is greatness in it. That chef — those chefs? — take you somewhere pretty wonderful. That, to me, is my France. It’s affordable, but also, for this hungry American, almost priceless.