Too Frenchy for Your Taste?

PULL QUOTE: If 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong, then Jerry Lewis is a genius.

by Robert Lauriston

One big surprise on my recent trip to Paris was the proliferation of American restaurants. No longer need innocents abroad pine for the tastes of home. No, now even in the most out-of-the-way residential neighborhood, you're sure to find a bistro serving those familiar tastes of home. What better cure for homesickness than a traditional three-course American meal of bagels and cream cheese, a Tex-Mex combo platter, and pecan pie?

Speaking of cultural dissonance, a lot of Americans don't know a whole lot about France, either. For them, "French cuisine" conjures up distressing images of artery-plugging cream sauces, inappropriate use of fruit, scary organ meats, horsemeat, they even eat frogs and snails, fer chrissakes. Naomi Wise found a Berlitz language course ad in a 1920s-era magazine that captures the scene perfectly--the miserable American couple in a French restaurant, gazing at the tete de veau they ordered by mistake, and the headline: "Too Frenchy For Your Taste?"

But you and I know better, don't we? We've spent hundreds of hours watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, we've eaten sweetbreads and kidneys and frog's legs and sea urchins and grilled spleen with the best of them, and we can tell a hawk from a handsaw even when it's smothered in a sauce of cepes and juniper berries. So what the heck, we've earned the right--let's poke fun at the French and their funny notions about American food.

For the inside story on Gallic ignorance, I called on longtime Paris resident Patricia Wells, author of the indispensable Food Lover's Guides to Paris and France, who bemoaned her adopted country's willful ignorance about American food. "When I'm interviewed by French TV or radio, they always ask me, 'How can you know so much about French cuisine when you grew up on hamburgers?' My stock answer is, 'You know, I bet I ate better than you did as a kid. My mother made her own bread, she had her own garden ...' They say, 'Well, that's exceptional.' I say, 'No, in the fifties, in America, it wasn't exceptional.'

"But they don't want to hear that. When I've taken French chefs around the U.S., they just want to go to the places their buddies run, eat French food, and speak French. They're not even curious about American cuisine. The French still think of us as living on hamburgers--they cannot see beyond McDonald's." Could be the French can't see beyond McDonald's because they've built so darn many of them. It seems like every major square in Paris now has a McD's, a Wendy's, a Quik, a Burghy.

With all the great cafes and restaurants in town, why would anyone ever want a Big Mac? "For the new edition of the Paris guide, I thought I'd list a few cafes where you could eat just as cheaply as at McDonald's," says Wells. "Not ever having gone there, I'd had no idea what it cost. I couldn't believe how cheap it was! You can't have a cup of coffee in a cafe for the price of a McDonald's hamburger." Another reason for fast food's success: the atmosphere. "For young kids, 10 or 15 years old, it's really an event. At home, French kids always have to be so proper. At McDonald's they get to do whatever they want, eat with their hands, make noise, be messy ..." Crowds of juveniles making a mess with cheap bad American food--hmmm, maybe those chauvinistic chefs have a point after all.

Hamburgers aren't the only American goodies that have caught on with the French. Chocolate chip cookies, brownies, muffins, and pecan pie are now common items in pastry shops. Bakeries have also started competing with fast-food franchises by offering a wide, American-style variety of inexpensive sandwiches to go. A lot of creative chefs are experimenting with that exotic new-world potion, sirop d'erable (maple). Tex-Mex and barbecued ribs are everywhere, though the French concept of how little hot pepper is required to make something spicy gives "mild" a whole new meaning. The foyers of Parisian apartment buildings are littered with flyers for New York-style pizza and Chinese food delivery services.

French interest in things American is also shown by the existence of at least a small American section in almost every supermarket. Since the majority of ingredients used in Americans cooking are everyday foods in France, what ends up on the Amerique shelf is a peculiar hodgepodge. For example, in the well-stocked food department of the giant Bon Marche department store, I found Nacho Cheese Bugles, Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Pancake Mix, Butterfingers, caramel popcorn, Orville Redenbacker's Light Microwave Popcorn, Casa Fiesta taco shells, and Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail, all lined up next to each other. No wonder the French have weird ideas--what kind of menu can you make out of that stuff? Though in a cooking magazine, we did come across a menu for a traditional fete de Noel Americain--guacamole, crab cocktail, honey-glazed ham, turkey stuffed with sweet potatoes, cheesecake, and "mince mint" pie.

That's about the extent of French knowledge of American food. As for California cuisine--forget it. As Wells explains, even those few French who've heard of it can't imagine what such a thing might be. "Years ago, while I was testing recipes for the Food Lover's Guide to France, I had ingredients around from lots of different regions. One evening I had some friends over for dinner. Now, to the French, you'd have a Breton meal, or a Beaujolais meal, or an Alsatian meal--but you wouldn't mix them all together. So at the end of this meal our friends gave me a puzzled look and asked, "What kind of meal was this?" And I said, well, this is from Gascony, and this is from Normandy ... suddenly, they had it all figured out. "Ah, c'est ca la cuisine de Californie!" ("Oh, so that's California cuisine!")

So much for the silly ideas the French have about us. Now let's move on to debunk a few of the myths we Americans, even we Francophile foodies, have about them.

A trip to France used to be a culinary revelation. Food tasted so much better that returning home you felt like Cinderella after the ball: suddenly your mesclun had turned back into iceberg lettuce, your espresso was replaced by percolated Folger's, and your wicked stepsisters insisted it all tasted just fine. That may still be true for people from more authentic areas of the U.S., but for a Bay Area food fanatic like me a French gastronomic whirl reveals just how far we've come in the last few years.

Take coffee, for example. Everyone thinks the French have great coffee. Well, when you're used to Peet's, or one of its worthy competitors, you won't enjoy your daily Joe in Paris. The French favor the same pale roast that makes mainstream American coffee so acidic, and are seldom fussy about the quality of the beans, or how recently they were roasted. There are a few exceptions, but they're not easy to find.

Though French vegetables are as good as ever, the quality's seldom better than you can find at places like Berkeley Bowl or Monterey Market. There's not always as broad a selection, either. (What! only three kinds of potatoes?) On the other hand, even the best Bay Area greengrocers sell some terrible fruit: unripe cantaloupes, rock-hard peaches, sour apples. Who buys that crap, anyway? The French wouldn't, that's for sure. Any Paris merchant who tried to push such inedibles would soon go out of business.

For most other comestibles, the French have if anything widened the quality gap. The astonishing variety of perfectly fresh seafood you find in Paris markets is the result of consumer demand--people there know one fish from another, and won't buy anything that's not fresh. In contrast, most people in the U.S. will buy any thawed-out, decaying hunk of formerly frozen fishflesh the supermarket has lying around. A Consumer Reports study last year found that most fish in the U.S. is not only mislabeled (the cheap "red snapper" so popular in the Bay Area is no such thing) but contaminated with bacteria.

While both countries have strict appellation laws that help ensure that a bottle of wine was made from grapes of the varietal, vintage, and provenance indicated by its label, the French extend this quality enforcement to a wide range of other regional products: free-range poultry, fois gras, ham, cheese, even butter. Some of these products are imitated in the U.S., but seldom with comparable results. To make matters worse, the French originals are often banned in here, ostensibly because they pose a threat to public health or livestock. Ironically, American beef, which is far superior to the French product, is banned there on the theory that the growth hormones our ranchers use may have dangerous side effects.

The success of French nouvelle cuisine in the U.S. has given a lot of people here the wrong idea of what the French eat. Now, it's true that when the French eat at home they go heavy on the vegetables and light on the meat. And maybe some of the three-star, $250-a-head restaurants serve you tiny plates with artistic arrangements of three slivers of duck breast and a couple of tiny turnips. But at the typical neighborhood bistros I frequented, people were chowing down big time. Huge platters of shellfish, trays of cold cuts, stacks of fried fingerlings, frisee salads heaped with bacon, thick slices of fois gras, unctuous poached Lyon sausages--and those were just the appetizers! Next came grilled John Dorys the size of a plate, whole legs of duck confit, massive crocks of cassoulet, pot-au-feu, poule-au-pot, and hardly a vegetable in sight except for potatoes boiled, mashed, fried, creamed, and gratineed ... ah, well, perhaps just a small slice of raw-milk Brie to help polish off the wine, but I must save room for the tarte tatin, tarte Bourdaloue, tarte de noix, tourtiere Landaise, chocolate mousse, mystere au chocolat ...

Our idea that the French are unswerving defenders of their culinary traditions isn't 100% accurate either. While the recent fad for pre-washed salad-in-a-bag didn't last, many other convenience foods have become popular: bottled salad dressings, refrigerated bottles of fresh vegetable soup in the dairy case, instant mashed potatoes, even brown and serve creme brulee. Several chain stores that sell only frozen food carry everything from the ridiculous--tater tots, cooked rice, TV dinners--to the sublime, or as close to sublime as you can get in the freezer case: tiny Blue Lake beans, artichoke puree, half-kilo packages of sorrel, scallops with the coral left on, even frog's legs, snails, and horsemeat.

One old stereotype still holds true: the French prefer to drink and dine surrounded by thick clouds of tobacco smoke. So, naturally, they have no idea what to make of the recent government decree requiring all restaurants and cafes to set aside non-smoking sections. One night we foolishly insisted on being seated at an empty table we'd spied in a clearly marked non-smoking section. It turned out that everyone else in the section was smoking, and the couple sitting next to us, right under the biggest "Espace Non Fumeur" sign, both chain-smoked Gitanes the entire time we were there. (A tip to travelers--to improve your changes of being seated in a genuine non-smoking section, ask for it when you make your reservation.)

Right about here I'd usually tie everything together into a witty conclusion, but instead I just have to tell you about a movie we saw in Paris that, despite its big budget, big stars, and French success, is probably not going to be opening soon in a theater near you. Since it was financed by the French ministry of culture and, according to the director (Emir Kusturica, who in 1989 won the Best Director award at Cannes for his last film, "Time of the Gypsies") and the French critics, it was about the American dream, I figured it would offer some insight into what the French think about us.

In a nutshell, "Arizona Dream" is a cross between Brewster McCloud and Three Women, with Johnny Depp as Bud Cort, Faye Dunaway as Sissy Spacek, and Lili Taylor as Sissy Spacek too, only with an accordion. Depp counts fish in Manhattan, moves to Arizona, fails to sell a Cadillac to Dunaway, and impersonates a chicken. Jerry Lewis chases a pig, fails to sell a Cadillac to Michael J. Pollard, and takes an ambulance ride to the moon. Vincent Gallo lip-synchs Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Al Pacino in Godfather II, and Cary Grant in the cornfield scene from North by Northwest, with Dunaway piloting the crop duster. In the film's sentimental denouement, Lewis, while ice-fishing with Depp at the North Pole, tells a fable (in subtitled Inuit) about why the adult flounder has both eyes on the same side of its head.

Huh? That's the American dream? I don't get it. Maybe it's just too Frenchy for my taste.