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Everything you want to know about gastronomy but were afraid to ask ChatGPT

Is France losing it?

Rick Fantasia's book dipped in a bitter-sweet review

There is nothing that sells more than the imminent demise of some prominent figure or myth. Announcing that France will loose its gastronomical touch is a good example and naturally, for anyone emotionally meddling in this realm of things, Rick Fantasia’s book French Gastronomy and the Magic of Americanism can only awaken curiosity if not fear of either discovering a nascent truth or worse still, a bland meal.

So I went ahead and dug in to discover this perspective on the potential downfall of French gastronomical excellence. As the book’s focus is to look at the link between industrialisation and culinary craftsmanship, it is especially relevant to Biztronomy, as the circle’s objective is to build a link between both worlds.

Clearly, I disagree strongly with Fantasia’s conclusion, not to mention the angle of attack and his past experience as a syndicalist may not have helped in distilling an unbiased perspective. However, I nevertheless do recommend its reading as it can serve as an excellent reference point for anyone navigating in the restaurant or agro-industry sector, and for gastronomy buffs to understand the proximity between haute cuisine and industry. Indeed, the book is particularly well documented and is very thought provoking, if only because somewhat biased.

There are two issues with this book cooked up into a 5 course meal.

The first is Fantasia’s constrained perspective on Gastronomy, mainly focused on the culinary aspect. Not that this is intentional, as a scholar he needs to focus on a circumscribed field. But talking about the kitchen without talking about the dinning room is like clapping with only one hand. The real risk of our days is falling into this trap where we only talk about the cooks and too little about the gourmets, the amphitryons or the gastronomes.

The second issue is the impression that mean old capitalism is gnawing at the feet of craftsmanship and sooner or later it will gobble it all up. What I find, and this is a first impression, is that Fantasia lacks historical and geographical perspective. Business and refinement have always colluded. The issue is confusing the motivations behind demand and offer. Both intrinsically linked, but as long as you have a demand with exigence, the offer will adapt itself.

Concerning the spirit, let’s start by fundamentals, definitions. There is what I would call a short-cut on the definition, what others would coin an industrial deep-freeze ingredient, where gastronomy is given a primarily culinary profile, putting aside the spirit which came about notably with Brillat-Savarin in 1825.

Gastronomy is closely linked to literature as the prose of the first half of the 19th explained in cristal clear lines accessible to a growing readership that « Animals feed themselves; men eat: but only wise men know the art of eating. » Aphorism 2

Curiously enough, Fantasia acknowledges the importance of literature in the making of gastronomy, but then dismisses it, explaining that this would reduce the social scope of the analysis (p.35). Indeed, gastronomy has both depth and breadth, and I feel fantasia has given up the breadth to focus solely on a « field » which I perceive rather as a silo.

He explains that the strength of a field such as gastronomy can be measured by its independence from other fields, i.e. we should not consider literature in this study, as gastronomy is a stand-alone field. But aren’t all fields a combination of practice and literature? Can we seriously assert that any « field » existed before the invention of print? The outraged critiques of 19th century impressionism had their role to play, for Manet and many others. Ideas and fields arose notably once printing allowed to disseminate ideas. Hence, literature should have a key role in gastronomy, notably to give a counterweight to the cooks and their critiques.

In addition, putting aside literature is forgetting that today, there is an uneven competition in gastronomy between mind and matter. This has a lot to do with technology push and notably the fact that smartphones are ubiquitous, as are the pictures which can be taken with them. Do any of the more experienced dinners here remember bringing their Polaroid to restaurants in the 80s?

Cooking lends itself much better to multimedia than the ethereal spirit which infuses the gastronomical meal. Diffusion applies itself with greater ease when applied to making a scrumptious recipe with its shiny pictures or fizzy videos than when applied to Brillat-Savarin’s meditations on the pleasure of the table (Ch. 14, Ps. 72)*. There are some things you cannot take a picture of such as a lively conversation. Your presence is necessary for you to understand it.

Worse still, if I may digress, some gastronomers believe that when taking a picture whilst dinning, you actually suck up the entire soul of the moment only to leave a mortified table with zombies ingurgitating whatever they are fed. In these cases, not only have you no spirit, you also have no cuisine.

Now, reading on the other hand, although not as accessible as passively watching, conveys spirit with much greater strength than images, as our imagination generates participation. We all know that we learn better what we practice than what we hear. In the same way, our participation in reading increases our awareness. Think of Proust’s madeleine.

As reading can be considered one of the pillars and vectors of gastronomy, with its numerous writers, commentators, sanctifiers, especially up to the middle of the 20th century, one could wonder whether the real issue with gastronomy isn’t a disproportionate influence of the matter vs. the spirit. Whilst we still had a balanced feast until mass diffusion came along, we are now confronted with what is called in France a Dahu, a very rare breed of mountain goat boasting longer right legs than left ones (occasionally there are some lefties) allowing the wretched beast to circle the mountain with ease. Unfortunately with this configuration, you can only go in one direction.

Now if I may give a word of advice to foreigners, if a Frenchman invites you to go Dahu hunting, kindly decline.

Now, coming back to our sheep.

Beyond this practical aspect of diffusion which is well documented in Diffusion of Innovation by E. Rogers, namely Ease, Advantage, Demonstration, Visibility and Compatibility, there is also the issue of political correctness. Many see the dinner conversation as a properly packaged product as sanitized as pasteurized cheese, but the gastronomical dinner is more of a brainstorming session, a zone franche for Parlay, where things can be said without immediate and reflexive indignation. Because you need to bear in mind, you cannot spend four hours at the table without conversation, and conversely, you cannot converse for hours on end if the ceremonial and dinner aren’t properly structured. They go hand in hand.

For reference, the first model described above is a mundane dinner, which is fine and necessary, simply a little boring sometimes. The second one is a sprouting bouquet of joyous chaos delicately funneled by a loose but robust process. And this is much closer to gastronomy than much of anything you’ll see today.

Hence, assessing the health of French gastronomy today would require much more than simply evaluating the influence of food corporations on the three star chefs. It would entail understanding the gastronomical culture of the French. And this is where I am worried.

The French are structural gourmets but few of them understand why, like Mr. Jourdain doing prose. A survey I performed for my course on the History of French Gastronomy showed that very few of them knew anything about the apostles of French cuisine, such as Grimod, Brillat, Curnonsky or Escoffier. We could eventually imagine that gastronomical culture has improved over the past 200 years, since the Physiology of taste, but the issue is that the digital age is overwhelming the spirit like an elephant on a see-saw with an ant as counter-weight.

Today’s food critics, many of them verging on foodies, have absolutely no similarity with Grimod. This very first real culinary critique combined spirit and wit to his comments on meals. But somewhere along the way, verve was separated from the stars and the former was left astray.

Now, leaving behind the question of spirit, let’s look at matter, and in particular the mercantile influence. As a reminder, fast food has existed since the romans, monetary interests have meddled in AOP or protected name of origin, such as Champagne, for centuries and high cuisine has colluded with power and money since rulers used banquets to yield influence.

In ancient Rome or Pompei, you could stop along a thermopolium giving directly on the sidewalk, order a warm meal, some bread with olive oil and figs and then be on your way.

Mortadella from Bologna has benefited since 1661 from a law protecting its fabrication, and the German Reinheistgebot dating back even further to 1516, codifying beer making, was also in the grey zone between mercantile protectionism and ensuring quality produce.

Talleyrand at the congress of Vienna, the Rothschild in Paris and others used gastronomy to attain their objectives, whether political or financial. Having the best of cooks in Paris to serve in your hotel particulier and impress your guests was a lively sport in the early 1800s. Escoffier catered to the well-to-do. He may have flattered them, by giving their favorite dishes their names, such as Peach Melba, but he still maintained a high level of quality.

Rick Fantasia is weary that the collusion between the high-end chefs representing craftsmanship at its finest, and the food industry, will make the entire gastronomical edifice fall down « jusqu’à menacer de faire éclater l’ensemble de l’édifice » §2p26.

But what did we have before the French revolution? Truffle at every meal on the one hand vs. leftover stew mixed with a bit of bacon for the rest. For sure, there was no risk of craftsmanship meeting high volume industrial production back then.

Conservation, standardization and organization came about with people such as Nicolas Apert inventing canned foods or again Escoffier organizing his teams into military brigades.

Industrial fast food isn’t so much a product of americanism as it is a product of modernity. High volume manufacturing has allowed for cheaper food. But all fast-foods aren’t equal. The traditional « jambon-beurre » sandwich you’ll find in France is fast food, but much fresher and probably healthier than other sandwich variants.

Certainly, France is McDonald’s leading foreign market, but in terms of what I call « sleazeburgers » the offer is limited, peanuts in comparison to what is found in the US and elsewhere. McDonald’s is much more of a symbol than anything else here in France. Because once that is said and done, the other fast foods in France can boast of a higher level of quality. Take la Brioche Doré, or La Mie Caline, or Paul. They all rationalize, standardize and so on, but in the end, deliver something much tastier and healthier than frozen patties.

Hence, competition isn’t between a three starred restaurant and a whopper, it is between a jambon-beurre - a ham-butter sandwich and the cheese burger. In this respect, noontime lunch maintains a certain quality in France, be it alone for the time given to enjoy it. What is noteworthy, but isn’t mentioned by Rick Fantasia, is that this same culture has probably allowed France to develop one of the world leaders, Sodexo, in food catering. The time and money the French spend eating at noontime have laid the ground for strong corporations to emerge. In this sense, France is an ideal ecosystem for culinary novelties to sprout and grow.

All of this means we are dealing with a spectrum. As it can’t be Christmas every day, you need something affordable and something that can serve as a contrast. Then will you really enjoy an exquisite cuisine. Now will this excellent experience disappear because the chefs are giving their name to deep frozen meals, frankly, that is hard to say, though I don’t think so.

What is easier to demonstrate though is the impact the French chefs have had across the globe by opening up restaurants, in London, in Japan, the US and elsewhere. How many countless french cooking schools have opened up under their name and banner? How many millions of tourists have flocked toward France to ruthlessly spend their money on cuisine and handbags?

This lack of perspective is unfortunate, especially given that Fantasia actually provides a succulent 101 course in market segmentation, which shows precisely how much the French have managed to cover the different types of demand.

The fact is, Gastronomy is soft power, and you can’t keep a hold of it by staying a craftsman. You need cash and that is maybe what put France ahead of Italy on the throne of Gastronomy. The best 50 would also like to take the helm with its heretical podium, but Michelin is holding on to it, thanks maybe to the tires.

To conclude this hearty article, it could be argued that on the contrary, the French have taken the American ingredients of their liking and integrated them in their own sauce. I still do recommend this reading for anyone interested in the matter because the book stimulates thought and is a bountiful concentration of provocative sources.

But even though it may be difficult from a scholarly perspective, we must integrate the business prism. The key to a high level of gastronomy also depends on demand. If the market is demanding, then there will be excellence. In France, it is partly structural, due to culture, and that is bound to stay for a while. As for the learned part of Gastronomy, there is certainly a lot to be done.

In France, where there is often a disconnect between ideas and practice, this exchange between chefs and industry is a good thing. There is no disconnect on the spectrum of offerings, and ethereal creations can trickle down to daily modest pleasures. In a country bent on frolicking in lofty ideals whilst forgetting pragmatism, this continuum is healthy.

True gastronomers will know the difference. Strong institutions such as the Michelin guide maintain that excellence. And believe me, if Michelin decided to spin off the guide from the tires, the French government would probably buy up the gig as a national heritage, just like an awesome painting, dishing our more than what would be offered for the Mona Lisa.

We mustn’t forget either that the arch upon which rests the renown guide was launched with a business intent. Hence, yes, business and gastronomy go hand in hand.

French Gastronomy and the Magic of Americanism, Temple University Press

Quote from French version:

Gastronomie française à la sauce américaine, Rick Fantasia, édition du Seuil

Image empreinte : Catswithglasses

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