September 15, 2013

When in France, Eat as the French Eat

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I am lucky enough to be studying in Paris for the academic year and to be exposed to the rich culinary traditions of France. The French have a very different relationship with what they eat than we do in America. There is a strong sense of respect for food and its history – eating well is, after all, a part of France’s heritage.

Sure, McDonald’s has garnered a loyal following among French youth, and Starbucks has plenty of convenient locations around Paris. But overall, France shows loyalty to its proud cuisine. Through my blog posts this year, I want to identify peculiarities of France’s culinary practices and attempt to explore the larger cultural implications of French food.

Bread is an absolute mainstay of the French dinner table. Boulangeries, or stores that bake and sell pastries, pre-assembled sandwiches, desserts and the like, often produce a dozen different kinds of bread to choose from. The best boulangeries are run by bakers who have dedicated their entire lives to their craft, and they amass a loyal following to boot. The one closest to my dorm has a window that looks into the bakery so awestruck patrons can see the master at work.

Along with wine and cheese, bread is one of the cheapest foods available. A freshly baked baguette, easily over two feet long, shouldn’t cost more than one euro (around $1.33). That makes sense, seeing as the raw ingredients of a baguette – flour, water and yeast – are inexpensive. It is the passion and expertise that go into the combination of these simple ingredients that make French bread so amazing. I wrote last year that making delicious bread at home isn’t all that challenging, and I stand by that. But a baguette from a boulangerie is impossible to replicate.

There is no American equivalent to France’s relationship to its bread. In Paris, many boulangeries have long lines around five o’clock in the evening, filled with people buying a fresh baguette to bring home for dinner. Cornell professor Steven Kaplan, the world’s leading expert on French bread, described the general decline of bread quality that occurred in mid-20th century France. To lack access to a great baguette was to distance one’s self from a proud national tradition, and thus authentic, superior bread made its return to France.

Ripping a piece off of a warm baguette is a constant reminder of France’s cultural heritage. To take a bite is to taste the hard work that the baker put into preserving something wholly and uniquely French. It is a physical representation of what it means to be a citizen of one’s country.

The United States struggles with its culinary identity because, well, we don’t really have one. We’re a relatively young nation, and our cuisine is as much of a “melting pot” as our people are. The U.S. has appropriated many dishes from across the world, and American chefs are leading some of the most innovative restaurants in the world. But French cuisine, for the most part, just is. There is an unparalleled pride driving it, and for good reason. Each and every day, the French have the opportunity to physically experience a universally loved national institution: the boulangerie. It’s a tradition that I admire and have grown to respect as I take my afternoon walks to purchase a warm baguette for my friends and me to share before dinner. Such great bread is delicious, it is cared for, it is communal, and, most importantly, it is French.