The Displaced Nation

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DISPLACED Q: In modern French cuisine, who wins the race — the slow-food tortoise or the McDonald’s fast-food hare?

In yesterday’s post on French cooking guru Julia Child, ML Awanohara wrote about the Slow Food movement, which began life in the 1980s in resistance against big international interests and, more specifically, the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Today, on its website, Slow Food states it aims to

counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

Valid and valiant aims in an eco-conscious world that nevertheless marches toward global homogenization.

Slow and steady? Or just slow?

Yesterday, ML also expressed her bemusement that the movement started in Italy, not France — a reaction I share with her, because if one traditional cuisine takes le gateau when it comes to drawn-out toiling over a hot stove, it’s the French.

Learning the nuances of French cooking isn’t something I’ve ever yearned to do. While I am full of admiration for Julie Powell and her quest to conquer all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s tome of French cooking, I have no desire to repeat the exercise myself.

Well, perhaps that is no more you would expect of me. I am British, after all — Brits aren’t famed for their good food, although of course I feel this reputation is undeserved — and I have lived much of my life in America, home of fast foods such as Burger King and McDonald’s.

Do I exist on cheeseburgers and fries, though? Absolutely not. Rarely, in fact. I cook most things, from traditional English cakes and roast dinners to an authentic variety of Indian, Chinese, and Thai dishes. When it comes to French cuisine, though, my repertoire is limited to creme brulee and cherry clafoutis.

My reason? I’m not prepared to spend vast swathes of my evening preparing an eighteen-ingredient, three-page recipe when I can get an enthusiastic reception from my family by cooking a Ken Hom stir fry in one-third of the time.

But no matter the nationality of food I cook, it’s rare that our family does not sit down together in the dining room and eat together. The way I see it, rather less time spent in the kitchen means more time eating and conversing as a family.

Could it be that French cuisine has shot itself in the foot with its complicated nature?

Winning by a hare’s breadbun?

In his 2008 article in The Times, Hugo Rifkind describes McDonald’s as

“France’s dirty secret.”

Three years ago, Paris had around 70 McDonald’s — or McDoh’s, as they’re known there — which is the same number as in London, in a city with a third of London’s population.

Rifkind says:

Stop any Frenchman on the street…and he will shrug and snarl and say that he doesn’t eat in McDonald’s.

But someone does, and it can’t be just the tourists.

Evidence suggests that the image of the French businessman taking a two-hour, multi-course lunch is gradually being consigned to the past, and instead of lingering over a bottle of fine red and runny camembert, Monsieur is adopting the regrettable Anglo-American habit of lunch on the hop.

One oft-quoted statistic is that the length of the average French meal has fallen from 1 hour 22 minutes in 1978 to a mere 38 minutes today.

A sad statistic indeed.

While McDonald’s is trying to cater to the French palate by introducing the McBaguette and the Croque McDo, I feel this is missing the point.

Food is not just about fueling the body.

It is about taking time out of your day to enjoy time and conversation with friends. It should be about savoring the taste of good flavors, not about stuffing a sandwich down your gullet as fast as possible so you can make that meeting at one o’clock.

In Aesop’s fable, the tortoise eventually won the race.

In this race, I hope the Snail does.

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s guest post by a serial expat who has recently moved to Provence.

Related post:

When a Julia Child-like curiosity about French cuisine leads to a displaced life — bienvenue au October theme

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Img: MorgueFile

7 responses to “DISPLACED Q: In modern French cuisine, who wins the race — the slow-food tortoise or the McDonald’s fast-food hare?

  1. ML Awanohara October 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    @Kate
    The slow-food tortoise versus the fast-food hare suggests another, related question. In an age where many people would rather talk to, text, or send tweets to people other than those who are physically in the room with them, can families continue to have family dinners where conversation takes place without interruption? Likewise, can friends continue to gather together for dinner parties and enjoy face-to-face interaction?

    Nigella Lawson built her business on the idea that the family dinner and the dinner party mustn’t die. And while I loved the way she presented this — and bought all the books — I must say, I find it hard going to put her principles to practice in the United States. Perhaps it’s easier in Europe?

  2. Kate Allison October 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I can’t speak for other families, but in our house phones etc are banned at the dinner table, and if the landline phone rings while we are eating, we ignore it. Family dinners can often last 1 1/2 hours, just because it’s the one time of the day we can all chat together. Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to fit it in with school activities etc, but we usually manage it at least 4 times a week. And it’s good. Even the kids agree.

    • ML Awanohara October 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      But do you still have adults around for evening meals that you cook yourself? In New York City, the temptation is to meet friends in restaurants, but there are times when I miss hosting dinner parties, which used to be a chief source of entertainment during my years in the UK. (Hmm…never thought I’d say that!)

      • Kate Allison October 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm

        We tend to have friends round in the evening for dinner. A lot of them have small children and it’s just easier to bring them along and give them pizza and a movie while we have an adult meal, rather than have the hassle of finding babysitters.

  3. Pingback: The Disappearing “Pause Déjeuner” « French News Online Newsroom

  4. ML Awanohara October 14, 2011 at 11:35 am

    For the record: The latest scandal to hit French cuisine is the revelation that many restaurants in France are using boil-in-the-bag fare for such mainstays as boeuf bourgignon, veal blanquette, duck a l’orange and gratin dauphinois. Quel horreur! The government is now debating whether restaurants are obliged to tell their customers how much is pre-prepared. As the writers of the Reuters report point out:

    There is also the question of whether French people care enough about what’s on their dinner plates, in a country riddled with contradictions when it comes to the national cuisine.

    This year, gourmet frozen food retailer Picard was voted the nation’s favourite brand for the second year in a row.

    And France is one of the most profitable markets in the world for U.S. burger chain McDonald’s.

    Touché!

  5. E. October 15, 2011 at 5:41 am

    One of the best aspects of France is their wonderful charcuteries and patisseries. With both of those, you have your starter and dessert ready-made and you then only need to pot-roast a chicken and veg in some wine, add on some lettuce and a baguette and cheese, in order to present a great meal with minimum effort. Wish we had some shops like that in England – hard to believe that we are only 22 mile away from France, and yet there is such a huge difference in the whole culture.

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