Michael Steinberger´s Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine And The End of France is a premier cru example of the popular sub-genre: The “Decline and Fall of French Cooking.” The basic plot line is familiar to Americans of my generation. Many, myself included, have lived it.
It goes something like this: Act I: Somewhere in France. We experience The Great Awakening from boring American cooking, discover the joy of eating which enhances our joie de vivre. Steinberger´s revelation comes in the Loire Valley as an adolescent. The agent of his epiphany is the humble baby pea, drowned in butter, of course. Act II: We achieve The Ecstasy through a few truly sublime meals and become Francophiles. Steinberger amusingly relates such an experience. The three-star Au Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg is the venue. The chef´s signature dish, a stew featuring “a gorgeous pink-gray (duck) liver with black truffles” leaves him “whimpering in such ecstasy” that he grins stupidly as the chef hits on his wife and whisks her off to check out his kitchen. Nothing untoward happens, and the experience confirms his affection for “(his) emotional touchstone.” (France, not his wife.) Act III: Fast forward a few decades to Disillusionment Creep. Periodic mediocre meals force us to admit that France just isn´t what she used to be. Steinberger chows
down at the three-star La Cote d´Or. The chef is a proud member of the Légion d´Honneur but his classic frogs’ legs in garlic purée and parsley juice just aren´t what they used to be.” They are “lacklustre and washed out.” Now, Michelin Star Country is not my usual stomping grounds, so allow me to descend from the lofty heights and relate a couple of scenes from my own personal Act III. About five years ago my friend Cathy Dittemore and I are travelling through Provence, on our way to a cooking school, one Michelin star. We stop in the small town of Uzés for a little open-air dinner. Pasta with sauce was the dish. Now Cathy has a fine palette and a precise way with the words: “Gravy Train” was her verdict. (See photo at right.) OVERBLOWN METAPHOR ALERT! A few days later I just had to visit the Marquis de Sade´s castle in Lacoste. Disappointing, nothing especial, just another grand castle in ruins. Down the hill, at the aptly named Café de Sade, we had a truly disgusting meal fit only for the culinarily masochistic. Cathy reminds me to mention the Café
de Sade´s “dank cellar-like decoration” with “its moth-eaten taxidemied wildlife.” True, these are far from the Michelin anointed, but “you can´t find a bad meal in France.” Right?
What distinguishes Steinberger from table-wine variety commentators is his structure and complexity. As comfortable with politics and economics as with food and wine, he puts gastronomic ennui in the larger context of France´s political and economic decadence. Francois Mitterand is his link between these two worlds. To his very end this “Champagne Socialist” would have done the most decadent Roman Emperor or debauched Renaissance Pope proud. In his last dramatic gesture (“the most famous last supper since The Last Supper”) Mitterand gathers some thirty friends and relatives to his palatial digs near Bordeaux. Seventy-nine and dying of cancer, he has to be helped to the table and can barely sit up. But the sight of fresh local oysters miraculously revives him; he downs three dozen, dozes off, gets through his capon with foie gras, dozes off, and then comes back to life one last time for his final Earthly morsels: two ortolans, the tiny songbirds considered “the ultimate delicacy” by discerning French gastromones and so rare that they are on the endangered specie list. Then off to his just desserts.
Ironically, food-loving Mitterand plays lead villain in Au Revoir To All That. His government raises the minimum wage, gives workers a fifth week of vacation, and lowers retirement ages, among other seemingly idyllic reforms. But Steinberger argues that they were instrumental in turning “a weak economy…into a chronic condition” and that they especially shackled the restaurant industry. Blend in a piquant 19.5% tax on sit-down meals and several giant dashes French red tape and scores of chefs and sommeliers are sent scurrying off to friendlier fiscal surroundings, especially just across the English Channel. In 2005 Gourmet magazine declares London, of all places, “the best place food city in the world” thanks to a certain extent to these economic-gastronomic refugees.
We also get a tantalizing peek into the inner workings of the Michelin Guide, along with some juicy scandals. Not so long ago each Michelin star from was “like winning the lottery.” But now some younger French chefs were doing the unthinkable, giving back their étoiles. Had The Guide become a tyrannous drag on creativity by favoring luxurious accommodations over good food? Did Paul Bocuse´s get his third star because he “prettified” his bathrooms? Did the aforementioned La Cote d´Or owner blow his brains out over Michelin pressures? Was the Guide handing out stars like promotional candy in Tokyo in order to sell more tires?
French wine is experiencing its wine crisis: La crise viticole. Consecutive French governments have had a “neo- Prohibition mindset.” Their anti-alcohol campaign makes us “Puritanical Americans” seem downright libertine. France´s drunk driving laws, the strictest in Europe, have led to a significant drop in French restaurant wine sales. A 1991 law forbade alcohol advertising on television and in the movies. Liquor companies were barred from advertising sports events. In-store wine tastings were discouraged. Furthermore, the huge inheritance taxes have made it difficult for many French small wine makers to keep their family vineyards. And the internal market is shrinking; wine consumption per capita has dropped 50% since 1960s(sic) and the trend continues.
Steinberger, a skillful raconteur, gives us some choice vignettes. A small French wine maker who is slowly going bust sells his home and moves into a pair of mobile homes in front of his Bordeaux chateau in order to keep his family winery afloat. Militant Languedoc “wine terrorists” from the shadowy CRAV (Comite Regional d´Action Viticole) highjack a Spanish truck and dump its 35000 liters of wine on the highway and then bomb a few supermarkets which sell imported wines. In 2006 an effort to have French cuisine declared “part of the world´s cultural patrimony” by UNESCO is met with sarcasm. The New York Times declares that French cuisine has officially entered “the gelid commemorative” stage and contrasts her nostalgic museum mentality with the vitality of “eclectic, playful” Spain, the new leader of culinary creativity. In 2006 The French Culinary Institute inaugurates its new International Culinary Center in New York. It invites ten eminent foreign chefs. Led by contemporary icons Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak, they are all Spanish.
Steinberger is crystal clear on one point; France has only herself is to blame for her woes. They are the fruit of home-grown stupidity and complacence, not the result of insidious forces beyond her control. The steady drumbeat of anti-globalization is the “Big Excuse.” (For a passionate opposing opinion check out American filmmaker Johnathan Nossiter´s “Mondovino” which was nominated for the Palme d´Or at Cannes and is a big hit in France. This epic docu-melodrama depicts the French wine industry as the victim of globalization, turbo-charged capitalism, and Robert Parker´s vulgar American palate.)
Au Revoir ends with an apocalyptic vision: a MacDonald´s fast-food restaurant in the food court of the Louvre. Many Frenchmen still profess great shock, but France is after all MacDonald´s second most profitable market and best-seller French Women Don´t Get Fat is now more nostalgic fantasy than fact. 40% of all French are now officially overweight, and looking more and more like the Michelin Man every day.
I liked this book a lot. Its tidbits are poignant, funny, and to the point. We get food for thought, not junk-food journalism. And this no funeral oration. There are glimmers of hope; the beloved patient still has life in her. Gratefully we are spared cheap indignation and teary-eyed remembrances of meals past. Like a fine mature Margaux, Au Revoir To All That is serious, yet playful; deep, yet approachable. It is an effortless blend of food, wine, and politics. I give it a 9.5.
P.S. I for one have certainly not given up on France. I am a card carrying member of the French Wine Society and certified French Wine Scholar. And I still visit my old love whenever I can. In fact, I´m off to Carcassonne tomorrow for eight days of French wines and food.