The great French gastronomic meal is now officially on Unesco’s list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. This not unexpected honor was announced last November during a meeting of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee, which was created in 2003 to safeguard traditions and cultural activities “inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” The citation describes the French gastronomic meal as “a social custom for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. It emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between humans and the products of nature.”
France’s culture and agriculture ministries congratulated themselves and said they were working to “promote food products and culinary savoir-faire, encourage gastronomic tourism around our country and promote the traditions of French cuisine internationally.”
French cuisine was added to the list along with gingerbread from northwest Croatia, the hopping procession at Echternach in Luxembourg, carpet weaving at Fars in Iran, the Peruvian scissor dance, and the Giong festival of the Phu Dong and Soc temples in Vietnam – plus other fragile customs threatened by market forces around the world. But the French promoters should really have pushed for inclusion on the special list of “Intangible Heritage in need of Urgent Safeguarding”.
Putting French cuisine on a pedestal is grotesque, even indecent, when street food is all the rage, when executives doped up on food supplements boast that they no longer waste time eating, when 30 per cent of children complain about the food served in school canteens and three million malnourished people in France receive food handouts. French cuisine is under threat despite the elaborate meals consumed in luxury Parisian restaurants and hotels by the super-rich with a taste for the flashy, who order the most expensive dishes rather than the best. It is threatened despite multi-starred chefs appearing on TV.
The French have less time and less money for four-course meals: starter, main dish, cheese, dessert. The very government whose members worked to secure the consecration of the national cuisine has abolished the law that gave employees a statutory 24-hour weekly break on Sundays, a law that dated not from the Liberation or Popular Front times, but from the Belle Epoque. If people do have proper Sunday meals with family, neighbors, friends or cousins, someone is nearly always absent because they are working in a tourist area or in a special commercial zone (where Sunday opening is permitted). Any other day, working hours are too disjointed or out-of-phase to allow shared, proper, meals. French food is poor in schools, company canteens and hospitals.
A single pathetic “taste week” set among 51 other weeks not of fasting but of reconstituted steaks bulked out with soya changes nothing. (Following a practice established 21 years ago, the 2010 national semaine du goût, from October 11 to 17 , encouraged the use of good food cooked in a healthy way.” The multinationals that supply factories and offices prepare dishes which are high in fat, high in salt and rich in preservatives.
The traditional French meal, celebrated, talked about, rarified, can now be talked of as a thing of the past, a memory, fine in a Babette’s Feast kind of way (the 1987 Danish film directed by Gabriel Axel, from a short story by Isak Dinesen.) But you can’t eat a movie. There’s a huge gap between the dishes prepared by chefs Marc Veyrat, Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon for the menu served at the Assemblée Nationale on October 16, 2008 to mark France’s candidature for Unesco world heritage – “emulsion of foie gras on herbe d’ache in a yoghurt pot with frothy chocolate potatoes, iced nage of oysters, turban of crayfish on spaghetti – and the dishes the French like most: veal in white sauce, couscous, and mussels with chips. The excellence of sophisticated “trophy” cuisine cannot make amends for the slow disappearance of popular cuisine.
As Jean-Paul Aron, historian of fine dining in the 19th century, noted, the myth of fine cuisine developed in France just when the country was abandoning proper gastronomy. “The rapid growth of the food industry, the intensive breeding of battery hens, the popularity of hamburgers in drugstores 20 years before McDonald’s, the rapid spread of cellophane food packaging in big supermarkets (sacrificing sensual pleasures for hygiene) and the arrival, then triumph, during the 1970s, of frozen foods, all represent a reversal of traditional values. So does the emphasis on the kitchen – which has become a rationalized, sanitized space, designed for looks – rather than actual meals (increasingly banal food eaten in front of the TV). The way that dining rooms are now used only for special occasions and the low value that seems to be placed on food as compared with escapism, beauty & fashion and hobbies are more examples. From 1960, where food is concerned, words began to stand in for the actual thing.”
The glut of food features in newspapers, of television shows and recipe books stems from this, as does that Intangible Cultural Heritage listing. The problem is not the word “gastronomic”: good home cooking can be gastronomic (ragouts, pot-au-feus); some professional cuisine is not (for instance, the products of catering companies such as Sodexo). “Intangible” is also justified: the French Mission for Heritage and Food Culture nominated a way of life rather than specific dishes. The point is French cuisine used to be governed by rules that told you what to eat, when, how and why. But mass marketing has upset all that, and people no longer remember what things should taste like.
The French gastronomic meal is wrapped up with ecological and social issues and needs protecting. Otherwise, it might as well be consigned to a museum and become something only for the super-rich, who will marvel at it, without truly appreciating it or understanding the wider context.
Sébastien Lapaque is a journalist and literary critic, and author of Il faut qu’il parte, Stock, Paris, 2008.
Translated by Robert Waterhouse
This article appears in the February edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.