French food

This short piece was originally written for the new year issue (No. 123: January 2001 page 3) of the Mensa newsletter but has been revised for reissue here. It puts a sceptical point of view of francophile gastronomy.

If you run out of interesting gastronomy reading at any time, try The Englishman’s Food (Drummond and Wilbraham, 1939, 1957, 1991), a history of national gastronomy. For long periods of our history, the English common people were so much better fed than their counterparts across the channel that ambassadors wrote home about it.

I have long suspected that French and francophile gastronomes eat such grotesque things as frogs’ legs and snails because before the 1789 Revolution the poor were so malnourished that, in perpetual desperation, they ate anything they could find that moved, just to get a scrap of protein into them; then the decadent aristocracy (many of whom at court banqueted almost continually and then, retiring behind bushes in the Versailles gardens, vomited bulimically before returning to the table) took to aping the ways of poor as a depraved kind of amusement. The aristocracy mostly lost their heads, and the rest had become so obsessed by food (because they could never get enough) that it is still their national obsession more than two centuries later. Then at some time in the 19th century, the French convinced the more effete among the English aristocracy (and middle class snobs) that they knew best about all things gastronomic — a delusion that still persists widely; but if truth were known, the French have quite narrow predilections and knowledge and even I like, and can prepare, quite a lot of categories of food of which they apparently know almost nothing.

Nowadays the British have also gone food mad. Some endlessly praise and slavishly follow the French, while others are rediscovering the fact that British (but especially English) food is by no means bad; it was merely the effect of the WW2 U-boat blockade and rationing that led a generation of both British and Europeans to accept a now obsolete stereotype of English culinary standards.

However, if we are honest about it, the continual search for food is what, most of the time, dominates the waking lives of all the animal species on the planet. For human beings to remain obsessed with food and the cooking of it means setting their lifestyle horizons no higher than those of almost all other animals. For all their talk of fine foods and wines, all the TV cookery programmes, all the celebrity chefs and restaurants where it costs £100 or more for dinner or where there is a waiting list of several months for a table, the horizons of all these people are actually no higher than those of the the monkey, the wolf, the snake, the shark, the lizard, the cockroach, the caterpillar ... and the aphid. As far as I am concerned, there are many far more interesting things on which to expend one’s time and intellectual energies than how to stuff one’s face, how to fill one’s stomach to prevent death by starvation — things like art and music and literature and science, which are by and large beyond the other forms of animal life on the planet.

As for gastronomic francophilia, that is based on a bogus stereotype too. As I lived some years in France (and spoke fluent French even though it may be a little rusty now) I can justly claim that am no francophobe. Yet I have to point out that I found that many French people can’t cook or bake; none of the French women working in my office had any idea how to bake a cake, and when I took in, to give slices away to colleagues, a simple birthday cake I had made (an iced Victoria sandwich), these women almost lined up to come in afterwards and ask me for the recipe. I could only assume that they eat out, and buy any cake they eat at home from patisseries. The fact that the last-named establishments are actually specialists in pastry, not proper cake as I think of it, and that despite having the word gâteau they also use the English word cake — meaning English style cake including fruit cake — proves this point, as far as I am concerned.