Remember back a few years ago when Americans all hated France? What was that about? We renamed french fries freedom fries and we wouldn't drink french wines. I think it had something to do with the French government's stance on the Iraq war. The French are just a little too superior to Americans, and we don't like that so we won't drink your wine. So there.
Michael Steinberger is an American who loves France. More importantly he loves eating and French Food and wine and has written a lovely memoir--almost an elegy--about the decline of French gastronomy. Fine french wines and restaurants and cheeses are all is various states of decline and ruin. And are being eclipsed by the English, the Americans and *gasp* Spain.
I approached this book feeling like it was something I needed to get through, but I came away very taken with the beauty of these timeless french industries and the history and culture behind them. The author really led me in to the French restaurant industry -- the three start restaurants and how they were earned and what they said about a man (no women here) and his love for fine cooking.
The book tries to explain what has happened to French restaurants and does so with loving care. While I lost interest during the long parade of french chef's and how they were inter connected, I loved the chapter called "The Last Gentleman of Europe" where Steinberger profiles the last of the big three star Parisian Restaurants to loose its star. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. I also loved the chapter about McDonald's role in France. Contrary to popular belief, the french love their McDo.
Steinberger points his finger at France itself for the demise of some of its most cherished industries (not at crass Americans or
stupid Spaniards.) He discusses French policy and politics towards industry and regulations, and calls to France for some basic reforms to save its own products and culture. One chapter is all about the Michelin guide and how it serves to encourage tourism, but is also filled with hypocrisy. After all, Michelin really just wants to sell tires.
I was surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. The real story here is not that long parade of French chef's who cook and influence French culture, but the farmers and cheese makers and restauranteurs who are trying valiantly to remain French and carry on their long standing traditions. Each chapter surprised me a lot and taught me something new about France. Although this may not be your best summer beach read, it is a great story about France and its people. It will make you feel a little bad about all that French wine you do not drink.