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May 31, 2001

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: American vs French


French Food

Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with French food. As far back as Thomas Jefferson’s time, there has been a general prejudice against French cooking, stemming from its aristocratic nature and unfortunate association with snobbery. In the early days of our history, politicians from Jefferson to George Washington and John Adams were decried by Patrick Henry (of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame), for preferring the fancified cuisine of Marie Antoinette to the native-and probably tasteless victuals –of which the common folk were so proud. This gastronomic no-nothingism survives today as public figures are careful to manifest public disdain for fancy food and wine, lest they be thought of as elitist. And Americans, especially that silent and badly fed majority, are ever vigilant to avoid what they think of as the ostentations ways of fine dining.

Even as far back as the eighteen-thirties, a la carte dining was considered undemocratic by the hoi polloi, who preferred huge amounts of various foods placed before them by the hotels and restaurants of the day. A French lecturer, Leon Blouet commenting on American eating habits in eighteen-eighty seven wrote that in the average hotel restaurant: “…there are rarely fewer that fifty different dishes on the menu at dinner time…and every day you see people order three and four times as much of this food as they could eat under any circumstance, sending the bulk away spoiled and uneaten. Lest you think this dilettante to be dismissible, remember that even James Fennimore Cooper, one of our own, once called American the grossest feeders of any civilized nation who consistently elevate quantity over quality.

This popular insistence on the forcible impression of plenty survives today in the form of the wasteful and waist-expanding buffets of which our town is so proud. Who knew there was such historical precedent for so much bad taste?? Gussied-up meals served in separate courses may not be Amurrrican in some circles, but I like to think of the ghosts of Washington and Jefferson frowning at all of those lining up at the trough.

This is John Curtas.

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