Steven Shapin reviews Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger in the LRB:
Alice B. Toklas wrote her Cookbook, she said, ‘for America’, partly to explain the ‘delicacy and poignancy’, the perfect balance, of French cooking. (Alice’s recipe for boeuf bourguignon doesn’t have Julia’s rigour, but then Julia doesn’t have Alice’s recipe for hash brownies.) For another American Alice, a year in France in the 1960s was transformative. A single dinner in a Brittany restaurant changed everything for her, and, through her, for much of America: ‘I’ve remembered this dinner a thousand times … I learned everything in France.’ When she got back to Berkeley, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse as a homage to French cuisine and last year France returned the favour when she joined Julia Child in the Légion d’honneur.
And so France has a unique power to let Americans down. One of the first and most influential of the disappointed was Adam Gopnik. Writing in the New Yorker in 1997, Gopnik asked whether there was ‘a crisis in French cooking’. The question was rhetorical. ‘The muse of cooking’ had abandoned France and, shockingly, ‘migrated across the ocean to a spot in Berkeley, with occasional trips to New York and, of all places, Great Britain’. What good was a mother who had to take cooking lessons from her own daughters? In 2003, coinciding with American outrage over France not joining the Iraq invasion (remember the wonderfully rechristened ‘Freedom fries’?), the New York Times Magazine announced the stunning news that ‘Barcelona, not Paris, is now the vanguard capital of Europe, not least because of its wildly experimental cooking … Something happened in France – they ran out of gas.’ The excellent American food and wine writer Michael Steinberger now follows Gopnik and the New York Times, concerned that haute cuisine has gone to pot. The disappointment is clear; its cause is not so clear. Is the problem that French cooking is not what it was, or that it is? In Casablanca, Bogie reminded Ingrid Bergman that ‘We’ll always have Paris.’ Now, it’s not so certain we will.
The basic cause of France’s falling behind is a failure to innovate. For Gopnik, ‘one of the principles of high French cooking’ is a commitment not just to intensity but to innovation, making things ‘far more original than anyone can imagine’. Combinations, preparations, tastes which are not just very good but very new – things to eat that expand your vocabulary of tastes. That’s why high cooking is supposed to be an art, like a painting that shows you a horse in a way you’ve never thought to look at a horse before and changes your subsequent perceptions of horses. And French haute cuisine was long supposed to be like the winner of a horse race, not to be the fastest, but to be the most innovative.
That’s pretty much Steinberger’s position too.