France is one of those places that is more than just a place. It's an idea, a state of mind, versions of which reside in the minds of everyone who has ever set foot in France and of the minds of billions more who haven't. Combine all those fractions, fictions and figments -- feuled by everything from the Mona Lisa to Maigret to Monet, from Chanel to chateaux to Audrey Tautou -- and France is just as imaginary as it is real. We all count on our particular versions of France staying intact, because -- again, for billions -- this is one of our "happy places," a fantasy to which we can point on a map. An almost mandatory aspect of this fantasy is food. Croissants. Café au lait. Champagne. Coquilles St-Jacques. France-as-happy-place smells like baguettes.
If we're so psychologically invested in France as the eternal font of the world's Frenchest French food, then what happens to our happy places when the French populace prefers McDonald's?
In his new book Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Michael Steinberger unveils with stunned horror a nation utterly changed from the one where he first became a foodophile on a family vacation at age thirteen. He describes cheeses, produced lovingly for centuries, now newly extinct as their last makers retire or die with no one else willing to take up the helm. He cites broke vintners committing suicide for lack of customers. He charts a massive café die-off in which France was home to 200,000 cafés in 1960 but only 40,000 in 2008, with "hundreds, maybe thousands" more closing every year. The French no longer cherish their own cuisine, Steinberger rails, citing as reasons a general decline in home cooking, now that most French women work, and a passion among the French, especially French youth, for all manifestations of globalization. Its main emissary, of course, is McDonald's.
"The French came to McDonald's ... willingly," Steinberger writes, "and in vast and steadily rising numbers. Indeed, the quarter-pounder conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job." By 2007, France was the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald's -- that is, second only to the United States itself. Riffing on the burger chain's sales hook, Steinberger admits: "The French public was lovin' it."
As of the mid-2000s, thousands of typical French restaurants and food shops were closing every year, and high-quality meats and produce "were increasingly difficult to find because fewer and fewer people were producing them" or preparing them, Steinberger laments. "The French public seemed largely indifferent to these developments." French food had clearly become an endangered species, yet arguably the French "couldn't be bothered to come to its rescue."
This is fascinating from a historical perspective but also from a psychological one, because it raises questions about the role that food plays in identity, especially national identity. Steinberger's intriguing but unsettling research suggests that the French no longer define themselves by their traditional dishes and dining customs, which are among the world's most delicious clichés. And if they feel that way, what will become of our fantasies?