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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 12:23 AM

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The decline of French cuisine

It was a puzzlement, really. After all, we were in Paris — I'd pinched myself enough times to be sure of that. It had been years...

The Washington Post

It was a puzzlement, really. After all, we were in Paris — I'd pinched myself enough times to be sure of that. It had been years, but now, ensconced in a cozy corner brasserie, my husband and I were looking forward to one of the great delights we remembered from our previous travels in France: wonderful, cheap food, everywhere you went.

Well, OK, nothing's cheap in Europe anymore; we knew that. But the food. How could the food be so ... awful?

My onion soup was a pale, watery broth. I eyed the few sad onion slivers floating in the bowl. My husband's grill platter looked greasy and, well, kind of gross.

I felt his hunger pains. I mean, the man loves food. And food was what France, as we remembered it, was all about. It was about cassoulets and pot-au-feu and escargots and croque-monsieur and foie gras and so much more. But where were all those dishes? Where were any dishes affirming the country's reputation as the great culinary stronghold of the Continent?

It wasn't just one bad meal, you see. In a week, we had maybe one good, never mind great, meal. True, we didn't eat in any three-star restaurants, but we ate in some well-known locales. And you'd have thought we might have stumbled on at least one fantastic feast. Mais non. The food wasn't always bad, but it was reliably mediocre. Uninspired. Blah.

It was enough to make Julia Child roll over in her grave. And to think that the popular movie about her could be leading a whole new generation of Americans down the kitchen-garden path to believing that La France is still the world's food mecca. But it hasn't been that, says Michael Steinberger, for quite some time.

I can't tell you how relieved I was when Steinberger's recent book "Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France" came across my desk after we got back from Paris. For weeks, I'd been thinking it was me. After all, my memories of magnificent French repasts were a couple of decades old. Maybe they were too rosy. Maybe my palate had changed. Maybe it was because we hadn't really planned out where to eat, assuming that we'd walk into deliciousness without any effort. Maybe we were just old and out of it.

Even if all those things are a little bit true, reading Steinberger, a wine columnist for Slate magazine and admitted "food-loving Francophile," reassured me. Because there's more to it than that, he writes. Way more.

Here's the thing. If you're a food expert, you'll know where to go to find tasty food in France. But if you're a casual tourist, you need to know: You're not going to find a fabulous meal around every corner. And mostly, the French don't care.

Take a look at these facts: From 200,000 cafes in 1960, France was down to 40,000 — and dropping — last year. Bistros and brasseries are likewise disappearing rapidly. Certain kinds of cheeses are dying because no one knows how to make them anymore. The wine industry is in upheaval as the French quaff less. Forget the quaint little French outdoor market; they still exist, but the French now buy 75 percent of their food in supermarkets, just like Americans.

And "most ominously," Steinberger writes, "the bedrock of French cuisine — home cooking, or la cuisine familiale — was in trouble. The French were doing less cooking than ever at home and spending less time at the table: The average meal in France now sped by in thirty-eight minutes, down from eighty-eight minutes a quarter-century earlier."

And the origins of these woes? Oh, there are beaucoup. Steinberger fingers everything from a bloated, micromanaging bureaucracy to the new creative-cooking wave out of Spain and England to the rise of the celebrity chef and the tyranny of the Michelin Guide.

And ... McDonald's. Yes, it's true. I joked that we could eat at the McDo's on the Champs-Elysees one night when we straggled back to our hotel after getting caught in a thunderstorm. But the French today like the place. Over the past decade, writes Steinberger, they have turned to it "willingly, and in vast and steadily rising numbers." Such numbers, in fact, that "by 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world" for McDonald's.

The biggest challenge to French cuisine, Steinberger writes, is that it doesn't bother the French that their country isn't the epicenter of the culinary world anymore. The younger generation is happy to "gobble a sandwich or chips," to quote one pained restaurateur, it doesn't like to spend a lot of money on food and it couldn't care less about France's sterling gastronomic heritage.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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