The French Food Chronicles, Part III: Synthesis

Note: this article first appeared on Construction Lit Mag.

Though I was in Paris, at the Marché Raspail, and the presence of French speakers shouldn’t have surprised me at all, when I heard the French language around me at that particular moment, I knew that something special, something new was happening. It was lunch hour on a hot day in June, and sweat ran down my back as I stood outside a Mexican food truck called Cantine California. While the other vendors in the outdoor market had begun slowly packing up their stalls, I had joined the long line that formed in front of the truck, whose owner was frantically taking orders, delivering food, and chatting with customers. Most notable wasn’t that he had to instruct certain eaters new to tacos and burritos how to eat them properly (“Put down the knife and fork and use your hands! Tilt your head to the side!”), it was the simple fact that, at this precise moment, there were French people willing to wait 30 minutes to eat in a way that is decidedly American: fast, upright, with their hands.

At this food truck, I felt more at home than at any other time during my stay in Paris. Part of it, of course, was that the Spanish menu was more intelligible and easily pronounceable than any the French menus I had encountered. But mainly it was that I am more used to this informal way of eating, one that values convenience and substance over form. To this point, I’d experienced an acute sense of Otherness in my eating experiences. And so, this food truck was a sight for a hungry stomach and sore eyes. For a short time, I was not the Other.

For Parisians—and not just the hipster Parisians; I saw businesspeople in suits lining up and taking bags of burritos back to their offices—the American-style food truck phenomenon seems to be catching on. But this is not simply a case of American food and culture being transferred across the Atlantic, as it was when McDonald’s arrived in Paris in the early 1970s. While the arc of the food-truck-eating experience remains very much American, there is a crucial French element to Cantine California: the quality ingredients, which taste more like they came from a restaurant, rather than what would typically pass for street food, and the final product presented to the customer, which could pass for an entrée at a white tablecloth restaurant on one of the nearby boulevards. Cantine California embodies a key development in French food: a synthesis between the classic French way of eating and the Americanizing/mechanizing/industrializing pressures of the global food system. The synthesis is a distinctively French synthesis, because the quality of food has not been lost, and the elements of tradition and heritage, if anything, have only become magnified in their importance.

These elements have been transmitted through the concept of terroir (the taste of place), a marketing tool that promotes and upholds elements of the old way of life in the new context of industrialized food. Terroir would not look the way it does—with Comte cheese marketed as a representation of French heritage and traditional production techniques—without the threat of homogenization and Americanization standing in as an opposition to the quaint, idealized old system. Before chemical inputs became the norm in farming, “organic farming” was simply “farming.” So, too, with terroir. What results from the two oppositions is a sense that the old ways—the quality, the unique tastes, the care of the land, of the worker, of the spirit—are worth preserving, but can best be preserved through certain facets—efficiency, international marketing, a small measure of mechanization—of the new system.

The line between artisanal and industrial is quite thin, even in France. Take Comte cheese, for example. For the worker-owned cooperative that runs that whole operation from farming to marketing—the Comité Interprofessionnel du Gruyère de Comté—modernity is accepted to the extent that it upholds the integrity of the product so that no taste or quality or credibility is lost. Artisanal, terroir-basedproducts cannot match industrial products in terms of innovation, as they thrive on continuity and tradition, and are produced according to strict guidelines. They provide wonder and variety in other ways. Comte cheese does this through nature, through the changing of the seasons, not through the minds of food scientists looking to provide food companies with new products from which to profit (often at the expense of physical and spiritual health).

The synthesis is starkly apparent when visiting various links of the Comte production chain. The dairy farm we visited names each cow and provides each one with extra grazing space, yet the milking is done not by hand, but by a tubing system that delivers the milk straight to a tank in the back of the barn. The cheese-making facility feels more like a factory than a quaint artisanal shop. The aging facility has handed the daily job of treating the wheels of Comte cheese with salt and water to an extremely efficient, extremely tall robot that goes up and down the rows in the cold, warehouse-sized aging cellar at a much faster rate than the eight men who had been employed to do that job. Where did those jobs go? It is a fair question to ask, and indicates that there are losses and unintended consequences involved when seeking to anchor a food culture amidst an increasingly rootless and hyper-efficient food system.

In the practical sense, this synthesis provides a lens through which to view French products that have a longstanding tradition and have been made a certain way, with certain standards, for almost one thousand years. In the spiritual and emotional sense, this synthesis provides grounding, anchoring, a way to be present amidst the vagaries of the modern food system; it provides an antidote to the alienation of capitalism, where workers are separated from their final products, where consumers are separated from any deep connection to the products they consume, and where everyone has essentially been separated from their bodies. The cooperative ownership arrangement of Comte ensures that workers are not alienated from the products they work on.

Terroir leads to anchoring in the sense that we gain rootedness through memory, through nostalgia for old methods of production and old products, through the vocabulary of taste, through connections—physical, metaphysical, environmental, emotional—to what we consume. Terroir brings a story back into our eating experience. Terroir tells us how the product was made, where it came from, where it fits into the long, storied history of French cuisine. Our food is more than just a collection of calories: there is a story that needs to be told about how each meal makes it to our table.

Is there terroir in America? Because the field of gastronomy began in France, and because of the outsized influence French cuisine has projected throughout the world since the 18th century, it can be tempting to say that France has all the food culture and that in America we just have fast food, since that is the cuisine we have projected throughout much of the world. In reality, it seems like there is a new sort of terroir developing here. It is not based on a thousand-year-old heritage and tradition, nor is it necessarily even a taste of place in the same sense as eating Comte is about eating the land of the Jura region. It is almost a more ethical, moral terroir, a desire to make a political statement.

In Brooklyn, for instance, we eat artisanal, craft products made here because in doing so we are both supporting our neighbors and, in a quietly subversive way, we are removing ourselves from the industrial food system. We support restaurants like Calyer in Greenpoint or North End Grill in Battery Park City that get produce from local New York City urban farms (Brooklyn Grange and Battery Urban Farm, respectively) because that sort of hyper-local sourcing represents a shift toward a more sovereign, more sustainable food culture here in New York City.

We see people yearning for the story behind the food on their plates, because in this story is the meaning behind the sustenance; this story is the element that grounds us.  Whether at a hip restaurant in Brooklyn or a food truck in Paris, we are finding new ways, in a new context, of telling that ancient story about the deep meaning of food and the myriad ways we are sustained by it each day.

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