“It’s the ingredients!” my mother used to shriek when we first lived in France back in the 1970s. Giddily bouncing around the covered market in Bourg-la-Reine, she would lustfully ogle fresh fruits and vegetables, giggle over the almost-alive fish glistening on beds of chopped ice, and gape in wonder over the huge variety of dairy products, most of which we had never heard of. I would roll my eyes and tell myself, with superior 12-year-old wisdom, that my mother was nuts, which she is (but that’s another story), but in this particularly instance, she was spot on.
Because the real reason that you can eat so well in France is that the building blocks of cooking are vastly superior to those in certain other English-speaking countries, such as the US. After all, if you build a house out of, let’s say, straw, it’s not going to hold up anywhere near as well as one of brick (sorry, I’ve been spending too much time with a six-year-old). And if you throw together a salad with a baseball-hard and equally tasteless tomato and some watery, if pretty, lettuce, you are obviously not going to get the same effect as with a sun-ripened coeur de boeuf and a mitt-full of delicate feuille de chene.
It’s not that the French even necessarily cook better than Americans. It’s that there are better things to eat here. In fact, I think American chefs are rather masterful in that they can actually cook so well under extremely challenging culinary circumstances. A case in point is my lunch today. I had forgotten all about it and suddenly realized I was starving. I opened up my refrigerator and pulled this and that out in the hopes of coming up with something edible and found myself eating an endive salad with chopped walnuts and vinagrette and a sandwich on a fresh baguette with pâté forestière. As I was about to take a bite I reminded myself that this simple lunch would cost me a bloody fortune in New York. True, I make a thing out of going to the local covered market and buying fun stuff like that (whereas an alarming number of my French friends go to the supermarket—“no!” I tell them “think if your culinary heritage! Don’t do it!”—whereby my friends look at me as if I am nuts, and I am, but that’s another story). But the fact of the matter is that all those fun and delicious goodies and good produce are there, if you are willing to go out and look a little.
So I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that beyond whatever health benefits, ecological benefits, and economic benefits there are to eating locally produced, fresh food, there are also the intrinsic bon vivant benefits: the intense pleasure of eating good things. For the moment, France has not yet entirely caved in to the bland convenience of supermarkets. Let’s hope it stays that way.