PARIS, France — During the 1970s, I dropped in on Monsieur Turpin, a storied Parisian greengrocer and pheasant plucker. His walrus mustache bristled with indignation.
“Those people,” he said, nodding toward two young Americans chewing on baguettes as they passed. “They are walking while they eat.”
Alas, poor Turpin. Today, even the Louvre Museum has a food court for ambulatory grazing. Soon it will include those ubiquitous golden arches. A Big Mona with fries?
What began slowly in the 1970s is now a galloping, likely irreversible, scourge. France is losing its fabled affinity for good food.
In the country where four centuries ago Francois Vatel fell on his sword because the turbot was late for a royal banquet, frozen fish sticks are all the rage.
A glance down any supermarket aisle is evidence enough, with such ersatz food as thin cellophane-wrapped slices of bright yellow processed cheese.
That feeding frenzy of Julia Child lore inspired Americans — first in the 1960s, then again this year — to revive classic French recipes, but here a dwindling number of people bother to simmer a simple sauce.
Turpin used to wake at 4 a.m. to select each tomato he would sell off the trucks at Les Halles, Paris' then-central food market. He taught me why the family dinner table is the heart of everything French.
Back then I began amassing old volumes and soon realized French food could be hazardous. If my shelves ever give way, I’ll be smashed flatter than a mallet-pounded escalope de veau.
Back in the 1500s, Catherine de Medici brought forks from Italy. Thus armed, French nobles hired cooks to put flatware to good use.
After the Revolution, jobless chefs opened eateries for common folk. Marie-Antoine Careme elevated good cooking to haute cuisine. Later, Auguste Escoffier codified it.
Perusing the books, I found Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s classic remark, underlined in red: “The discovery of a new dish means more to humankind than the discovery of a new star.”
I lingered over a 1937 equivalent of Cooking for Dummies by a Cordon Bleu master named Henri-Paul Pellaprat: “La Cuisine Froide, Simple et Pratique” ("Cold Food, Simple and Convenient").
Opening photos show how to debone a chicken; stuff it with pork, fowl bits, ham, lard and truffles; truss it with surgical knots; and wrap it in a towel for the oven.
Others show the construction of chicken a la Neva in a not-quite-firm gelee and sauce Chaufroid (don’t ask). Nuclear fusion is more simple et pratique.
It is not over yet. Local markets still thrive. Imaginative young restaurateurs add new dishes to the old stalwarts at prices that don’t require a second mortgage.
Down Calorie Alley, side roads along the A6 autoroute from Paris through Lyon, a galaxy of several dozen Michelin stars cluster at flower-splashed inns and posh palaces. But even in small backwaters, the new trend is clear. What with jobs and new styles of life, young mothers tend toward packaged plats and le fast food.
When McDonald’s first opened on the Champs-Elysees 30 years ago, a friend of mine heard a French first-timer ask for a Big Mac and add: “Not too well done, please.”
Now that particular McDo is the world’s busiest, one of more than 1,000 across the country. For years, France has been one of the chain’s fastest-growing markets.
In the small Provence city of Draguignan (where two McDos jam at lunch), I talked with Lucie Martin, who spent decades cooking school lunches in the nearby village of Ampus.
“You should see the disgusting garbage they feed the kids,” Lucie said. “It breaks your heart.”
She used to spend hours each day slicing real potatoes for her memorable gratin dauphinois and finding fresh vegetables as the seasons changed.
“Now it’s all flakes and powders from a conglomerate,” she said. “They use fish gravy for meat dishes and meat gravy for fish. There’s no taste so it doesn’t matter.”
Sodexho, the multibillion-dollar company that supplies industrial near-food to schools and institutions in 80 countries, is as French as Michelin or Paul Bocuse.
At the Draguignan market, I queried the usual suspects to see if the Julia Child phenomenon in America might have triggered some sort of renaissance.
Yves Vanweddingen, the brainy goat-cheese guy with an ex-wife from Ohio, pondered the question. “Child,” he said, “like the English word for kid? Never heard of her.”
His customers are aging, and even his own family hustles through meals that were once savored.
“Women have always worked in France,” Yves said, “but they used to work at home and could find time to stir a pot. No longer. Even among those who have time, few care.”
Whether in Provence or Paris, a fresh generation of can-opener kids is trading in a rich culinary heritage for sandwiches and snack food.
Among my favorite old tomes is the collected letters of Madame de Sevigny, the 17th century grande dame who went through goose quills and gigapots of ink at a furious pace.
La Sevigny was at Vatel’s last party. His body was still warm, she reported, when purveyors rushed in with the delayed seafood after a nightlong ride from the coast.
She details the menu of a Christmas dinner for 10 she put together at the Hotel Carnavalet in Paris.
Starters included soups and courts-bouillons, sliced smoked meats and sausages, pork tongues, warm pates and plates of fried this-and-that.
After roasted partridge and pheasant came amusing little larks, thrushes and ortolans. These last are delicate buntings, now nearly extinct. Diners put napkins over their heads to mask the crunching and spitting.
(As Francois Mitterrand neared death in 1996, his last meal with friends featured endangered ortolans; indulgent gendarmes standing guard looked the other way.)
Salmon, trout and carp appeared in elaborate forms along with fresh-water shrimps nestled among crabs in their shells. The desserts go on for pages more.
Most likely, Madame Sevigny did not ask if anyone wanted fries with that.