Connect to share and comment

A Big Mona with fries?

Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin and, yes, Julia Child would turn over in their graves at the state of French food.

An employee at a McDonald's in central Strasbourg serves lunch to customers Sept. 17, 2009, the 30th anniversary of this McDonald's opening, France's first. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

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.