Even a quick look at recent headlines speaks volumes about how important food is in a country where cheese vendors wear white lab coats, and where the laws and government standards concerning wine and livestock are as intricate and exhaustive as Michael Jackson's plastic surgery: There was the February suicide of celebrity chef Bernard Loiseau, the chef-owner of a successful restaurant in Burgundy, who shot himself in the head right after the French restaurant guide GaultMillau docked two points off his restaurant's ratings total.
And in late January, a group of French chefs, pastry makers, intellectuals, and religious personalities formed an earnest lobbying group and petitioned Pope John Paul II in the hopes of removing gourmandise--gluttony--from the Seven Deadly Sins, so that eating rich foods (and eating them often) would no longer result in being a bad Catholic. Clearly, when it comes to food, the French have their priorities straight.
In the world of politics and foreign diplomacy, however, French priorities have come under severe criticism here in our land of Big Gulps and buffets. Before the first cruise missiles were even fired in Iraq last month, it seemed that for some Americans, France (and more specifically Jacques Chirac, France's president) had somehow become the United States' secondary enemy.
When it was announced in early March that congressional cafeterias would be serving "freedom" fries instead of French fries, I quickly dismissed the knee-jerk decree of Representative Bob Ney (R-Ohio) as political schtick--just a gimmicky response to France's opposition to U.S. military action in Iraq. Sure, the media would be all over it, and maybe a few more heartland diners would serve "freedom" toast for breakfast, but there was no way that a national anti-French campaign would go beyond semantics or an amusing Simpsons episode--not in this diversity-happy day and age.
But quickly following the freedom-fries media blitz, Representative Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Florida) introduced her American Heroes Repatriation Act of 2003, which would authorize families of American WWII servicemen to unearth their relatives' remains from U.S.-operated cemeteries in Normandy and have them shipped back to the States for reburial. In mid-March, French golfer Thomas Levet was actually provided with a security detail for the Honda Classic tournament in Palm Beach, Florida, thanks to hecklers, and threats from patriotic golf fans. Fromages.com, a successful French company that relies on the U.S. for over 80 percent of its online cheese sales, received hostile e-mails from U.S. customers, and business dropped significantly. The Star Spangled Ice Cream Company debuted flavors like "I Hate the French Vanilla" and "Iraqi Road." Even New Orleans--the heart of Creole culture--wanted to distance itself from Mother France: the city's Citizens for Direct Action lobbied for cancellation of official ties with sister cities in France and Belgium. While there are no solid statistics yet, newspapers all over the country were reporting about anti-French sentiment and French boycotts.
Despite being the center of all things cosmopolitan and blasé, New York City was also affected: Manhattan's French-owned Sofitel hotel removed its French flag to avoid "offending" guests, and popular Central Park restaurant Tavern on the Green (which relies heavily on American tourist dollars) "de-Frenchized" its entire spring menu (only to change it back a few weeks later... but still). Superstar chef Eric Ripert, of Manhattan's posh Le Bernadin, appealed to diners: "90 percent of our employees are not French, and we buy American products."
The New York Post gleefully reported plummeting sales of French wines and cheeses throughout New York City, and the daily blatantly fueled the French-hating movement with headlines like "War on Weasel Wares" (clip 'n' save guides advising New Yorkers on which American wines, cheeses, and clothing labels to buy instead of French imports) and "Grapes of Wrath: Give Up French Whine" ("The Post supports the grass-roots movement sweeping the nation... as America stands up to a nation of pompous, beret-wearing Weasels"). Last week, a group of New York City tourism officials and French restaurateurs unveiled a full-page newspaper ad they hope will restore business at the city's French restaurants ("We are all New Yorkers, and any boycott only hurts ourselves and our neighbors").
Even here in lefty, sensible Seattle, we haven't been completely immune to this retro-patriotism. Le Savoir-Faire, a French wine shop in Lake City, was vandalized several times in March, and owner Samy C. G. Beau-Marquet received angry phone calls. The Seattle Times reported anti-French comments and suffering sales at local French businesses like Yves Delorme and Bellevue's Mais Oui! furniture store.
The United States has been down this road before. During WWI, symbolic gestures and racial slurs were flung at the Germans: Beethoven's music was banned from concert halls, hamburgers were renamed "liberty" steaks, sauerkraut was called "liberty" cabbage. Now, all the recent French backlash and retro-patriotism feels surprisingly strong and quite surreal. If boycotts and negative campaigning can happen so easily because Jacques Chirac disagrees with George W. Bush, then what does this say about more severe conflicts the U.S. might have with other foreign countries in the future? What's going to happen the next time the America declares an "enemy nation"--and how will chest-thumping, flag-saluting retro-patriots treat U.S. immigrants and businesses from that country?
I'll leave the political punditry and current-events reporting to my colleagues at this paper. I just want to surround myself with duck fat and fresh brioche and piping-hot pommes frites. I just want to geek out about poulet Bresse and Parisian bistros, and perhaps learn a new sauce from Escoffier. I want to argue about crème brûlée. (I'd also like to know why French women can eat so much sugar and butter and stay so damn thin.) I want to have a cassoulet contest. I don't care if this makes me unpatriotic. All I want to do is eat.