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About a decade ago, in France on the Brink, the British reporter and francophile Jonathan Fenby examined the decline of France through several lenses: her drifting cuisine, scandal-prone politics, stumbling economy, subsidy-dependent agriculture and welfare giveaways. Comes now Slate magazine’s Michael Steinberger with only one lens—France’s declining cuisine—to explore a wider catastrophe: “the end of France.”
And he does a wonderful, absorbing job of it, too, with Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. Many worthy writers seeking a James Beard Award or some other gonfalon this year may now wish they’d published last year or held off until next, because Steinberger has put a lot of them out of the running. Moreover, he’s done it with the sort of book that is rarely well done: the Foodie Tour.
Such books—”Munching Through Italy” or “Feeding in France” or whatever—are usually not much (and often less) in the writing department: Deprived of “succulent,” most begin to labor. Not this one. Steinberger writes and writes well–briskly, sharply and slyly. He’s a pleasure to read because, I suspect, he’s not crippled by a narrow specialty. He may be Slate‘s wine columnist, but he has covered economics, finance, sports and more elsewhere. Another flaw of Foodie Tour books is that their authors too often merely gush. Not Steinberger. He loves France and her cuisine and culture right enough, but he’s pretty damned mad because, he says, they’re going to hell in a market basket.
Restaurant standards are falling? OK, Steinberger hears out chefs who whine that no one wants to work any more, but notes that restaurateurs generally ignore the Muslim population as a ready source of job-jungry manpower. He gives an excellent inside look at the tyrant Michelin and shows that the threat to “artisanal” raw-milk cheese isn’t so much mighty corporations as nanny-state laws and insurance liabilities. He’s patient as winemakers weep soulfully (“without wine, it would be a desert,” says one), but exposes their failure to sell their product (even to Frenchmen!) and their thirst for European Union subsidies, which is at some times pathetic (all Europe pays for French wine it doesn’t get to drink) and at others fanatical (enter CRAV in Google—and stand back).
He travels and dines all over with Alain Ducasse and many other chefs; notes the rise of Japanese chefs in France and French cuisine in Japan; finds restaurateurs daring enough to hire foreign chefs; wants desperately not to believe in the downward spiral but is honest enough to admit that French culinary culture is fossilized. He makes the lover’s inevitable error of revisiting a restaurant loved long ago (and is utterly, brutally crushed: “the parking lot hadn’t changed a bit…. sadly, that was the high point of the visit”). My favorite part is the chapter on the success of McDonald’s. (Among “best places to work in France,” what the French call “McDo” is in the Top Ten. Who knew?) This chapter will reduce doctrinaire foodies to foaming tantrums because it is fair—infuriatingly fair.
Steinberger manages to do all this, and more, entertainingly and informatively, in a mere 225 pages. He has cleaned his plate, if you will, without wasting words. A rare virtue, that, and it left me hungry for more.
Note: Wine-scribbling is a small world, so I wish to note that I have seen Michael Steinberger exactly once, and only after writing this review. (We were both guests at a wine dinner, seated at opposite ends of a 20-person table. I didn’t know who he was until someone introduced us as I was leaving.)
Bill Marsano is an award-winning travel writer and a James Beard Award winner for writing on wines and spirits.