In my outline yesterday of the malady of Gopnikism in American writing on France, I omitted to mention what must be the all-time champion of the genre, indeed a strong contender for the title of most frivolous article in the history of journalism. I am speaking of Elaine Sciolino's 'Letter from Paris' in the New York Times of September 21, 2013, "Trendy Green Mystifies France. It's a Job for the Kale Crusader!" The article describes that chapter of the life of American Kristen Beddard after she has quit her job "as an Ogilvy & Mather account manager in New York to follow her husband to Paris." One night, out in a Paris restaurant with her husband-leader, an angel descended unto her, and caused her to say: "What if I try to bring kale to Paris?"
This is the 'spunky', rule-breaking offshoot of the august tradition of American fawning over French cuisine. I have never understood any of this (I'm with Foucault: "a good club sandwich with a Coke" is just fine for me), and so I'm hardly positioned to be bouleversé by the report of this American ingenue's failure to curtsey at the court of indigenous crudities. I couldn't care less what the French think of kale. I couldn't care less if Beddard fails in her life's mission. What interests me most here is what Sciolino's article reveals about the conventions for American writing on France. The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France --like America, in its own way-- is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.
France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life' and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff. The longer I'm here, in fact, and the more rhetoric I hear about terroir, the more I'm convinced that preoccupation with this intangible spiritual value directly tracks the cycles of far-right politics in France. This would put people like José Bové closer to Marine Le Pen than most are prepared to see, but, well, the world is a complicated place. I feel like saying to both of these characters, and to Fisher and Gopnik too: we internationalists, we eat while we walk.
In this scheme, Beddard is another Carrie Bradshaw, who gets icy scowls when she enters the Chanel store, but never for a moment doubts that Chanel sets the standards of vestimentation, and anyway she can always stumble back out into the succorous American arms of Mr. Big. In food as in fashion, it is only in front of their countrymen that the Americans' sampling of French authenticity ever had any meaning anyway. But even so it helps to maintain and legitimate the rigid system of cultural chauvinism within France, to ensure that any aspect of culture filtering in from the former colonies will continue to be seen as peculiar, as acceptable for cautious sampling by adults, but never as simply an expression of human culture alongside other such expressions, including those that first evolved in this portion of the western part of the western peninsula of Eurasia.
This sort of sampling, I think, was the logic behind the supposed racial harmony of Paris at the height of the jazz age. Yes, Josephine Baker (a.k.a. Joséphine Baker) was accepted here, and there were no laws requiring her to use the service entrance of the clubs she performed in. But her acceptance was largely conditional on her willingness to wear a banana skirt and to embody the unhinged spirit of the age. Staid and non-famous African-Americans would not have had nearly as warm a reception. In the same era, French intellectuals and artists were fetishizing West African masks and costumes, not in the name of cultural equity (in Alan Lomax's sense), but as inspiration for the imagined rediscovery, within limits, of the irrational in European civilization. They were engaged, in short, in a variety of slumming.
With the recent recrudescence of vicious nativism throughout Europe, it is getting harder to achieve even this level of multicultural hybridity. Not long ago in Italy, there was a town that passed an ordinance, filled with slow-food-style rhetoric, outlawing, no, not McDonalds, but... döner kebap, falafel, and like threats to cultural integrity. The celebrants of terroir and locavorism are of course not themselves fascists, but this does not mean there cannot be an easy elision between some of the legitimate concerns of these good solid 'liberals', on the one hand, and people with concerns about völkisch authenticity on the other. When such things happen in Germany, the world is ready to recognize them for what they really are (the German for terroir is Boden, a term not many people would invoke these days to praise what is good in German culture). When they happen in France or Italy, the priming we have received from M.F.K. Fisher and Adam Gopnik enables us to write it off as a righteous defense of the good life. Which is to say the life Americans would like to sample on their apolitical European vacations.