French Phobia

If you want to know how fortunate we are to be in America in the deli business, just look at Europe. They are attacking McDonald’s in Belgium and France. Not because McDonald’s has done anything particularly wrong but, rather, because – as the British redcoats were once the symbols of an Empire – the Golden Arches and a Coca-Cola bottle today are symbols of a cultural empire.

To an American, the whole idea of boycotting McDonald’s is inane. All that McDonald’s is doing is offering to sell hamburgers, and if people want to buy them – well, what is wrong with that? So, U.S. food company executives come face-to-face with a way of thinking so alien that it is almost incomprehensible – a mode of thinking that says that what people choose in the capitalist marketplace, what people want most, is not that important.

Patrice Vidieu, the secretary-general of Peasant Confederation, a self-proclaimed “farmers movement”, states it clearly: “Culinary sovereignty is imperative. What we reject is the idea that the power of the marketplace becomes the dominant force in all societies, and multinationals like McDonald’s or Monsanto come to impose upon the food we eat and the seeds we plant.”

This all sounds very stirring, a kind of call to arms against impersonal and foreign forces. But the thinking is really quite muddled. To call for culinary sovereignty is a wail – a lament for a kind of society being lost. But it is not clear what this could possibly mean. Hamburgers and French Fries are not American inventions, just as the tomato is not a plant native to Italy. Food, of course, cannot be sovereign. Only people can be sovereign, and people have this annoying pattern (annoying if you are tyrant, that is) of wanting to change and adopt new and better ways.

When Mr. Vidieu wants to reject the “power of the marketplace” as the arbiter of what foods are to be eaten and what is to be sold, the logical question is what or who does he propose should be the arbiter? After all, the 750 McDonald’s restaurants in France are generally servicing French patrons, not American tourists.

Besides, Mr. Vidieu is urging a kind of tyranny – perhaps a tyranny of petty cultural dictators like himself or perhaps a tyranny of the majority. But the undeniable fact is that tens of millions of Frenchmen want the option to eat as they choose, and Mr. Vidieu, inevitably, would take that away from them.

And he knows it because even in his statements, he imposes a kind of sleight of hand. On the one hand, he recognizes that the problem for his point of view is “the power of the marketplace” – in other words, in a free market, people choose not to eat as he would prefer. But recognizing this as a weak political platform, he attacks multinationals for imposing certain foods upon people. But both of these ideas cannot be true.

If the problem is unbridled capitalism, then the dilemma for Mr. Vidieu is that people choose options he wishes they would not. If multinationals are “imposing” anything, then the problem is an absence of a free marketplace, not a consequence of it.

Mr. Vidieu is correct that traditional ways of eating are collapsing around the world and that the new model is an American-based one. What he fails to understand, though, is why that is.

No matter how despondent one may feel about the decline of the French café and the rise of fast food, boycotting the fast food places does not eliminate the causes of such a rise. The triumph of American cuisine around the world occurs because American cuisine is so open. There is probably more Italian food eaten in the U.S. than in Italy. From sushi bars to the new fusion latin cuisine, the unique characteristics of American culinary imperialism – as Mr. Vidieu would put it – is that American culture is open to so many influences. So we can take the world’s best and combine it to make it even better.

The supermarket deli is really the pinnacle of this. The influence of every culture plays its way out over the supermarket deli counter, whether it is dedicated ethnic areas – Mexican Food Bars or Wok stations – or just meats and cheeses from every corner of the globe. Even modest supermarket deli operations work on the assumption that the world should be available to consumers.

So when the mayor of a town that produces Roquefort puts a 100% tax on Coca-Cola sold in town, saying that “Here we cannot make plastic cheeses…Roquefort is unique, a symbol of our battle against the globalization of taste,” we know he is not telling the truth.

He really would like the world to yearn for Roquefort and for Roquefort to be the global taste. He might start by effectively utilizing some display space at America’s deli counter, lest his cheese-producing township be accused of producing mostly sour grapes.