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Monday, May 9, 2011


Chris observes [enviously, he remarks], that he cannot even get the food supplies that I speak of cooking here in Paris. As I wait a few moments for the oven to heat up, before attempting, for the very first time, two cuisses de canard slow cooked to make a confit de canard, I will reply that I am puzzled by the difference between what is available in the open air market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, half a block from my apartment, and what I can find even at a Yuppie up-scale overpriced Whole Foods branch in Chapel Hill. The fish available at the market is so fresh that sometimes, if I want some tuna, the fishmonger [poissonier] will saw a slab off of half a tuna for me, to my direction. There are rabbits and quail and cuisses de canard and all manner of other game and poultry. The vegetables are splendid, the fruit fresh, and the prices, so far as I can tell, not much different from what is available at what passes for a supermarket in Paris.

Clearly, the process bringing food to market is different in Paris than in Chapel Hill, and yet Paris is a very large world-class city, not a rural town.

This subject has come up before on this blog, and I confess I am mystified by it. Does anyone have any wisdom to share on the subject?


W said...

Unfortunately my answer will be rather negative & anti-consumerist/Capitalist!

The whole point of captilism is to make ever more money. If the customer-base isn't growing fast enough, if their demand isn't growing fast enough, if you can't make & deliver the product cheap enough then you must restrict the amount of goods on offer i.e. less products for the same price. This solves complex distribution problems & spoilage issues. All you have to do is advertise that you're offering more choice, regardless of the facts.

The U.S. is the height of consumerism whereas France is rather old-skool, more Socialist, & used to a larger variety of food (maybe due in part to their relatively recent periods of starvation & rationing.)

Chris said...

W is quite correct. There's a number of documentaries on this, along with some good food travel programs that reveal what he says.

The production process of french food versus US is different both in quality and quantity to such a degree that the actual food taste remarkable different. So, let's ignore the fact that I can't get my hands on duck, quail, rabbit, etc, at any nearby store, and let's focus on what I can buy: carrots and cow.

The carrots and cow in the US are going to taste substantially different from those in Paris, due to the soil it's planeted it, the seeds that are used, the pesticides and growth agents used, and the travel conditions from farm to market.

So I'm not only envious of the food you're eating that I can't get my hands on, but the food you're eating that I can get my hands on!


English Jerk said...

France is much smaller than the US, so its domestic supply chains will likely be shorter. (And since it's fairly culturally insular, it probably sources a higher percentage of its produce domestically--though I'm guessing about that.) Also, it's been subjected to agricultural production for a lot longer, so the much smaller divisions of land that are likely to persist will enable more artisanal growing practices, whereas the huge lots in the US are naturally compatible with agribusiness (and everything that comes with it, as others have noted). Long supply chains are always bad for food (and for everything else, for that matter).

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Having lived in the US (and England, Mr. English Jerk) and spent a good deal of time in Paris, I think I have some understanding of how the food market in these countries works. There may be other factors, but certainly the most important one is that the French just appreciate food more than the Anglos (especially the English). Even if you go to a Carrefour (biggest supermarket chain in France, to those who don't know), you'll find, e.g., game, foie gras, cheeses that are banned by the FDA (because not pasteurized), and excellent wines -- a far better selection of "gourmet" foodstuffs than any Whole Foods stocks in the US. In a lot of cases markets don't work anything like the economics textbooks tell you, but in this case I think the explanation is just the textbook story: the French demand good food, so they are supplied it.

As a rule, my English friends don't care about food at all. My American friends care about food being tasty (meaning: sufficient salt, sugar, and free glutamate), but they're happy to eat nothing but beef, chicken, and pork as far as meat is concerned. Only the French (and other Continental European) people I know care about the quality and variety of the raw materials used in food.

The entire last paragraph is within the scope of "as a rule". There are, of course, exceptions.

Contrary to what W suggests, I think France is where you see food capitalism working the way it does in the textbooks. The consumer is sovereign, and picky, and the consumer gets what he or she demands. Neither the US nor France is more "consumerist" or "capitalist" than the other as far as food is concerned; it's just that the market is very different. Americans, my informal surveys tell me, just don't want the kind of food that's available in France. (If you don't believe me, try serving some rabbit to your American neighbor and see how they react.)

The FDA has some role in this. They've banned some of the tastiest continental Euro delicacies (iberico ham, unpasteurized cheeses) and their guidelines for the cooking of meats are all screwed up (everything must be overdone!), but could they have gotten away with it if the Americans really cared about food? I think not.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

P.S. to W's comment that:

"France is rather old-skool, more Socialist, & used to a larger variety of food (maybe due in part to their relatively recent periods of starvation & rationing.)"

Try living in England for a couple of years and you'll see that recent periods of starvation and rationing are not likely to be the explanation. Nor is being "socialist" in any sense of that word.

Daniel said...

For the past year, I've been assembling materials and doing background reading for a class on the ethics, economics, and philosophy of science of food. Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is a good popular (in the sense of non-academic, non-technical) book on the US food system, and Food, Inc. is a documentary that covers much of the same ground.

The ultimate causes are quite hard to tease out -- they seem to be some sort of combination of culture and economics post-WW2. But the proximate cause is quite easy to see, once you know where to look: the stated goals (by the USDA) of the US system are to maximize production and minimize labor costs and the price paid by consumers, subject to some health and safety constraints. (Depending on who you ask, these constraints are either excessive and paranoid or minimal and basically useless.) Fast food restaurant chains also created increased demand for standardized ingredients -- potatoes that could be run through a french fry machine by the billion, for example. In the US, 6-7% of household final consumption goes towards food, while in France it's nearly 14%. (Data here.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, David. I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and very much enjoyed it. The industrialization of food production is a really scary story, with the central role played by corn, for example. What you say about the relative share of GNP spent on food is fascinating. It is almost the inverse of the spending on health care. It strikes me that we in America come out on the short end of the stick both ways!

By the way, the cuisses de canard, while very good, could have been better. I think I need to cook them a longer time [2 or 2 1/2 hrs, at a lower heat -- 150 centigrade instead of 180.] I shall try them again.

W said...

I agree that the French seem to value quality of food over quantity (see U.S.), that they vastly more people involved in the farming industry & yet are way less intensive than the U.S. (the UK being somewhere in between.)

As for “Americans, my informal surveys tell me, just don't want the kind of food that's available in France”, I bet most Americans don’t know what is actually on offer in France! I bet they have a rather garlic-&-frogs legs idea of what French food is, like most countries stereotypical view of France. As well as rabbit & horse there are carb & protein foods the quality of which you’d probably only be offered in up-market deli’s in the bigger cities.

The coffee served in the US is worse than any I’ve found in any country, but you can get it endlessly, quantity over quality (the US & UK serve possibly the worst coffee in the world!)

America & Australia are very similar in that the distributor decides what is on offer to the consumer, not so much the UK & definitely not France. & the US farming industry is probably the most industrialised yet most protected & subsidised in the world. This is particularly evident in that it’s cheaper to buy grain to feed your cattle in the US than to grow your own grain to feed them.

French farmers seem to constantly be striking &, though inconvenient, their actions are tolerated & often supported by the consumers there. To strike on any issue in the US would seem to be almost un-American, & there are no unions of any power left in the UK since the ‘80’s.

I agree that price has driven the production of food, that the US consumer wants more for less, so the food industry obliged by bulking the food out & adding salt & sweetners. Like $2 dollar shops, more for less.

BTW, I’ve lived in all the above countries. :) The UK has had rationing but hasn’t had any starvation issues since the Middle Ages, give or take an Irish Potato Famine or two (which was due to bad agricultural practice.)

formerly a wage slave said...

On a slightly different note, you do not have to be in Paris to have food which tastes better than the fare in the USA. I spent a few years in Slovakia --which people think of as "Eastern" Europe--and the vegetables, fruit, and yogurts had much more taste than does the stuff available in the States. (There too there were varieties of yogurts and milks that don't seem to exist in the USA.) Additionally,I seem to recall that the fruit and vegetables tended to be smaller and less uniform. I've been away for a couple of years, so I hope that things have not declined..

I will never forget my amazement at the American (a recent arrival) who complained about how "strong" the local onions were. (I guess if you are used to tasteless vegetables, yes, you might say that something that actually tasted like something was "strong"...)