Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Food Chauvinism

Fascism of food
N.D. Batra
From The Statesman

The French were crestfallen after Paris lost to London in the 2012 Summer Olympics bid and more so because a day earlier French President Jacques Chirac had said about Britain that it’s difficult to trust people who eat such “bad food” and whose only contribution to European agricultural was mad cow disease.

The unsavoury remarks from someone whom the British media called “a man full of bile” might have affected the Olympics committee in its final choice. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the French do feel immensely proud of their food and wines, which are among the best in the world. About food one cannot be politically correct for too long. Britain is not known for great cuisine. Nor is the United States of America, except for its abundance.

A few years ago, I met Second Lieutenant Jerome Bibeyran, a handsome young man from Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, who was visiting Norwich University under an exchange program. I never fully appreciated what the Scottish poet Robert Burns said, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us/To see oursel’s as others see us!” I was to work with SLT. Bibeyran on his thesis on “crisis communication” with special reference to how Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, was dealing with the furore over genetically modified (GM) food. I had written an occasional column about GM food, butterflies and Prince Charles, but never understood the depth of hostility against the technology, especially in Europe.

In the course of time, I began to wonder how the French look at the American society. With SLT. Bibeyran’s consent, I decided to assume the dual role of a mentor and journalist, as we went along probing the topic of crisis communication. SLT. Bibeyran had come up with very probing questions regarding how Monsanto seemed to be handling the public relations crisis.

The preliminary research he had done gave him some idea about the nature of the communication problem. Monsanto had concentrated on the American farmer and did a very good job but ignored the consumer, especially in Europe where many people began to associate the British mad cow disease with GM, calling it Frankenstein food.

The growth and distribution of GM food is heavily regulated in France. Labeling is a requirement, something to which American GM food companies are totally opposed. There are no doubt big agri-businesses in France too and only one per cent of the working population is engaged in farming, but it is possible to have farm fresh produce.

Jerome talked about the weekend farmers market in his hometown Bordeaux, southwest France, where people buy fresh produce as they do in Vermont in the summer, or in India throughout the year. I asked him what the French thought about American food. In December 1999, he said, a lone French farmer demonstrated in front of McDonald’s protesting that he was fed up with American “mal-bouffe,” but the media gave the one-man protest so much publicity that overnight he became a national protest symbol. Nevertheless, he hastened to add, young people, especially in the 13-18 age group, do like to eat American fast food especially when they go to the movies.

I drew his attention to a New York Times article on GM food. It quoted Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist member of the French Parliament committee on environmental safety, who said, “The general sense here is that Americans eat garbage food, that they’re fat and they don’t know how to eat properly.” Jerome hesitated for a moment and then replied with utmost frankness: “Yes, American food is full of fat. Vegetables are not properly cooked. They taste like plastic. Everything has the same flavour.” I was not expecting this reaction but liked his honesty.

The French palate may be difficult to please, but many Indians visiting home have expressed similar prejudice: food tastes better in India, they say. In my younger days when I taught at St. Xavier’s College (Ahmedabad), we had a group of five exchange students from Harvard University. I gave some of them a crash course in Hindi and one night at a dinner I asked the group what they thought of Indian food. One of them said, “Spicy food has killed your taste buds. You don’t know what the real food tastes like.” I almost choked on the morsel. American vegetables taste like plastic and Indians’ taste buds are dead! Food generates such strong feelings in people!

But to get back to Jerome. What do the French in general think about the USA, I asked, trying to get out of the soup. Everybody in France has an American dream, he said. People envied him when they came to know that he was going to visit the USA. The French, he said, are fascinated with American technology, with America in general because everything is bigger here.

But soon the critic surfaced again and SLT Bibeyran let me have it straight: “Americans are the biggest wastrels in the world. The have lost a real sense of life. They don’t enjoy simple things, which are close to nature. They are messing up food, from the farm to the dinner plate.” President Chirac might have been too provocative in his remarks about Brits and their cuisine but he is certainly not alone how the French feel about others’ taste buds.

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