Cafe Society

Cheese Whiz

You know one thing that bugs me about the French? Their cigarettes. Gitanes, in particular. Their boxes are too big; they burn funny; and they taste like a pile of burning hair. But the Frogs love 'em and are absolutely convinced that Gitanes are the best smokes on earth.

Know what else? Their cars. The Renault was quite possibly the worst automobile ever built -- an awful conglomeration of spare parts, factory rejects, spit and toothpicks, incapable of speeds in excess of 38 miles per hour or of traveling more than a hundred miles without some vital part (say, a wheel or the entire transmission) falling off or seizing up to the accompaniment of dramatic showers of sparks and thick, black smoke. When I was very young, my folks owned a Renault. It was our family car -- the one my dad got in exchange for the muscle cars of his youth when he became a father. He was a mechanic, a former amateur race-car driver, the kind of guy who could fix anything from a toaster to a television to a faulty nuclear reactor if given the right tools and a couple Genny Cream Ales. Further, he lived his entire life as if hooked up to a constant, low-volume Valium drip -- the calmest, most relaxed person you'd ever want to know, who never did anything quickly, was slow to anger like a bomb with a mile-long fuse, and rarely spoke without giving long consideration to what he was going to say. Like if he wanted an extra Eggo waffle for breakfast, he'd have to start thinking about it 'round dinnertime the night before, and even then he might not make up his mind till lunchtime.

But the Renault drove him nuts with rage. He'd be driving down the road with his young bride beside him, his firstborn son -- me -- in the back seat squalling like a demon and shoving fistfuls of candy corn up my nose, and all of a sudden, something awful would happen to the car, like the windshield falling into their laps or the brakes failing on a downhill run toward a frozen lake. That's when my dad would lose it -- yelling and cursing in the broad, grunting blue-collar patois that I always figured he must practice at work where I couldn't hear him -- until he brought the Renault skidding to the side of the road and attacked it with a fury of tools and bad language he reserved for machines that didn't do what he wanted them to do.

Cigarettes, cars, Jerry Lewis movies, their infuriatingly xenophobic conceit and pat insistence that everything of any cultural value in the vast panoply of human existence had its origins on French soil and generally in the vicinity of Paris -- there are a lot of things about the French that piss me off. But none quite so much as their fervent belief that all cuisine begins and ends with them.

And what gets me even worse is that they're right.

It's not that the French invented everything we eat today. A lot of it, yeah, but not all. What the Gitane-smoking surrender monkeys were best at was making lists, denoting processes and slapping sexy-sounding names (velouté, béchamel, Indochine) on everything they wanted to take credit for. A brown sauce, for example. It's made of meat drippings, some bone stock, maybe a little wine, some flour and butter paste (renamed roux in the Franco-culinary lexicon and demarcated into no fewer than six specific varieties), and it has been used by every meat-eating culture the world has ever known. Brown sauce is not French any more than it's Bulgarian, British or Belgian. But you know what is French? Espagnole -- the brown mother sauce -- as well as sauce bordelaise and demi-glace and glace de viande and all those other variations on the simple brown sauce, sexed up by a language that seems made for culinary descriptives, their ingredients and preparations painstakingly codified into the French canon.

The French didn't invent the brown sauce, but they named it and classified it and thereby claimed provenance over its entire lineage and history. Espagnole is French because the French say it is, and anyone who argues is a boob and a swine and la tête d'un pénis -- which is, again, just a particularly lyrical way to call someone a dickhead.

Still, the French put a lot of work into the classification and co-opting of Continental cuisine, and gussying up all that country grub that was the actual base for their own regional cookery, so fine, let them have their mother sauces. They can keep their entrecôte and côte de boeuf, too, their onglet and poulet and confit de canard. But it's high time we Americans learned a lesson from the Frogs and took something back: pain et fromage.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan