Last weekend Alice Waters was profiled in LeMonde 2 (link in french) the equivalent of the New York Times Magazine. The profile was part of the hubbub around the 40th Anniversary of Chez Panisse.
The profile in Le Monde and the earlier speech at her award of the Legion on Honor in 2010 (this time in english) reflected that not only has Alice Waters been a force of real change and inspiration for many (myself included!), but her own inspiration has been a French culture that the powers that bestow awards obviously think is worth noting and preserving. I really hope that the French are inspired by what she has done in the US and take the lesson to heart - there is something fundamental worth preserving in France, that is not yet lost but, sadly, is getting harder to find.
What is that? The great agricultural heritage that developed french cuisine and a deeply embedded culture of taking time to share meals with others as a way of deepening relationships - of all kinds.
Eating on the run, at least where I live and work, is still fairly rare though I think becoming more common. However, most french people I know would still prefer to eat a hot lunch, at a table with others. "To Go" foods are for certain settings - travel, for instance - but not for day to day. Even McDonalds makes sure there is a lot of seating for people. Social events still circle around the communal table as evidenced by our party for E. We debated, since it was a BBQ for 2 dozen adults plus the kids whether we should have be a more help-your-self style. In the end, I knew that E would prefer a big table and it was a stretch but in my mind totally worth it and really so much better than everyone in little groups with plates on their laps.
Where I am more concerned is our access to food. The massive supermarkets as in other countries are the main outlet for buying food. A tip: If you come to France and see a big red sign for "Casino" it's not a gambling hall but a supermarket. The industrial agriculture spans France but much more comes from Italy and Spain via trucks that gorge the roadways (another gripe, another time). Natural food stores are much more like those found in the US 20 years ago. One good thing - most large markets including Carrefour and Casino buy and package a lot of organic products under their own brand and sell them at a premium alongside the similar non-organic foods.
The local farmer's markets, most of which are retail markets not direct from producer, are very expensive. A real alternative where we live is the Community-Supported Agriculture but this remains a very tiny portion of food purchases. People don't like the inconvenience - one extra trip during the week, a huge load of veggies, the dirt and the preparation. I don't really like the dirt, either, but I like seeing where my vegetables are growing and know the farmer who's taking care of me. It goes without saying the vegetable gardens are nearly non-existent, especially for families with two working adults.
And lastly, restaurants are often subpar except for the very best. There doesn't seem to be this same interest in the quality of the ingredients unless it's really a top restaurant (with prices to match). Every once in a while I will come across one that's transparent about the provenance of their fresh foods and meats but other times I think it mostly comes packaged frozen in truck and reheated.
What should the French learn from Alice Waters? That we should ALL eat and cook fresh. That finding out where our food comes from is worth it. That restaurants can and should care about what they serve. And schools should teach our children about growing and preparing foods and the joy that comes with that. At least we're ahead of the game - it is France, after all.