In the most recent LRB, Stephen Shapin reviews Michael Steinberger’s book about the fall of French cuisine. While Steinberger’s frankly bizarre neoliberal, uncontrollable-market afterwords can probably be discarded, the basic premise—that French cuisine is ossified and tedious—is one with which I can definitely concur.
I’ve suggested before that vegetarian food is a national cuisine’s “canary in the cage”, and in France’s case what that canary is telling them is all too clear: the ceilings of their treacle mines are treacherous, and will collapse any day now. A lot of locally lauded French food seems to consist of lots of meat, fish or poultry cooked in a creamy sauce, possibly with mushrooms, and that’s it; vegetarianism is treated with suspicion, incomprehension and often blank contempt; while the same people scarf down a cheese and tomato galette without complaining. If a national cuisine hasn’t cottoned onto a way of eating that’s over 2500 years old, which re-emerged with the Renaissance and for which national societies were set up in the mid-19th century, for heaven’s sake… then it’s probably time to put that national cuisine out to pasture. A more humane option, I hope you’ll agree, than the more satisfying yet morally dubious alternative of shooting an elderly cuisine in the head.
Anyway, here’s another anecdote to add to the massive pile of anecdotes. This one’s specifically about Brittany Ferries’ culinary uselessness. It’s also about how I’m loath to bother complaining directly to them, because the institutionalized nature of their inability to understand vegetarian food means that they probably can’t learn the right lesson from all but the most very carefully written (and carefully read, which almost never happens) customer feedback; the meta-problem of blindness to the actual problem, a variant on the Dunning-Kruger effect, will in practice be effectively insurmountable.
Brittany Ferries run several routes between the south England coast and the north-west French coast. This Anglo-French mixture means that there’s an odd division of labour aboard: entertainment is provided by British staff, while the French staff sort out the food. Given that French films are so good, while French food is so very bad, this particular way round of allocating responsibilities should immediately raise alarm bells. What it means in practice is that the entertainments manager seems hilariously bound up in a kind of flat, hysterical self-loathing that ironically was worth the ferry price itself, while the cafeterias have been turned into a pain in the rear for vegetarians.
Last year when we travelled on one of their ferries, the vegetarian options were atrocious. The salads were all peppered with bits of meat, the self-service cafeteria had a rather grim salad counter which was heavy on the pickled and sauced brassicas—so much so that K. ended up feeling seasick afterwards—and almost all of the non-meaty sandwiches sold out very quickly indeed. This year, on the way out, we managed to blag a rather nice tabouleh, olive and grapey salad. As with much good, meat-free French food, you eventually realise that it’s actually Lebanese, not French.
On the return journey, we spotted the following menu in the cafeteria:
Look! It has vegetarian food! You can tell because it says “Vegetarian dish” by it, with a CAPITAL V. This is in order to distinguish Vegetarian, a separate nationality, from actual French dishes. It’s a bit like the Dreyfus affair but without exile to Devil’s Island: you can’t be Vegetarian and also be French. Vegetarians can’t be assimilated into French society, certainly not while they still practice their twisted brand of legume usury. Also, if you don’t label food with “Vegetarian dish” with a CAPITAL V, then meat-eaters might choose it by mistake and die, because both spinach and ricotta in sufficient quantities are incredibly toxic for people who can only grunt and chew steak.
Still: forget all that, we thought. There’s bound to be some teething troubles as the French grind their way into the Victorian era. And that option sounds good to us: cannelloni pasta and vegetables of your choice, the menu offers; vegetables of your choice means chips. We’d been travelling since something like 7.30am and I for one had had very little sleep the night before, so chips were especially welcome, and spinach and ricotta pasta is never to be sniffed at. Had the French finally, tentatively “got” vegetarian food?
It all began to fall apart when we reached the counter. K. asked for the cannelloni. She was given cannelloni, then asked if she wanted some salad with it; acquiescing in the hope of being asked what vegetables she wanted afterwards, she nodded; the bowl arrived and then K. was summarily ignored and effectively dismissed.
It was then that I had a flash of insight about what was going on. When compiling the menu, and comparing it to what was written on the board, the chef—well, cook, really—hadn’t actually grasped vegetarian food. He or she still considered it a health choice, not a moral choice, and certainly not a subset of normal (and possibly unhealthy) food. I’ve seen this elsewhere: vegetarian portions, despite being lower in calories, are smaller and contain salad, because, well, if you’re a vegetarian you must be trying to watch your weight, right?
When I spotted this, given we both had a vague idea about our legal rights based on the menu we had been offered, I said I wanted cannelloni, but then declined the salad, saying I wanted chips. Now, the conversation that followed took place in my stilted French, and I only have a dim memory of it, but it went something like this:
Me: No salad, thanks. Can I have chips?
Employee: the cannelloni doesn’t come with chips. It comes with salad.
“The menu says ‘all meals are served with vegetables of your choice.’ I want chips.”
“This is the vegetarian option. It comes with salad.”
“Where does it say that on the menu?”
“It’s different. It doesn’t come with chips.”
“The menu doesn’t say it comes with salad. It says I can have any vegetables of my choice.”
“The vegetarian option comes with salad.”
“The menu says I can have chips with any main meal.”
(Giving up, throwing salad bowl down in disgust at this awkward Englishman) “Right. What vegetables do you want?”
And so, finally, I was given my chips. K. raised further hackles at this point by saying very cheerily (again in French) “Oh, I’ll have chips too!” She gave the woman her biggest, broadest, breeziest smile, and in response got a look that probably curdled the ricotta in her cannelloni.
You’d think that, by this point, we had won: we had battled the completely irrational forces of French cuisine and we’d made a minor victory. But as we made our way over to the till, I had another flash of insight. I said to K: “the woman on the till is going to try to charge us extra for the chips.” “You reckon?” she replied.
And so it turned out to be. As she started to ring up the chips separately, we had that conversation again:
Me: “The cooks agreed that the chips were included with the meal.”
Till employee: “No, the vegetarian food is different.”
“The menu says you can have a choice of vegetables with any meal.”
“This is vegetarian. The vegetarian option is different.”
“The menu doesn’t say that. Any meal can have chips included.”
“They shouldn’t have given you chips.”
“That was what was on the menu.”
And in response, she frowned, scowled, narrowed her eyes and asked us to pay: for just two main meals, with chips included in the price. Then, when we had paid, she set off like a rocket, with a look like thunder: she was almost certainly on her way to tell the kitchen staff that, contrary to what the menu says and what common sense should imply, people who buy cannelloni were not to be allowed to have chips too.
Still, we got our pasta, with vegetables of our choice. It took two arguments and a lot of my schoolboy French, but we finally managed to squeeze out of them the basic options they had promised us when we entered the café.
Why was this so hard? Why did they try so very, very strenuously not to give us a fair deal, the deal they promised us in the menu? I don’t think they were particularly bad people: I just think there was a cultural, almost institutional blindness towards the discrimination they were practising. And yes, it’s silly, and it’s minor, and maybe we shouldn’t get angry about it: but why did we have to get angry; why did we have to kick up a fuss? Why couldn’t we just receive what was offered us?
I think this is really very deeply embedded in French food culture. If I were to complain directly to Brittany Ferries, I dare say I would get the same kind of response as I did from the woman on the till: feigned politeness followed by… if not total inaction, then a policy change which would actively disadvantage other vegetarians trying to eat on their vessels. In my letter I would have to rehearse the same arguments with a managerial structure that simply does not understand twenty-first century food, that I had to have twice with their employees. I would have to explain precisely and very carefully exactly what was wrong, and what the problem was not.
Because otherwise all they would probably do would be to change the wording of the menu to match the bizarre policy their cooks had put in place. After all, the fish-fryers know best, don’t they? They’d certainly never give in to a vegetarian who didn’t know that of course while you can have chips with cod in garlic mayonnaise, you couldn’t possibly want chips with pasta. Change the wording of the menu, quick! Come to think of it, a far worse outcome would be that they remove the vegetarian option altogether. I mean, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth, isn’t it: providing food that doesn’t include meat, and then slyly and without any announcement on the actual menu on an enormous cardboard placard that you’re arbitrarily ringfencing that food order with tedious, pointless caveats that just serve to belittle the consumer? Better to have more fucking cod, or beef, surely. You know where you are with beef: you’re in somewhere around the 1920s.
I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t for the fact that vegetarian food is on average cheaper than meat, so by rights we could have had extra vegetables, not fewer. I wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for the fact that pommes frites are vegetarian; France’s most internationally identifiable foodstuffs like chips and garlic butter are vegetarian. I wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for the fact that the menu explicitly said that all main meals could come with vegetables of our choice. I wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for the fact that the Brittany Ferries cooks had decided for no reason make it complicatedly different for vegetarians. And I wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for the fact that the Brittany Ferries employee was so angry at vegetarians getting chips like normal people that she went off to give the cooks a piece of her mind.
That’s a lot of facts to mind, I accept. But, taken together, they add up to one big thesis: that it might be all over for French food. Long live veggie alternatives: like chips, or Lebanese salad.