What's Wrong With France: Au Revoir to All That by Michael Steinberger [book review]
I like France. Granted, I haven’t been there since I hit puberty, but I have fond memories of munching on crunchy frittures, sipping on citron pressés, taking tastes of my parents’ kir royales. Sometimes, when city life is weighing heavy on me and greasy Chinese takeout is wearing thin, I fantasize about going back. So it was with a skeptical eye that I began to read Au Revoir to All that: Food, Wine and the End of France (buy on Amazon), by Michael Steinberger.
Steinberger used to like France. He remembers amazing meals and describes them in ways that belie his economics-writing background. He writes about the dinner where he "swapped [his] wife for a duck liver" — an entire lobe used in an evolved version of baeckeofe, an Alsatian stew, which was "bathed in a truffled bouillon." But this sort of pure food erotica — what a good portion of a book about French food should be, one would think — does not last. Sternberger experiences the unthinkable: A bland meal at a famed former two-Michelin star restaurant, recently demoted down to one. Cue the foreboding music: it turns out this is not an anomaly, it's happening all over the place. So what happened to the Eden of edibles, the promised land of potables? Steinberger vows to investigate.
A brief overview of everything wrong with France
Steinberger makes his case via largely unrelated chapters, generally arranged chronologically, but not always. Each chapter could stand alone as its own lesson in France’s downfall, a self-contained attack on something Steinberger sees as a threat. In just 225 pages, he takes aim at the history of French cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, Spanish food, the Michelin guide, the fall of French wine, the French government, McDonalds. Each, in its own way, at fault for France’s demise.
While Steinberger does an admirable job with what he has, each of these theories could benefit from some fleshing out. It would take either another 400 pages or a masterful editor of narrative flow to keep this book from feeling disjointed and harried. And then there's the tired old case against the Michelin Guide, which has already been dissected and criticized by virtually every media outlet concerned with the fate of haute cuisine. Steinberger harps on its faults to such an extreme and repetitive degree that I started to pity the poor Guide — picked on by everyone, just trying to keep some standards. It’s a hard life being on top.
So what have we learned?
Spoiler alert, here's how Sternberger feels about everything: McDonalds sucks. Michelin sucks. France’s laws suck. Spain rules. America does an okay job. The Japanese are the future of French food. Besides these opinions (which, while unsurprising, are admittedly well-presented), the big takeaway here is that being a successful journalist has some serious perks — I’d like a chance to spend a few months' rent on dinner at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, too.
At the end of the day, this book really isn’t a page-turner. It’s a great read in fits and starts — something to pick up on occasion, so you can impress your friends with the small bit of trivia you learned about Paul Bocuse. There's a case made, as a whole, but the book works much better as a collection of informational snippets and economically-informed line-drawing. Is France truly at an end? Steinberger tries to make the case for it, but I walked away from this book unsold.