The French are undergoing a cultural collapse

The words are simply refusing to come together in a sentence. So I’ll have to write them one by one.

This is dill, mes amis. Good with fish.

Young. French. People. Know. Nothing. About. Food. Any. Longer. I’m sure you can string these words together. But can you understand their full implication?

It’s as if Italians stopped pinching women’s bottoms on public transport. Or Russians, drinking toxic amounts of vodka. Or Britons, chanting “If it wasn’t for England, you’d all be Krauts” at football matches. Or Americans, confusing Austria with Australia, Sweden with Switzerland and not giving a damn. Or the Dutch, producing and consuming mountains of mediocre cheese.

If such calamities occurred, all those people would still be there in body. But their soul would be gone, their idiosyncratic character no longer recognisable.

That’s why I’m worried about the French. For gastronomy is a part of their national character that’s both essential and immutable. Or so I thought.

Then, over the past few years I’ve had many opportunities to observe young French people, and not just uneducated ones, struggling to identify some basic food items.

We have (or rather had before the lockdown season) a small Sunday market across the street from us in London. Many of the tradesmen and half the customers were French, the latter mostly working in finance.

One would expect those young professionals on the rise to continue the fine traditions of French gourmandising. Yet every now and then they displayed woeful ignorance.

Once, for example, I observed a well-dressed couple thoroughly befuddled by the sight of parsnips and swedes. They were looking at that exotica the way Man Friday looked at the salt shaker in Robinson’s hands.

The novelty struck them to the core. They asked each other if they had ever seen such amazing things, and neither of them had. What are they called? Not a clue.

Being by nature an obliging sort, I helpfully provided the French words for parsnip (panais) and swede (rutabaga). They looked at me not so much with gratitude as with awe, the way Venetians must have looked at Marco Polo who, on his return home from his voyage, told his friends that those odd Chinese cut dough into long strips and then boil them. “Delizioso, amici!

If reasonably educated Frenchmen can have such lacunae in their culinary knowledge, what kind of expectations can one have of youngsters working in French supermarkets? Pretty low, I dare say, and they live down to them.

People working at checkouts routinely fail to identify simple foods, especially vegetables and herbs. Hence they don’t know how to run them through and have to call for help. The help arrives after some five minutes, in the shape of their older manager who looks as if she thinks the holdup is our fault.

This morning, for example, a young man, probably a student doing a summer job, didn’t know what dill was. My supplying the word missing from his lexicon, aneth, didn’t ring a bell, and neither could he locate that mind-boggling item on his computer.

Penelope had to run back to the vegetable section and look up the item code, which took some time, much to the displeasure of the people behind us in the queue. She then told me not to use such language in public, even in English.

A trivial matter, you would think, and so it is. Or rather would be if it weren’t indicative of a general decline in taste.

I’ve been shopping in rural French supermarkets for some twenty years now, never missing an opportunity to peek into other shoppers’ trolleys. And let me tell you, their contents have changed even during this relatively short time.

If a generation ago most trolleys contained fresh vegetables, good bread, fruit and the ingredients for the ubiquitous local staple, boeuf bourguignon, nowadays they squeak under the weight of frozen pizzas, ready-made meals and revolting fizzy drinks.

It’s 20 years ago I’m talking about, not 450 or so, which was when Catherine de’ Medici married the French king Charles IX and brought some Italian chefs over in her trousseau. The Italians then taught the French that there was infinitely more to cooking than just roasting a whole wild boar on a spit.

Credit where it’s due, the French turned out to be able pupils, who have since created a great cuisine of their own. So great, in fact, that it has gone into much of what adds up to their national character.

One wonders, if they are busily abandoning that part, what other parts are also falling by the wayside. Quite a few, I’d suggest.

Inexplicably, French youngsters of the lower classes are beginning to mimic the behavioural patterns of their British counterparts. As in all such cases, the worst aspects find it easier to cross national borders.

For example, on weekends young Frenchmen often present at hospitals in a lager-induced coma – they seem to think that drinking 20 pints of beer is as cool as listening to rap and punk, which they assume all rosbifs do. Then there are tattoos and facial metal, practically unseen in France twenty years ago.

At that time there was not a single tattoo parlour in our regional centre, Auxerre. Now there are half a dozen, and one sees their customers roaming the glorious medieval streets and making me look away in revulsion.

These are small details, but they are the kind in which the devil lives. I could easily extrapolate from there into the general collapse of Western, not just French, civilisation. But that would be superfluous – you don’t need me to observe our universal relapse into barbarism.

Alas, it’s also observable in weightier areas than just fruit and veg.

5 thoughts on “The French are undergoing a cultural collapse”

  1. As usual, you hit a nail on its head, Mr Boot, congratulations!

    But some analysis and understanding is not far or hard to seek and the situation you recognise is, I suspect, a constant of Life. We learn some things through organised activity in school. But we learn what is probably more generally useful and also more important through experience, which we accumulate with age. Different populations at different times learn different things by both routes. Hence it is natural, and not unexpected, that today’s French youth (especially if brought up in London) are differently equipped when compared with a cosmopolitan Russian of a certain age who has also mastered English culture. Whether they are truly ignorant by contemporary French (or any other) standards is possible, but uncertain. I would give them the benefit of the doubt unless and until stronger evidence is presented.

  2. “frozen pizzas, ready-made meals and revolting fizzy drinks”
    Guilty as charged. But in my defence I am an Englishman born in the 90’s.

    1. You have mitigating circumstances. The English have never been defined by, nor paid as much attention to, their food as the French. Still, this collective coprophilia is odd. One can only hope that you’ll see the culinary light. After all, most real (everyday) meals can be cooked in 15 minutes.

  3. From the sermon on Ascension Thursday (*not* Sunday) Mass (Father was explaining how we can more appreciate spiritual goods):

    “When we look at food, people may like candy, hot Cheetos, soda, and fast food. Because of the various ingredients like sugar or fat or various other preservatives and chemicals, the flavors are obvious, cheap, oppressive, and even obscene. If people habitually eat this type of food they become desensitized from being able to appreciate more subtle foods, say like sushi. To them, sushi would be boring at best, or else just gross. The same goes for pop music. Its extremely hyperemotional nature prevents one from appreciating subtler forms of music like classical or chant.”

    All part of the modernist agenda, I suppose – confound the senses in addition to the intellect. And I have to admit, I’d rather have a burger and a soda than sushi. However, I have heard of and even eaten parsnips, rutabaga, and dill.

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