Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

See original image

We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

paris-tourist-shop3

Good news for Monbiot

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/contributor/2015/7/9/1436429159376/George-Monbiot-L.png?w=331&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=8dd062dda2f381557895b5da26e473e1
George Monbiot

THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.

Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.

According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.

In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.

As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.

In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.

From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”

And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.

Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:

For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century

This is where I step in.

I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon
Apollo person

Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.

Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.

The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”

Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.

Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.

The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.

To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.

This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.

Now to find a publisher …

Gastronomics
Meals matter more than money

Food is bigger than God

250px-Peace_sign.svg[1]Food’s even bigger than Sex, although not quite up with Love. These are in Google hits. Speaking of which, Google is only half Facebook, with Twitter in between.

In billions, I didn’t find anything bigger than Facebook 15.06 with Love at 4.96, Food 3.24, Sex 1.61 and God 1.47.

Restaurant 1.58 is even bigger than God.

Water at 2.78 beats Coffee 1.03 beats Wine 0.76, on top of Beer 0.51 and Coke 0.10.

Menu is almost up with Food, but that might be helped by digital terms generally doing better than both food and religion. App scores 3.06 and Christian 1.22. Jesus remains bigger than the Beatles.

Appearing to be twice as popular as Climate Change, Kardashian beats Coal and also Pope Francis. War trumps Peace. Last on my list is Big Mac

I thank my old friend Paul for drawing my attention to Food beating God.

Facebook 15,060,000,000
Twitter 11,860,000,000
Google 7,030,000,000
Love 4,960,000,000
Food 3,240,000,000
App 3,060,000,000

Menu 3,030,000,000
Water 2,780,000,000
Computer 2,380,000,000JohnLennonpeace[1]

China 2,160,000,000
War 2,000,000,000

Sex 1,610,000,000
Restaurant 1,580,000,000
God 1,470,000,000
Tweet 1,370,000,000
Christian 1,220,000,000
Coffee 1,030,000,000
Wine 764,000,000
Peace 730,000,000

Religion 689,000,000

Jesus 627,000,000
Cooking 563,000,000
Beer 509,000,000
Obama 485,000,000
Meal 337,000,000
Muslim 301,000,000
ISIS 210,000,000
Kardashian 203,000,000
Coal 175,000,000
Tomato 135,000,000

Beatles 113,000,000
Climate change 101,000,000
Coke 101,000,000

Pope Francis 95,800,000
John Lennon 61,100,000
Big Mac 9,030,000

 

Nine surprising food words

You might recognise “mess” as a food word, but what about “symbol” and “focus”? Here are nine too-often forgotten etymologies:

1. Mess has referred to a portion of food, a liquid food, a made dish, and a course of foods, all of which have been “messed” forth – from the Latin mittere (to send).

2. Symbol. The ancient Greeks combined sym– (together) and ballo (throw) for a “throwing together”, not least being a contribution meal, with each “contribution (properly to a feast or picnic), a share, portion” (OED) also called a symbolon. These contributions or “symbols” represent the whole thing.

3. Focus is the Latin for “hearth”, where cooks centre civilisation.

4. Foyer. From the Latin focus (hearth) derives the French and so English word “foyer” for entrance area. The German feuer (fire) is pronounced much the same as foyer.

5. Curfew for a regulation to extinguish fires at a fixed hour derives from the French couvrir (cover), feu (fire).

6. Bit. Related to “bite”. Each gigabyte on your computer takes 8000000000 bits.

7. Salary from the Roman soldiers’ regular payment of salt (sal).

8. Company. The people sharing bread (Latin cum- with panis bread).

9. Economics for “household management” from the ancient Greek oikos (household).

Almost all these examples come from my book about cooks at the heart of the human enterprise, originally The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks (1998) and renamed A History of Cooks and Cooking (2000).

Any further suggestions? I’m collecting a longer list.

What a difference an ‘ makes

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Apostrophes are important, and here is proof.

Australians  call them “greengrocer’s apostrophes”. But first I should explain “greengrocer”. That’s the borrowed British name for a shop selling fruit and vegetables. While the U.S. has fewer such specialised retailers, and they are not usually known under that name, Americans would still know the misplaced punctuation marks, as in:  Apple’s $4.95 kg

Or, as cartoonist Ros Asquith recently stacked the greengrocer’s shelves:

TOMATO’S, POTATO’S, APOSTROPHE’S

Greengrocer’s apostrophes proliferated in Australia from the 1960s because many greengrocers were recent Italian or Greek immigrants, who knew fruit and vegetables much better than they knew the language.

Everyone makes mistakes (I once published “chow” instead of “ciao” – many, many years ago); none of us is all-knowing; and grammar is inconsistent, but I count myself on the side of Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

Someone knows an apostrophe is required … but where, oh where? … Mens coat’s.

As to spelling, a restaurateur has no “n” (the French endings are -ant and -ateur). A licence to sell alcoholic drinks in Britain will be a license in the United States, and lost, in Australia, somewhere between.

Spelling and grammar choices are important for two basic reasons: firstly, meaning. This is a textbook example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Secondly, and only slightly more subtly,  the choice is a sign, revealing something about the writer. In the case of greengrocers, apostrophes might suggest they really know their fruit and vegetables, just as, in certain circumstances, a semi-literate menu might be encouraging.

On the other hand, if a smart establishment cannot care about their grammar, then will they care about their customers?

At the top, I promised proof of the importance of apostrophes. An American celebrity chef called Michael Symon didn’t write Michael Symons’ A History of Cooks and Cooking, but an Amazon reviewer was apostrophe inattentive. In this case, the purchase worked out. “This is a very good book“, she advises.

English menus, when in France

A contact here in Sydney recently revealed that her aunt had booked them into the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Running 24 restaurants in eight countries, Alain Ducasse Entreprise presumably ensures a decent experience, on top of the view. But I was disconcerted that the aunt had apparently over-ridden my Paris suggestions, because “this should be less touristy”.

Just checking, Tripadvisor had attracted 2504 reviews for the Jules Verne (1380 or 55% “excellent” ratings), against 423 (289 or 68% excellent) for the most touristy of my recommendations.

The lesson here is that even the most touristy among us would rather dream that we weren’t.

Which brings me to complaining about being handed English menus in France. If only those establishments realised how insulting that was. Sure, some tourists complain they couldn’t order until the waiter translated. But many of us prefer the “real” menu.

The thrusting of English menus so offended me recently at a bistro in the Marais that I tried to persuade my companion to leave. If you must know, it was the Café Charlot (236 Tripadvisor reviews, with opinion spread from 48 or 20% excellent to 33 terrible).

It is not just that the waiter showed off that he immediately recognised us as foreigners. More to the point, it declared the place’s pretensions to being a tourist trap. The Café Charlot wanted to give no impression of authenticity. We stayed, and the lunch was otherwise unmemorable.

It put me in mind of our evening at the l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, aka the Bocuse restaurant, outside Lyon (936 reviews, 615 or 66% excellent). I can’t imagine it keeping its three stars without Paul Bocuse. I mean, fancy taking a star from among the greatest twentieth-century French chefs, well on the way towards his 90th birthday! His picture adorned the walls, and he was there in person, shaking hands and posing for photographs. In fact, he posed at every table, so a photo was hard to avoid.

IMG_0317 (2)Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time. The food might have been variable, but the heights were high. I imagine that the quenelle was definitive, also the Loup en croûte feuilletée (à partir de 2 persons). If you insist, “Sea bass stuffed in puff pastry shell, Choron sauce (two or more persons)”. The cheese board was top-level. And the ambiance was of a joyously elegant funfair.

That was after being automatically handed menus in English. Don’t they know that food tastes so much better in French! More to the point, the French name is often more recognisable for those with even a moderate appreciation of the cuisine. For example, which is the more understandable – “pâté” or “rich paste of mashed and spiced meat”? On top of that, English menus in France are often dismayingly translated.

We sat there stonily until they brought replacements, and I like to kid myself that the maitre d’ appreciated us all the more for it. The menu came with only a short wine selection, so we also asked for the full list. Here, the gains were measurable. A young sommelier helped us drink really well for less.

More considerate places offer a choice, announcing, “Here is the menu, or would you prefer one in English” (even if spoken in English).  Somewhere off the beaten track is likely to say, “We have an English menu somewhere.”

Also, there’s a simple improvement on separate menus – a single version with English translations in small print underneath. From the online menu, that’s the answer at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel tower.