“Eating is one of the only socially acceptable ways we can share vulnerabilities. We would never get together with strangers and use the bathroom together, but it might have the same affect. No sense putting on airs, we’re just human.”
Donald Miller, author
No question I’m late to the party on this one, but then, it wasn’t as if copies of Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That are just laying around in bookstores in Buenos Aires. Were it not for my eReader, I doubt I’d yet have latched on to it. But, I did get around to it this last week. And I’m afraid I’m going to be the curmudgeon at the party. The book has received glowing reviews from virtually every person who has written one. And, I don’t get it.
It’s not that it’s a badly written book. Steinberger is an engaging writer, and he’s writing about food, one of my favorite topics. I even enjoyed the book. But his premise seems to be one that is touted left and right about French gastronomy, that it is spiraling into the abyss with little if any hope for rescue. He brings up lots of examples to illustrate his viewpoint, some of them repeatedly. But unless I’m missing something, not one of those vignettes proves his point, they’re completely subject to interpretation.
The book is written as a series of what seem to be separate essays. There’s little tying them together other than the over-arching subject matter of French Food and the French Restaurant Business. Each purports to delve into one aspect of this subject matter, with hands thrown up in despair at the state of the union. They just… well, don’t.
Steinberger brings up repeatedly through the book the disappearance of a few virtually unknown artesanal cheeses, and the decline in the number of raw milk cheeses being produced. At no point, however, does it seem to occur to him that this is a worldwide phenomenon in places that produce cheese. Raw milk and obscure cheeses are on the decline in Italy, Spain, Germany, the United States, amongst others.
He notes that there are now more Michelin starred restaurants in other countries in comparison to the numbers of them in France. But he glosses over that until relatively recently, Michelin simply didn’t offer guides to many of those other countries. Likewise he laments the chefs who no longer spend time in the kitchen of a single restaurant but have spread themselves thin with eateries not only across France, but in, dare we say it, other countries. It’s not unique to the French – chefs from all over the world have begun to do the same as they’ve realized that they can actually become rich if they don’t focus on a single restaurant – plus travel is now far easier than in days past – they’ve become businessmen. It’s the way of the industry these days.
He talks about the restaurant that turned him on to French cuisine, oh so many years ago, and uses the fact that decades later it just wasn’t all that, followed by another visit a few years later to find that it had closed, as more evidence…. Really? It couldn’t just be because it was under new ownership, with a different chef, and that it simply didn’t work out, this one restaurant. It was, after all, by his own statement, decades later. How many restaurants, Michelin starred or not, stay in business and maintain their quality levels over that time period?
And the straw that seems to be breaking the backs of the French is that, horror of horrors, people don’t seem to have the same regard for the Michelin guide that they used to. He dives into this topic with gusto in several parts of the book, noting how there have been internal changes at the company, a different vision and direction, politics, and other, well, rubbish. At no point does he note that “back in the day” when Michelin was king of guides, it was also pretty much the only guide. These days there are more guides for travelers and foodies than I’d care to undertake, and that doesn’t even touch on the rise of restaurant reviewing in every daily newspaper out there, in monthly and weekly magazines, Yelpers and Chowhounds and a zillion food blogs. Michelin doesn’t even review the restaurants, they just give a rating and expect that that’s enough. In the modern age of information, it’s not. And Michelin is not France. It’s just a book published there.
So, I reached the end of the book wondering, “what was the point of all that?” Yes, it was enjoyable, yes, there were a few points here and there that were even thought provoking, but overall, did it demonstrate anything with regard to the level of French cuisine? No. At best, it showed that other places now have equivalent or better – that’s not the same thing as a decline. Is the book worth picking up for a read? Meh. I’m not going to recommend against reading it, but if you do, think about the arguments Steinberger’s making and whether or not they make sense in the modern world.