"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Oysters, Sushi, and Bed Tea–The Nature of Food Obsessions

There are some foods which you like the first minute you taste them. I remember eating my very first oyster – a fine de claire from the Marennes-Oleron region of France. I  could smell the ocean and taste the ocean.  I was in the ocean, in the spume of salt spray on the shore in brackish estuaries.  I could taste a hint of fresh water, something lightly reedy but clear.  I had never tasted anything like it.  It was a complete taste experience combining complex flavors, texture, and scent.  It was like being by the sea on a winter day when the air is thick with the smell of salt and ocean.

From then on I could only think of oysters.  On stopovers in Paris, I dropped my bags at the airport Sheraton and took the fast train to the Gare du Nord and ate dozens of belons, fines de claires, and selections from Normandy and Brittany at the Brasserie Terminus Nord – a classic Victorian restaurant serving fruits de mer, oysters, filet of sole, and choucroute alsacienne.  On stopovers in London, I ate Scottish rocks and Donegal and Galway Bay from Ireland.  I tasted oysters from every bay and cove in the Puget Sound, opened and ate hundreds of Hog Island specials by the oyster beds of Tamales Bay.  I have eaten oysters from New Brunswick to Bluffton, made visits to the new oyster farms on the Chesapeake, and ate Apalachicola Bay oysters as they came off the boat.  My taste for and interest in oysters has never waned, and with each new variety, I only want more.  

A number of years ago I had to overnight at the Tokyo airport, and rather than go into the city, I stayed in Narita, a small town nearby. There is a large park there with Shinto and Buddhist shrines, and I spent a number of hours wandering through the formal gardens, walking by small ponds and large lakes, and visiting temples and shrines. 

On my way back through town to the bus, I passed a number of small restaurants which had pictures of their menu items in the window. I pointed to a few dishes that looked particularly interesting, and had my first pieces of sushi.  I couldn’t believe the experience.  The salmon and tuna were buttery and delicate.  The fish roe were high flavor, pungent, and salty.  The uni (sea urchin gonad) was cool, creamy, with tastes of forest, leather, and wood.  The cooked eel was strong and a perfect complement to the raw fish.

When I went back to my office at the World Bank in Washington, I would go to one of the first sushi restaurants to be opened on K Street.  It was frequented almost exclusively by Japanese, for in the early 80s few Americans had gotten a taste for sushi.  I became a regular and never had to order.  I sat at the counter and one by one pieces of sushi were put before me.  After five or six, the chef would serve me an intermezzo – an architectural piece of shaved radish and cucumber.  I stopped eating only because I thought I should, not because I had had enough.  Like oysters, there was never enough sushi.

One day at lunch at Makoto in Washington – another classic and traditional Japanese restaurant that catered to a Japanese clientele – and after what must have been dozens of pieces of sushi, the chef suggested that I had had enough. I had gone from sushi gourmet to American glutton.

I have only one other obsession – tea.  In my cupboard I have two or three varieties each of tea from Assam, Ceylon, Bangladesh, Darjeeling, Turkey, and China.  I am not sure how or why I choose my morning tea – served in bone china and silver – but my taste memory is vivid, and I think about each one well before I get up.

I had my first real cup of tea in India.  My mother used to feed me soft-boiled eggs, tea, and toast when I was sick; but the tea was Lipton and tasteless.  Indian tea on the other hand is strong, black, sweet, and mixed with buffalo milk.  When I tasted my first cup of desi country tea on a field trip to Nagpur, I immediately loved its creamy richness.  It was never too sweet for me, nor too strong.  I drank bed tea, morning tea, and evening tea.  I took tea with friends, was served endless cups of tea in government offices, and drank tea at roadside tea stalls out of clay cups.

I have drunk tea every day since that first cup of strong dust tea in Nagpur in 1968.  Although I have collected a wide variety of teas, they are all meant for a strong brew.  Some teas, especially the first flush Darjeeling, should only be steeped for a few minutes and brewed with just a few leaves.  The result is a floral, delicate infusion.  My taste, however, is for the forward, rich, and potent varieties.  I use three heaping teaspoons of loose tea, brewed for 5 minutes for two teacups of tea; a cup of whole milk and cream; and many teaspoons of sugar.  Drinking my morning cuppa is like being back in India, sitting on the verandah of a government dak bungalow or circuit house, listening to cowbells, early birds, and bullock carts.

There are other foods that have surprised me and are included in my repertoire.  After tasting Nile Perch - the succulent, rich, and uniquely flavorful fish from the Congo, Niger and Senegal Rivers, Lake Tanganyika, and the Nile itself – I looked for it on every trip to Africa.  I ordered it in small family restaurants in Chad, the international Lagon I and Lagon II in Dakar, a small Belgian restaurant overlooking Lake Tanganyika and close by the mountains between Burundi and Rwanda. I ate it as the plat principal of a five course civilized lunch on the deck of a restaurant built over the Niger, in Malian couscous prepared by the wife of a colleague in Mopti, and at beach hotels in the Gambia.

I don’t think of Nile Perch that often, especially since I have stopped travelling to Africa.  I was obsessed by it for years, but when place and circumstance changed, my compulsion disappeared.  Looking back on those days, I think that Nile Perch probably wasn’t that good – I certainly have had similar fish since – and it was the dining experience rather than the fish itself that made such an impression.  The Lagon II, for example, is a spectacular open air restaurant on a pier jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean in Dakar. Dining at night under the stars or by moonlight, hearing the waves of the ocean splashing on the pilings underneath the pier, and seeing the lights of the city behind was memorable.  Lunching at the Mande in Bamako in the Sahelien heat, drinking carafes of chilled Algerian rosé, and watching Malian fishermen net-fishing from small pirogues was part of a traditional Sunday noon in West Africa.

Oysters, sushi, and tea, however, are material memories.  Although all three are associated with place – Brittany, Narita, and Nagpur – they are persistent, dominant, and important features of my life. Something would be missing if they were gone, or if my biochemistry went out of whack and they were forbidding fruits.

My daughter, who is as obsessed with oysters as I am, often asks me why I don’t buy them and shuck them myself.  The answer is easy.  I love the anticipation of waiting for them to be served.  I like to watch the muchachos behind the bar at Hog Island Oysters shuck, loosen, and array without losing a drop of liquor.  I want to eat oysters chilled on a bed of ice with lots of lemon, look at each shell as I replace them on the tray.  I want to think about the varieties I will order in my second dozen and my third.

Sushi is no different.  Although sushi grade tuna and salmon are available everywhere, and the trick of making the rice is not hard, I want to watch the chef behind the counter.  The best chefs are artists, hand ballet dances, knife painters.

In a happy coincidence, India is a morning country; and in the very early morning my neighbors in Nizamuddin East in Delhi took their constitutionals in the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb nearby.  The walked briskly, chatted, and joked.  At 4:30 in the morning, they were awake, animated and happy.  The cook served me my bed tea on the barsati overlooking the south wall of the Tomb, and when I finished I walked through a crumbled opening to the gardens and the winding paths through them.

I still get up early – 4:30 is late for me these days – and bed tea is part of my ritual. I drink strong, milky, sweet, Assamese longleaf tea served in a bone china teapot, kept warm by a traditional English cozy, strained by a Victorian silver strainer, and poured in a matching teacup every morning.

I may yet develop another food obsession like oysters, sushi, and bed tea; but I doubt it.  I have spent many years travelling throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Western Europe.  I have eaten just about everything, but there is no one dish that I return to with the same delight and anticipation as oysters or sushi.  I have old standbys – an herbed roast chicken, lamb shanks, gnocchi alla gorgonzola, boiled Gulf Shrimp, tagine, and sautéed calves liver with port – but I prepare them only occasionally.  They are not on my mind, before my eyes, and imagined on a platter before me like oysters or sushi.  Nor do I look forward to them like my simple, sweet, lovely bed tea.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Nicknames–Another Way Of Keeping Women In Their Place

Leonard Abrams was always called Needles. The nickname was perfect. Needles was small with pencil-thin arms and stork legs.  His nose was long, thin, and pointed.  His ears were small and delicate and shaped like the pinion feathers of a bird. When the light caught them right, the natural ridges and cavities resembled the whorls and abstractions of a peacock feather.

I don’t remember when exactly Leonard became Needles.  I remember him always being called by his nickname, but it must have been soon after he came to Pendleton, our country day school. If children had nicknames in grade school, they were given by parents.  In our day names were standard and so were the nicknames – Bobby, Johnny, Billy, Tommy, and Betty. It was only as adolescents did we learn the trick of picking up on others’ weaknesses, naming them, and using the nicknames as taunts.

By the time we got to boarding school, the pace picked up and everyone had a nickname.  Most were as accurate and perfectly matched as Needles.  Zits Perdue, for example, had horrible flaming wheals and furuncles all over his body.  In fact he could have been called far worse, for ‘zit’ was too tame for the awful red corrugation of his back where from hairline to shorts he was covered with suppurating pustules, brownish crusts, and open sores.

Scoop Birkett hunkered down over his food and shoveled it in.  He hooked his left arm around his plate and between shovelfuls of tuna yum-yum, he looked up nervously like a dog over a bone.  We, of course tag-teamed poor Scoop, distracted him from the left, snitched bits of cheese and tuna from the right, and made him hang even lower over his plate and scoop food in bigger globs twice as fast.  It was a vicious cycle which made ‘Scoop’ more and more apt.

We were observant, accurate, and creative. No tic, deformity, annoying habit, dress, gait, or hairstyle escaped us.  Bobbles Bennett had a slight limp, and although he kept the rest of his body straight, plumb, and well-aligned, his head bobbled as he walked. Marsh Hopkins gave off a slightly sulfurous smell from the cream he used to oil his dry, scaly skin. Mole Lapham looked exactly like a rodent.  He was short, compact, and twitch, and had a nervous habit of wrinkling his nose and sniffing.

In today’s PC world parents who remember the apt but often cruel nicknames they carried around with them want to reduce the chances of their own children getting saddled with Scoop or Bobbles. So to set the tone and the rules, boys are only Jonathan, Jason, Robert, Michael, and David.  Add to this the gulag mentality of elementary schools where surveillance cameras monitor every recess to pick up signs of bullying, unwanted nicknames are considered forms of intimidation and cruelty.

Jessica Valenti writing in The Guardian (4.29.14) is outraged that men use diminutives of women’s names when they want to humiliate them. “Men who use nicknames for women to win fights are creepy, sexist and dumb”, she says, and is ready to jump in the bullring whenever some prick calls her Jessie.

Like most things men call women when they want to diminish them, "Jessie" is meant to remind me that no matter what I accomplish – the number of books written, articles published, speeches given – I'm still "just a girl". But it's the overly-familiar infantilization that really makes my skin crawl.

This phenomenon may well be common in the UK, but in the US, the office is a very politically correct place.  Men are scared of their own shadows, afraid to be called out as sexist and hauled before a company tribunal.  Men are not supposed to notice décolleté, high heels, coiffure, jewelry, lipstick, and perfume. Despite this deliberate feminine allure, women demand that men look at them no differently than at a street sign or a lamppost.  Men look up at the ceiling in an elevator filled with attractive women.  They shuffle out looking at their feet on the way to their cubes.  The idea of a ‘Jessie’ for Jessica is totally unthinkable.

Ms. Valenti may be referring to bosses and subordinates in her outrage.  A male boss of a female employee may call her Jessie to humiliate and demean her.  Once again, I have to cite the maximum security lock-up rules which govern the American workplace.  If a colleague calls Margaret an unwelcome Maggie, he is automatically under suspicion.  If a supervisor does it, the SWAT team hauls him away for interrogation.

Men, however, have not changed their opinions of women; and are as suspicious, wary, and mistrusting of them as ever. American men are no different from the barking misogynists of Shakespeare’s day. Claudio, Posthumus, and Othello hated and feared women, and when men got together they shared their dismal views of them.  Once men are out of their K Street cells and with their mates, women are bitches, sluts, ho’s, and cunts.  They are shrill, nitpicky, and shallow.  They are harridans, vixens, and succubuses. The Four F’s – ‘Find ‘em, Feel ‘em, Fuck ‘em, Forget ‘em’ – is still the male credo of the bar.  American men may act all respectful and supportive under the eye of office security cameras, but they turn into Posthumus and Claudio once they are out the door.

There is another way to avoid the shaming-naming nickname problem – move to the Philippines.  There everyone has a nickname, and no one is ever referred to by their Christian names.  Kate McGeown of the BBC Manila Bureau notes 3.27.11):

On my first day in Manila, I walked down to the local cafe and was served by a smiling young girl who wore a name badge entitled BumBum. I did a double-take, then smiled back, deciding it was probably a joke. But if so, it is a joke that practically the whole country seems to be in on.

Since then I've met a Bambi, three Bogies, several Girlies, a Peanut, a Barbie and a middle-aged man called Babe.These names are found in all sectors of society. Sometimes they are nicknames, sometimes genuine first names - but they are always what people are referred to on a day-to-day basis.

McGeown lived a number of years in Manila, and quickly got used to the Filipino nicknames:

When I'm introduced to a Dinky or a Dunce, or read about people called Bing and Bong, it seems almost normal. In fact, if anything, I rather like the fact that Filipinos are self-assured enough to use these names, no matter how odd they sound or how senior the person's public role.

Self-confidence, that’s the ticket.  Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have recently written an article in The Atlantic (4.14.14) about women’s persistent (and troubling) lack of it:

Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.

Compared to what men call women in private, using a diminutive to demean a co-worker or subordinate is nothing.   I suspect that women do not spare men in private either. When Cleopatra is alone with her female servants, she mocks Antony, calls him names and shows her complete disdain for him.  Ah, she says, where is the manly, virile Julius Caesar when I need him?  Beatrice has her mocking fun with Benedick when she is with her girlfriends.  Rosalind and Celia are no less kind. In Shakespeare women don’t take men very seriously, manipulate them, and run rings around them.  They care little for what they say because they – the women – know exactly what to do. They have supreme self-confidence and are as self-assured as anyone.

If anything, the PC environment of the American office has made gender relations even more contentious.  By being muzzled, men’s animosities towards women become even more virulent.  Men and women are not left free to duke it out.  Despite women’s claim to be equal, they seem to still feel the need to be protected, supported, and encouraged.  No wonder that men are at best confused and at worst, angry.

Today’s hothouse atmosphere – a distortion of Equal Rights that does far more harm than good, stifling as it does the free give-and-take of avowed equals – needs to go. Let Binky, Cutie, Pom-Pom, and Jessie stay; and add Dorky, Pin-Prick, Needles, and Bobby to the mix.

When women become as confident as Beatrice, Rosalind – or the great villains of Shakespeare, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, Dionyza, and Tamora – the issue of nicknames will seem like a silly pastime.

Two of the strongest and most memorable female characters in literature are Hedda Gabler and Laura, wife of The Captain in Strindberg’s The Father. Both women not only dominate men but destroy them because of their own ambitions and indomitable will.  Laura drives The Captain mad, consigning him to a mental institution so that she can have complete control over their daughter.  She voices the opinion of many women when she says to her husband, you have dribbled your seed, you have fulfilled your only useful purpose, now leave.

Men and women will continue to fight for supremacy and will achieve occasional peaceful equilibriums; but the struggle will never end.  Men still have the upper hand, and PC regulations and attempted changes at observed social behavior will not even scratch the surface of hardened if not hard-wired male behavior.  Social engineering is as bad in the gender arena as it is anywhere else.  Woman up, ladies!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Suburbs–From Cheever Country to Rockville, Maryland

The suburbs, the sprawling residential communities built with GI Bill money after WWII, were considered by Village socialists, Beats, and liberal academics to be vapid, uninspiring, deadening places - spiritual and creative wastelands.  Families went there to find a better life than the one they left in Brooklyn, North Philadelphia, or Bayonne, but found only social gulags – Kafkaesque nightmares of propriety and enforced good taste.

Writers long before the suburban explosion of the Fifties, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson (Babbitt; Winesburg, Ohio) described small town America in the same way – socially insular, conformist, and intellectually conservative.  Later on John Cheever made the suburbs infamous, exposing their sanctimony and hypocrisy. In one of his most upsetting short stories, The Swimmer, Neddy Merrill decides to swim across the county. Wearing only swimming trunks he crosses fields, lawns, and highways; and swims every suburban pool on his way home. At each one he stops to have a drink, greet and laugh with old friends.  The story becomes darker as he swims along; and by the time he nears his home neighbors are dismissive, angry, and hateful. He arrives home to find an empty, derelict, and overgrown house which has not been lived in for years.

At each stop on his suburban swim, Neddy becomes more and more disoriented.  His memories are not those of his friends. His past might not be as he remembers it. Men refer to his debts and even his dishonesty.  Women he may have loved dismiss him as ludicrous and irrelevant.  Neddy is mad, unhinged, and obsessed.  Everything is familiar – the drink bar, pool toys, cigarettes, and easy laughter – but when he arrives the guests turn unsettlingly cold and hostile. The suburban idyll of his past is really no such thing.  There is no congeniality, easy friendship, and summer romance.  Those he thought were his friends and lovers had become bitter, nasty, and unforgiving.  In Cheever’s mind, they always were nasty and unforgiving – shallow and unsympathetic figures simply dressing and acting the part of wealth and comfort.

In the Sixties the suburbs had become a symbol of the fatuous bourgeoisie – uninspired, uninteresting, smug, and ignorant.  Richard Yates’ book Revolutionary Road (1962) told the story of a young couple who had moved from the city to the suburbs.  They were complicit in their disdain for the small town’s self-assured haleness, but despite their scorn and commitment to go to Paris and regain their enthusiasm for life, the suburbs retain them, and tragedy follows.  In Yates’ mind, the suburbs are organisms which swallow, assimilate, and digest; and individuals have no chance of survival. Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer were no less savage.

The suburbs gave the Sixties generation a target for their anti-social, revolutionary movement.  The suburbs represented everything that was wrong with America – a great enterprising nation which had become intellectually sedentary, self-satisfied, and comfortably fat.  Betty Crocker, pools, patios, lawn furniture, and church were the enemy.  The Sixties generation was radical not so much for its anti-war and civil rights agenda; but for its more fundamental desire to change America from a predictably bourgeois happy society into an edgy, demanding, and soul-searching one. Communes would be the communities of the future, neighborhoods which were unified by love, intimacy, and individuality. Hippies wanted a complete social makeover.

Suburbs indeed had a frightening side, and Levittown was it.  Levittown was the symbol of postwar suburban development; and the expression of American bourgeois ambitions.  If the Sixties were good for anything, they would eliminate this creeping scourge.

For a while the Sixties activists got what they wanted.  Even the most insulated communities of the country realized that it felt good to wear what you wanted, to choose your own rules, and follow an internal compass; and the idea of a programmed, paint-by-numbers existence became déclassé or at least suspect.

It was too good to last, and soon America returned to its roots.  Not only are Levittown developments back, they are back with a vengeance – a bit more upscale, perhaps, but no different than those of fifty years ago.

Residents still commute into the city or to economic centers in the periphery; and while both husbands and wives make the trip, the trajectory and purpose are the same.  Americans today are no different from those of two generations ago – a single-family home with a lawn and garden.  Although young metrosexuals may first settle they soon move out of city centers for air, green, and room to grow.

The suburbs, however, are no longer the socially isolated enclaves of yesteryear. People who live in Gaithersburg don’t stay in Gaithersburg, but shop up and down Rockville Pike which has become as cosmopolitan as metro centers a few decades ago. The Beltway has made friendships between families in Rockville and Arlington possible.  The New York, New Haven, and Hartford commute between Greenwich to NYC has been replaced by a network of connections in the New York Metropolitan area.

If anything, the suburbs of today are even more isolating than those of the Fifties.  Neddy Merrill could indeed swim across the county and know everyone on his path; but neighbors in the downscale suburban settlements of Washington, DC are only physically adjacent.  Every morning they head in different directions.  Their children go to different schools, their friendships are scattered.  There is no community focus or centrality – the town green, city hall, the old post office. 

In other words, the suburbs are physically no different than they were in the heyday of Arthur Levitt.  Houses are inexpensive, tooth-by-jowl, and boringly repetitive.  The families within and their patterns of life, however, have changed.  Bi-racial, single-sex, his-and-her children, multiple jobs and interests have replaced the homogeneity of Cheever-land and Levittown.

What has not changed at all is the fundamentally middle-class nature of the suburbs.  Their residents are uniformly rooted in the 21st Century version of Kinder, Küche, Kirche plus economic ambition.  The radicals of the Sixties underestimated the pull of the American Dream, one in which wealth and family values intersect.  Art, music, culture, and self-expression are irrelevant or at best peripheral to that dream.  The suburb is still a place to live and remains a state of mind.

The hostility reserved for the Fifties version of the suburbs has abated. The condos in Chantilly or Rockville are ‘diverse’, and that is enough for liberal commentators, many of whom are remainders of the Sixties.  Their social activism, however, is muted and modest compared to the old days.  Today they tilt at the windmills of Wall Street and the One Percent instead of going after la petite bourgeoisie.

America, if you discount its Pacific and Atlantic edges, is one big bourgeois suburb; and it will always be.  We are middle-class and middle-brow; and while the suburbs no longer have the political and cultural homogeneity that they once did, we are still one nation.

Intellectuals have always hated the small town and the suburbs.  Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen over 100 years ago wrote about the stifling insularity of the provinces; and only the willful – Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Hilde Wangel, Laura, and Ivanov – were able to reject conventional morality and the whole construct of good and evil.  Only Chekhov understood the nature of provinciality and had great sympathy for those who were unable to reject it.

There is such a thing as national culture after all; and in America we all fly one banner which says proudly, We Are Suburbanites!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Croissants, Baguettes, And The Long Trip from Paris to Dubuque

Bruce Handy, writing in the New York Times (4.26.14) describes the American odyssey of the croissant from the flaky, buttery staple of French breakfasts to the ‘colon-cleansing’ rigor of the whole wheat version.

We can’t seem to leave well enough alone, although if we did we wouldn’t be Americans.  Our genius is innovation, and if we just stood back and rested on our laurels cars would still have fins. Take yoga, for example. As practiced by Hindu ascetics for centuries, yoga is a physical discipline the goal of which is spiritual elevation.  By controlling the body – respiration, vision, hearing, and feeling – one can free the mind from illusory distractions, allowing it to focus on the real business and purpose of life – enlightenment.

In America, however, the purpose of yoga is just the opposite – to focus on the body.  Yoga has become a physical training discipline designed to stretch and strengthen, improve balance and motor control, and provide a great workout with friends and companions.  We get plenty of spiritual guidance and discipline at church on Sundays.

In other words American yoga has been transformed into something culturally relevant and thanks to great viral marketing, it has become a necessary part of professional youth culture.  The rolled up mat is a sign of belonging to a hip, fit, and progressive group.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  History is filled with examples of cultural importation.  The Gauls resisted the Romans but took their language.  Animist North Africans adopted Islam.  Back in the late Middle Ages, the French discovered Italian cooking, but its principle of complementarity did not seem refined enough; so they began to combine, reduce, blend, and integrate tastes and textures.  The difference between classic Italian Tuscan fare and five-star Parisian cuisine is now night and day.  One is forthright, upfront, and bold; created to feature individual ingredients, and present them for their freshness,quality, and texture.  For French chefs the goal is to create a unique blend in which there are only hints of the combined ingredients.  The creation is the masterpiece in France; the food itself takes center stage in Italy.

The history of the croissant in France is ironically a very American one.  A number of years ago, one could go into any boulangerie in Paris and come out with freshly-baked, soft, warm, and fragrant croissants. They were ambrosial. They were flaky and buttery and indeed melted in your mouth.  The pain au chocolat was equally good, had a crust that was more slightly browned and a warm, melting chocolate center.

Over the years the croissants became tougher, less flaky and buttery and tasted stale, old, and manufactured – which they increasingly were.  What latter-day Parisian baker wanted to get up at four in the morning to bake croissants? After a few years the only original croissants were available in Africa. Some of the best croissants and pain au chocolat I have ever eaten were made in a small bakery just down from the Place de l’Independence in Dakar.  The Boulangerie du Marche in Nouakchott was a close second.  Surprisingly, this little bakery had survived desert storms, coups, and scarcity and produced the same buttery, flaky pastries.

There was a reason for this.  Their clientele was largely French ex-colonists who stayed on after independence.  They had spent their whole lives in Africa and returned to France only occasionally.  They remembered the croissants from their childhood and demanded the same from Abdul Diouf  & Sons.

Diouf also made baguettes like no one else.  He never scrimped on ingredients, preparation, or baking; and they came out like the old French baguettes did decades before.  They were crispy, crunchy, and brown on the outside but soft, moist, and substantial on the inside. While Parisian bakers were cutting costs and catering to less demanding, more economically ambitious EU clients, Abdul Diouf was consistently traditional.  His baguettes were never these light, airy affairs that had become common even in the tony arrondissements.

It didn’t take long for the French croissant to make its way to America and into the hands of corporate interests.  The packaged croissants sold in supermarkets resembled the real thing in shape only. There was no buttery flakiness, and even when zapped in the microwave turned out soft, mushy, and tasteless. General Foods figured out that few Americans had ever tasted a real croissant, and so would buy the image of France rather than the food itself.  Within a few years these American ‘croissants’ were everywhere as breakfast foods, as sandwich breads, and in mini-form, as a snack for kids.

Alice Waters and her colleagues changed all that and American cuisine was born. We no longer had to imitate French, Italian, and Viennese cuisine.  Given California’s bounty, we could create our own, one based on local, natural ingredients.  This food revolution did not stop with fruits, meats, fish, and vegetables but extended to breads and croissants. Independent artisanal bakeries in San Francisco and New York started to produce baguettes and croissants which were far better than the French original.  Not surprisingly the croissants and pain au chocolat are super-sized, about twice that of what is available in France.  No problem, however, because even the most chi-chi bakery in the Mission will doggy-bag what’s left.

Now the best baguettes, pain au chocolat, and croissants are found in America, not France.  We had to get the tough, stale, cardboard-tasting version out of our system. The Gauls tasted, chewed, and swallowed the bitter language of the Romans; but soon blended, merged, and combined it with their own, et voilà – French!

The same is true of American wine and beer.  Before our cultural exposure to Europe, our beers were flat and tasteless, drunk to get buzzed or to quench a thirst rather than for the taste itself.  Heineken hit the market and thanks to savvy marketing and the European cachet it became the go-to beer, leaving Bud and PBR to the millworkers and lathe operators of Middle America. 

Our first forays into micro-brewing were not surprisingly barely drinkable.  They either bitter, rough, and too high in alcohol, or too caramel-tasting and sweet. It didn’t take long, however, for these micro-brewers to figure it all out.  Just like Alice Waters, they didn’t have to copy anything, just use their own local ingredients, rely on their taste buds, and the growing sophisticated of the market.  The story of California wines is well-known.  We went from rotgut to world class in a matter of a few decades.

The best vintners in Napa and Sonoma are always experimenting.  The new meritage wines are always blended according to the quality of the harvest but also the palate of the wine-maker.  The great GBR wines of the Etude Winery are always different, always unique, and always superior.

Author Handy remarks:

This continuing mash-up of classic European baking techniques and American fairground cuisine says so much about who we are as a people — our genius for mongrelization, our taste for anything bigger, sweeter, greasier, cheesier, beefier and generally more caloric than the last thing we stuffed down our gullets. (To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, a first-rate mind can be admiring and revolted at the same time and still function.)

While this is very true, the ‘mash-up’ always seems to give way to something even better than the original.  Yes, we trashed the baguette and the croissant; but it didn’t take us long to see what a real American original might taste like.

In some cases – like the buttery, flaky nouveau croissant at Tartine Bakery and Café in San Francisco – the American version is no different than the French original, only better.  In other cases – like the whole wheat baguette – the product is totally different, but uniquely good.  No self-respecting French boulanger would have been caught dead a few years ago baking a baguette with other than white flour; but whole wheat is perfectly fine.  An artisanal baguette tastes less like a traditional one than any one of a dozen crispy, crunchy, fragrant breads made from rye, barley, buckwheat, mesquite, or nut flour. 

At Le Pain Quotidien, the whole-wheat croissant is aimed at the same consumer who is drawn to the chain’s chia muffins and hempseed blondies — familiar treats with, as Mr. Welch put it, “a healthy twist.”

Marketing is pure American genius.  Chains like Le Pain Quotidien have learned how to produce a range of new bread and pastry varieties which meet both the upscale demands for healthy and tasty products.  The fact that there may be as much butter in the offerings that are billed as ‘healthy’ as the hipster donuts, deceives no one.  We deceive ourselves suggests author Handy. Even the more responsible gourmets need to sort and sift through competing claims of authenticity, provenance, and healthfulness.  The trick in all this culinary innovation and marketing is to never lose sight of taste.  That usually is the first to go when food goes bottom-line and viral.

Innovative, entrepreneurial America will always have a leg up on European rivals because we are agile enough to keep up with changing demographics and economics. The French are only just catching on to the fact that EU membership is not just a convenient economic union, but a culturally transforming one.  Young professionals and technicians crossing borders in search of opportunity and advancement do not have the time for traditional dinners, eat on the go, and trade and transfer ideas.  If you can’t catch up with this new generation, you are lost.

Immigration has changed France forever, and if the old-fashioned croissant ever had a chance for survival or revival, it no longer does.  Pita bread, chapattis, and Ethiopian injira have pushed the croissant to the back bins.  My guess is that the wonderfully simple and traditional Tuscan pizza with its crisp, thin crust, fresh tomatoes, and hints of herbs and spices is a goner too.

So, yes, I hate the idea of a bagel that tastes like a blueberry muffin or a garlic-chili croissant; or a gloppy, bubbly thick, over-cheesed Papa John’s ‘everything’ pizza, I can put up with them, because I know they are just food way stations, unpleasant stops on the way to something better.

I have no illusions about the habits and tastes of Middle America, and I know that it will take decades before the Tartine flaky, buttery croissant and fondue chocolate pain au chocolat make it to Eupora, Houma, or Snake Water, Arkansas. By the time they do, we metrosexuals will have moved on; but so it is in America.