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

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.

Americans can’t seem to leave well enough alone, although if they did they wouldn’t be Americans. Their genius is innovation, and if they just stood back and rested on their 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.  Spiritual guidance and discipline is for 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 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.

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 voilĂ  – 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 CafĂ© 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.

So, yes, foodies hate the idea of a bagel that tastes like a blueberry muffin or a garlic-chili croissant; but the social observers among them put with them, because they know they are just food way stations, unpleasant stops on the way to something better.

One should have no illusions about the habits and tastes of Middle America. 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, urban conoisseurs will have moved on; but cuisine mobility is as American as economic rise and fall.

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