“The French understand how to live much better than we do.” This pronouncement issued from an acquaintance who, recently and literally, basked in the practical benefits of that superior knowledge, comfortably situated as we were on one of the well-coved beaches of Cap d’Antibes, sipping chilled rosé. Under these circumstances, my friend’s observation seemed a reasonable, if commonplace, explanation for the odd Franco-American liaison that, in spite of our forebears’ supposed renouncement of aristocratic delights, has made Francophiles of us all. Of course, we do not employ the latter term much during these days of political discord, when Americans in Europe are apt to suspect waiters and cabdrivers of nurturing dark, disdainful thoughts of the sort that prompted our Congressional cafeterias to proffer freedom fries. Still, one finds encouragement in this evidence that our illiterate society still holds some regard for the significance of words, and the epithet “French” has always suggested to the homespun American a certain elegance, grace, and refinement. Our best hotels equip their bathrooms with French soap; French-cut lamb chops not only exhibit the greatest tenderness and most attractive marbling, but they also have their rib bones cuffed in paper pom-poms; and French vanilla exudes a delicate creaminess beside which the plain variety simply, well, pales. In fact, append the adjective to any homely noun—towel, spoon, grease—and it will acquire mysterious qualities in the eyes of the unwashed masses, for whom France (in spite of current tensions) continues to represent the high altar of a capitalized Culture. Even gangster Johnny Rocco, as portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the film Key Largo, went to France to, as he puts it, “get some class.”
Members of our classless society continue to shop for this elusive commodity along the boulevards of Paris or in the countryside of Provence, where popular travel literature has decreed that the well-cultivated soul should own a rustic, sun-drenched villa (see “A Place in Provence”). This extended chain of invasion began in earnest with Benjamin Franklin, who, in 1776, led an American delegation to obtain economic and military assistance from the government of Louis XVI. The protean Franklin, slyly assessing his dim prospects for shining amid so much Baccarat-lit opulence, won over the court by donning a coonskin cap to emphasize his feral origins. After immersing himself in French comforts both epicurean and prurient, he obtained his treaties, securing arms, troops, and money for the colonists and, in the same stroke, adding yet another persona to his growing repertoire—that of pop idol. His fur-clad profile decorated everyday objects ranging from inkwells to chamber pots (a curious form of celebrity), making Franklin his country’s first successful export to its new ally’s shores.
Those that followed—Western garb (a perennial fixation for so many Europeans), jazz, Josephine Baker, and le Big Mac—share with Franklin’s disingenuous costume a whiff of the bizarre, a hint of sauvagerie that, like the barnyard essences of a well-aged Bordeaux, piques the Gallic nose. Given the unimaginative bent of American tastes, one is hard put to comprehend how we came to so idealize the luxuries of a race whose antecedents crept up on a snail happily devouring its leaf and conceived of the hapless gastropod as dinner. Although, in fairness, the Romans first took this leap of faith, the French polished and purified the practice, fashioning from it an agricultural discipline, heliculture, and then a culinary form that blends the erstwhile pest into a composition of garlic and butter sufficiently artful to overcome even American squeamishness.
The French genius has always been a developed attention to detail and a consummate subtlety that enables them to make from objects both simple and profane—some dried flowers for perfume, linen for sheets—things sumptuous and exotic. But even more remarkable than this aesthetic alchemy is their ability to keenly appreciate their handiwork. Diarist Edmond Deschaumes describes in his 1890 memoir, Journal d’un lycéen, how the residents of Paris, while that city was under Prussian siege, resorted, of necessity, to eating rats and household pets. A friend of Deschaumes’ details the finer points of a lunch served him by his uncle, consisting of minced saddle of cat with a sauce mayonnaise, dog cutlets, and petits pois. A salmi of rat and horse-marrow pudding rounded out the menu, the friend says, but he did not try them, though this does not prevent his speculating on their potential virtues and faults. And this, I nodded to myself, as I poured a second glass of rosé, may be the French recipe for good living: a generous portion of discovery, a well-seasoned sense of nuance, a measure of danger, and—always—the correct sauce.