When I first served some new French friends blanquette de veau, a classic French dish, a few months after I arrived in Paris, I was told that my version wasn’t really French, as tasty as it was, because it differed from the classic preparation that millions of French grew up eating. I realized that certain French classics must be prepared in a particular way in order to be worthy of the classic name. And if you’re an American serving French food to the French, you’ve got to be careful of doing anything that strays from the standard recipe.
So, I began to call any vaguely French dishes that I served something else. If I prepared a slightly different version of blanquette de veau that included peas or fennel – something green that wouldn’t appear in a classic version of the dish – I’d call it simply a veal stew. My French friends would then be able to enjoy what I’d cooked without the cognitive dissonance of eating one thing while knowing in their hearts that it was not exactly the name by which they’d known blanquette de veau all their lives.
The French can be literal-minded when it comes to cooking. Maybe because France is a nation of bureaucrats, and the French live in a society in which you are expected to follow certain customs, such as saying “Bonjour” when you enter a store or an elevator, the French are easily thrown by change. Since the French long ago codified their cuisine, any deviation from the way dishes have been prepared for generations may lead to suspicion. Especially if it’s not a French person who’s deviating from the culinary norm.
I once watched an episode of a competition show, La Meilleure Boulangerie de France, or the best bakery in France, that illustrated this in a different setting. One of the judges, an unimaginative stickler named Bruno Cormerais, who himself won a national award for his baking prowess, goes strictly by the book of accepted baking practices. Part of the competition involves making the pastry or bread most popular with customers. One baker in the south of France, an American who runs the bakery with her French husband, served the judges her brownies. The jingoistic judge criticized her choice, saying that while her brownies were good she should have demonstrated her baking skills with something more typical, regardless that her customers asked for her brownies all the time. The poor baker’s crime in this competition had been to offer something non-French at a French bakery.
The other night, I offered my guests a chicken that I’d braised with tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, carrots and some leftover white wine. I’d mentioned to them that it was a very sort-of poule au pot, simply because it was a chicken I’d cooked in a pot but, unlike a poule au pot, it didn’t have potatoes or turnips or an onion studded with a couple of cloves. Sure enough, one of my guests said, on seeing the final dish, “When you told me it was poule au pot, I was confused.” I said that I’d never claimed it was an actual poule au pot, but something I’d come up with for a dinner à la bonne franquette, an expression the French use to mean a meal that is simple, unfussy and sometimes improvised. But even the passing reference to a poule au pot was enough to cause my friend Raoul’s bureaucratic brain to buckle slightly under the weight of unmet expectations when the poule wasn’t made au pot in the way it usually is.
Perhaps a French person cooking something similar to what I’d served wouldn’t have thought to mention the term poule au pot, since he or she would have known it was nothing like that dish, and instead simply called it tonight’s chicken. If he were planning to serve a poule au pot, he’d have made a poule au pot. I guess I want more wiggle room in using the names of French dishes. But then, that’s probably because I sometimes want them to be something other than they are.
Of course, I know that I do the same thing when I see French versions of American food in Paris. So, perhaps, I’m as literal-minded as I claim the French are.
There’s a very successful chain called O’Tacos here, whose tacos, if you could call them that, look and taste nothing like what you’d get at a taco truck in the U.S. (for example, the “taco” sauces you can choose from include harissa, mayonnaise and something called samurai). The frozen-food chain Picard held a recent monthlong celebration of American food, selling French versions of mac-and-cheese, pulled barbecued pork, bacon cheeseburgers, and even a birthday layer cake, among other dishes. Picard’s American food didn’t seem, to judge from the packaging, quite like the real thing you get in the States. I tried the mac-and-cheese – which the box claimed to be the best, authentic version of mac-and-cheese – just to see how closely it resembled one of the many versions you can get anywhere in America. While it was serviceable, it just didn’t taste like real mac-and-cheese.
Maybe if Picard had given it another name such as gratin des macaronis à l’américaine, I myself would have expected less of it and been willing to enjoy it more. A simple name change can make all the difference.