by Dwight Furrow
A few weeks ago in the pages of 3 Quarks Daily we were treated to the proclamation of a new doctrine called “Anti-Gopnikism“. The reference in the title is to Adam Gopnik, essayist for the New Yorker, who writes frequently in praise of French culture, especially French food. Philosopher Justin Smith, who is responsible for the proclamation of this doctrine, defines Gopnikism as follows:
The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France –like America, in its own way– is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.
Thus, Anti-Gopnikism, we are to infer, must consist of a denial that France is an exceptional place, or that it has a timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit, or that its relationship to its food is unique, or all of the above. We are not provided with any evidence to support any of these denials.
Whether American writers are correct to extoll the exceptional virtues of France depends on what you're looking for. The French are lousy at the Olympics but their wine is awesome. Their music can be simple ear-candy and overly romantic but then there is Boulez and Messiaen. Their language is lovely but peculiar; their conversation at times formal but extraordinarily civilized. Like any nation, they have virtues and vices. If you are interested in food and wine they are an essential nation, and have for centuries, defined what fine food is. To claim their relationship to food is not exceptional is to be blind to their extraordinary influence. Other cultures may lay claim to being more influential today but that does not erase the glorious history of French food. As to the timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit—well we are all part of history and no culture is timeless or unchanging. As far as I can tell, Gopnik doesn't claim or imply a timeless, unchanging essence. In fact, in his recent book The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food, he claims French food has fundamentally changed in recent decades, is in crisis, and he upbraids them for narcissism and navel gazing.
So what is this diatribe against “Gopnikism” really about? It turns out Gopnikism is a lot more sinister than a French food fetish. Smith writes:
France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff.
Oh my! This is truly a puzzling argument. No doubt the French view their cuisine as an expression of their national character just as do the Italians, Japanese, or Chinese among others. Gopnik's claim is that the French have discovered, perhaps more so than other nations, that the pleasure of food brings intimations of the sacred into our lives. Independently of whether such a claim is true or not, what on earth does this have to do with Nazi “blood and soil” ideology. Something has gone deeply wrong here.
This argument relating French food to Nazism seems to go something like this: (1) French attitudes toward their cuisine are expressions of excessive nationalism, (2) German attitudes in the 1930's about the purity and superiority of their “racial stock” were expressions of excessive nationalism, (3) Therefore, writers (and tourists) who extoll the virtues of French cuisine are implicitly endorsing the attitudes of Nazis toward their alleged racial superiority. What exactly a love of Cassoulet has to do with burning people in ovens we are not told.
I suppose we get a clue from Smith's criticisms of the French treatment of their immigrant populations—especially Muslims.
I have witnessed incessant stop-and-frisk of young black men in the Gare du Nord; in contrast with New York, here in Paris this practice is scarcely debated. I've been told by a taxi driver as we passed through a black neighborhood: “I hope you got your shots. You don't need to go to Africa anymore to get a tropical disease.” On numerous occasions, French strangers have offered up the observation to me, in reference to ethnic minorities going about their lives in the capital: “This is no longer France. France is over.” There is a constant, droning presupposition in virtually all social interactions that a clear and meaningful division can be made between the real France and the impostors.
I don't live in France, but if the American media is to be believed, the French treatment of minority populations as well as rising xenophobia throughout Europe is deplorable, although it is not obvious it is uniquely so. Perhaps the French treatment of immigrant populations is an indication of a kind of insularity endemic to French culture which per hypothesis explains the decline in creativity in French cooking that some authors, including Gopnik, have noted. But smug complacency regarding one's cuisine is hardly the same thing as a regime of genocide or violent immigrant bashing.
Indigenous foods that express the terroir of local soils and the sensibility of a people are about the uniqueness and incomparability of a place. These, by definition, cannot be transplanted; they belong nowhere else but in that location among those people. Nazi “blood and soil” ideology was about universal hegemony. It was about the right to rule over and exterminate others. The conceptual chasm between French food fetishism and Nazi violence is enormous.
Even if we stick to food and ignore the silly notion that “food fights” are akin to real violence, the inference from love of one's culture to attempts at world domination makes no sense. You can praise the virtues of some constellation of flavors or a method of straining soups without thinking everyone must deploy those flavors or methods in their cuisine. Something might work wonderfully in the French style without being appropriate anywhere else, and nothing about the virtues of one locality's food precludes the appreciation of another. Even if the French think they have the world's best cuisine it doesn't follow that they think everyone must emulate or promote it.
Despite this utterly failed comparison, there is an interesting and important philosophical issue percolating behind the slippery logic of this argument. Can you love a place, a culture, a people and think of them as uniquely virtuous without excluding respect for others who are outside that culture? Can one enjoy the goods of being immersed in and loyal to one's own culture while acknowledging the good of other cultures? Is particularity compatible with universalism? The answer would seem to be, obviously, yes. The devil is of course in the details. Some conflicts between cultural belief systems cannot be mitigated let alone resolved. But there is no general or principled reason why love of one's nation or culture cannot be constrained by an acknowledgement of the rights of others. This is true even when the stakes are high. Many of these “food fights” as well as debates over immigration policies are motivated by fears of cultural annihilation. But the French, or anyone else, can pursue cultural survival without excessive force or attempts at world domination.
Arguably, if cultural survival is at stake and there is too much influence from the outside, one's identity or particularity is undermined. The French, of course, have always been deeply protective of their cultural and linguistic heritage, going so far as to have a ministry of the state responsible for the preservation of French identity. Perhaps this exaggerated “anxiety of influence” is the source of Smith's worry that French fascism is hiding under your croissant. But the rational response to such a threat is creative “border management” where new influences interact with entrenched traditions to create new formations that constitute cultural advance. Food traditions are in fact excellent examples of creative “border management”. French cuisine would not have the depth it has without the Germanic-influenced dishes from Alsace, the Mediterranean and North African-influenced foods of Provence, the Spanish influence on Basque cooking, etc. The history of food shows that the “anxiety of influence” is overwrought and food writers such as Gopnik are adept at highlighting this history. Perhaps it is Smith's contention that the French are incapable of such border management. Well, but they obviously are so capable given the history of their food.
Partiality toward one's culture or nation can be benign or dangerous depending on whether it is supplemented by megalomania. Love of one's culture is not dangerous. It is the idea that one's culture is in fact a universal culture that threatens. The French are showing no signs of becoming a world hegemon and Gopnik's writing will hardly make it so.
I predict anti-Gopnikism will join phrenology and the four humors in the dustbin of history.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine, visit Edible Arts