Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tous contre la malbouffe

A few days ago the film L'Aile ou la cuisse aired on French television. My husband urged me to watch it pour ma culture générale. Not that it is a classic. It's simply your typical 1970s French comedy, with Louis de Funès doing his typical incomprehensible vocalisations, gesticulations and facial expressions. Every summer, de Funès' entire filmography is shown on French television, in a seasonal ritual as important to the populace as bad rosé. My husband was correct, though, because I immediately appreciated this movie far more than the others, for it addresses an issue dear to my heart: the struggle against la malbouffe.

La malbouffe can be roughly translated as "junk food," but I find the expression in French far more appealing because it sounds disgusting. Bouffe is a slang term for food, as removed from its artistic, gastronomical sense as possible. On va bouffer is the French way to say "Let's grab a bite somewhere." It's not a term that the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin would employ if he were around today. Malbouffe is simply the conjunction of bouffe and mal, meaning bad or poor.

In L'aile ou la cuisse, de Funès plays the editor and owner of the famous food guide Duchemin, obviously inspired by Michelin's famous Guide Rouge. After a few classic de Funès scenes where he goes undercover to rate different restaurants, the film quickly turns to a showdown between Monsieur Duchemin, lone gastronome crusader, and the industrialist Tricatel, who is busy replacing French cuisine everywhere with modern, factory-produced food products, the very definition of malbouffe. Duchemin wins in the end, of course, after infiltrating Tricatel's top-secret factory, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1970s Star Trek set and where fish, chicken and rubbery lettuce are manufactured out of colored goo.

My husband notes that the late 1970s mark a sort of turning point for French eating habits, when the country suddenly realized that they were buying too much into American-style supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and the movie reflects this. He's probably right, to a point: I believe that France, far more than even other countries in Europe, is still a place where you can do almost all of your shopping in farmer's markets and small, specialized shops and avoid supermarkets almost altogether. This doesn't mean that most people do. Carrefour, a supermarket retailer which, if I remember correctly, is globally second in size only to Walmart, is French and exerts enormous power over the food market here and abroad. Picard, a supermarket specialized in high-quality frozen food, is hugely popular especially in Paris, and McDonalds has long been a success all over the country.

I haven't lost hope, however. Sure, France has embraced convenience foods and even the horrid malbouffe. It's gotten bad enough that the Ministry of Health now requires food advertisements to reference their nutritional information web site, MangerBouger.fr. Mostly, though, the French have integrated convenience foods into a traditional way of eating that hasn't much changed, and that is promising. They'll eat Picard frozen food, sure, but the whole family still sits down to eat dinner together at eight o'clock. Sandwiches and hamburgers are eaten in a pinch in the middle of a busy work day, but most French will still sit down to a proper lunch if they can possibly make the time. And Sunday lunch with the extended family is still sacred.

I had to wonder, however, when the very first commercial that followed the movie on Sunday was for frozen hamburgers. Frozen, entire hamburgers, that you put into the microwave bun and all. The commercial showed the kitchen appliances coming to life, Transformer-style, to fight over the hamburgers as they came out of the oven. Yuck. Proof that we mustn't let our guard down just yet.

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