I am suspicious of French-American restaurants, imagining the food to be overpriced and the furniture over-padded, but that’s largely an unconfirmed prejudice, considering I rarely go into them. Hence the “imagining.” The Happy Hour at Salut on Grand Avenue in St. Paul turned out to be a most pleasant surprise.
The location was perfect, what with people coming in from all directions—Mahtomedi, Prior Lake, Edina, Linden Hills, Mac-Groveland, and Golden Valley. We were given a long table in front of the oyster bar and soon discovered we were being served by a front-line waitress with a wry sense of fun.
Friends arrived one by one and soon the long table was full. We discussed the upcoming election only briefly—we were all voting in different municipalities. We learned that Gayle’s downstairs neighbor—a nun—had fallen off a ladder and was now in the hospital. Appetizers arrived. French fries with béarnaise sauce ($3), sliders, little pizzas, a bucket of moules, a croquet-Madame that Renee made short work of. Little loaves of bread were brought to the table gratis, and when Jeff accidently knocked over an order of fries our waitress hurried to bring us another one, though we had no trouble finishing off the first one before she got back with the replacement.
I was listening to two conversations simultaneously, both focused on Europe. Why? I guess because Jeff and Fran recently got back from Croatia, Renee and Michel were in France this summer, and Tim spent three weeks in Macedonia this summer, too. He and Carol have been to Croatia quite a few times, dating back to the Tito era and were curious to find out how the country has changed since becoming an independent state with a currency pegged to the euro. Meanwhile, Renee was describing how France has changed since her days in Paris long ago. Her husband, Michel (home with the kids), was more surprised than she was by how unFrench parts of the country now seemed, compared to back when he was hanging out in Lyon.
I haven’t been abroad for a decade, but that didn’t keep me from remarking on a book I saw recently about the decline of French cooking…and culture.
“I think they may be talking about the three-star restaurants,” Carol suggested.
“No, I’m quite sure the book was about eating and cooking habits generally,” I replied. “But I’ve never actually seen the book. I read a review.”
Then I had to make a further qualification. “I saw the review, but I didn’t actually read the review. I read the headline and the photo caption on the review.”
“Well, my mother was French,” Jeff said, “And she was a very good cook. I’m not sure if she was a French cook.”
“We never ate out when we were in France,” Carol said. “We were broke.”
“I remember a meal we had,” I said. “We were kayaking down the Tarn River, after which we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant on the river bank, out in the country. A three-course meal for $7. That was amazing.”
At one point two plates of sliced cucumbers topped with salmon mousse appeared. A few minutes later our waitress came by with a Happy Hour last call, and began to inquire about dinner. She got no takers, though we were curious all the same to hear about the Julia Child Monday Special.
“This week we’re doing boeuf bourguignon,” she grinned enthusiastically, “Chunks of beef in a red wine sauce—“
“And don’t forget the pearl onions,” someone chimed in.
“Oh, yes, and the bacon and peas…” It did sound good.
All of this French talk reminded Gayle that she’d been reading Shadows on the Rock, a Willa Cather book set in Quebec two or three centuries ago.
“Lots of Roman Catholic paraphernalia in that one, as I recall,” I said.
“It is a little slow,” she admitted.
“They’re all slow,” Carol said, “though I did like My Antonia.”
“Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Tim said.
“The Professor’s House,” Gayle added. “Anything in the Southwest.”
“Well, you know what Cather says about Balzac and Flaubert,” I remarked, apropos of nothing beyond the restaurant atmosphere and general bonhomie of the occasion. Then I couldn’t remember the line. “How does it go? ‘If you haven’t read Balzac at twenty, you haven’t lived. But if you’re still reading him at forty, you’ve lived in vain.’ Something like that.”
Two desserts, split among eight people, and then it was time for the check. Our waitress had been so kind as to itemize orders by chair, but we’d been sharing things liberally and settled on a $20-per-person contribution, with adjustments for late-comers, and a huge tip on top. Then out into the night.
As chance would have it, I had Alsatian soprano Anne Azema’s recording The Unicorn in the CD player—haunting medieval French Songs with harp/rebec accompaniment. Perfect for a lovely drive home across the river and up the parkway in the dark.
This morning I looked up the Cather quote: It comes from the essay in the collection Not Under Forty in which she makes the acquaintance of Flaubert’s niece. “It is scarcely exaggeration to say that if one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live; and if at forty one can still take Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré at Balzac’s own estimate, one has lived in vain.”
I wasn’t too far off. Can you imagine anyone making a remark like that today?
I also looked up the book about French cooking I’d been referring to. It’s called Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. I ordered a cheap used copy. Here’s an excerpt from one review:
This is not the type of opinion writing wherein the French are simply bashed. Steinberger provides the regulatory detail, changes in French eating and drinking habits, and political and social background to convincingly show why French cuisine has collapsed - and it is a collapse. By way of example: France is the 2nd largest market in the world for McDonalds, the country has lost close to 200,000 restaurants, French wine consumption is down 50% since the 60's, and the living standard has declined precipitously.
At the political root of all this is the Mitterand regime. In response to the global economic issues of the 70s and 80s, France chose a socialist government, which proceeded, naturally, to dramatically increase spending, entitlements, and regulation. Steinberger doesn't write as an anti-socialist. I read him as politically neutral in this book. But the globalization context he provides makes it clear that France's actions were a disaster for French agricultural life - and the cuisine and wine about which he writes.
Yes, we’ve got to preserve those traditions! We’ve got to get to work!