Monday’s frivolous, flimsy, frail flailings

Or, some Monday links on flavors, figurative flags and fails

I mean, it would be impossible to have a business like this in the States, a wood-burning fire – illegal, the meat – illegal, the dog – illegal, the cheese sitting out uncovered – illegal. Basically, everything that makes this place good would be illegal in the United States.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations ep. 1 – 01 France: Why the French don’t suck (Jul. 2005)

The other day, Brandon highlighted (the review of) a cultural history book, one that documents the postwar shift of cultural gravitas from Paris to New York. So, the talk is about the big league, the respectful duo of countries that gave us, among other things, modern constitutionalism and an understanding of the natural hue of fundamental rights. Here, I venture to present a sincere, if arbitrary (and somewhat superficial, since I never learned French, to my mother’s disappointment) selection of other Franco-American bites, that shadowed greater trends, or even shaped them.

160 years ago, chef Charles Ranhofer, a Frenchman, traveled to the US for a second time. A year and a false dawn at another premise after, he was hired at Delmonico’s in New York, an already established name. There, he proceeded in making it the definite flagship of American fine dining for the next 30-35 years.

A note issued by the restaurant at the time chef Ranhofer joined the team (1862) – source

His achievements include the invention of renowned dishes, innovations in the dining business model and a massive Franco-American culinary encyclopedia (The Epicurean, 1894, complete with nearly 1000 dishes and thorough guidelines for the proper tables/ menu setting, depending on the occasion). The story fits well in the Gilded Age picture, though I would guess not at front center.

Our own Escoffier (Los Angeles Times)

My pastry trilogy came a full circle only last year, having started some ten years ago: a Mississippi mud pie, a cheesecake (early 2010s, both under the guidance of my wife) and a tarte Tatin (May ‘20 lockdown, unsupervised, our then nearly-5-year old provided merry company). Of the three creations, the final was the most refined, as deserves to a French recipe from late 19th century. Like, it needed some real – if basic – technique, not the average ingredient gathering I was used to. It was also a mild failure. I followed a modern take, one to safely blame without retort. Will try again, someday. There are relevant recipes aplenty, though not in its contemporary Epicurean.

Deconstructing tarte tatin, the classic French dessert (National Geographic)

The Gilded Age was nearing its end when the famous Lochner v New York decision was delivered (1905). The Supreme Court struck down a New York state law on regulating working hours, as a breach of the liberty of contract, which was protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A few decades later, in United States v Carolene Products Company (1938), an interstate trade case, the Court lowered the standard of review for economic legislation, effectively demoting economic liberty vis-à-vis the other personal liberties.

Both decisions refer to the food industry, bakeries and milk manufacturers respectively. They hold vast importance and warrant further study (for starters – note to self – judicial activism in Lochner, individual rights in Carolene).

As a certain minstrel in a certain fantasy realm would have it, the truth of these decisions became something bigger than the facts. The two cases work as handy banners of the paradigm shift from “unrestrained economic liberty” to “state interventionism”, which happened as right/ left-wing totalitarianisms convincingly challenged the prewar liberal order. Liberal-minded thinkers from the two sides of the Atlantic tried to revitalize the liberal creed in the interwar years. Some of them convened at Paris – few months after the Carolene decision – to honor the visit of the American journalist/ author Walter Lippmann, a notable critic of the New Deal.

There were deep differences, but also a strong agreement on the threat posed by central planning and some tentative overlapping on the perceived failings of “old” classical liberalism and, interestingly, the potential of the state in enhancing personal freedom by pursuing limited social goals. The – middle – way forward needed free markets in a solid, impartial legal frame, which would enforce competition and even provide for a modicum of social justice. By one account, it was during this meeting that the term “neo-liberalism” took root (other ideas included “left-wing” or “constructive” liberalism. Chicago theorists – not represented at the Colloque Lippmann- had previously written about “positive” liberalism), though the term is older. The resolution led to nowhere in particular, since World War II broke out shortly after. It is nonetheless considered a kind-of precursor to the Mont Pelerin Society, the well-known organization founded after a conference in 1947, at the invitation of Hayek.

The neoliberal position is nicely summarized by Milton Friedman (who was present at the 1947 proceedings) in a short piece from 1951:

Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order… The state would police the system, establish conditions favorable to competition and prevent monopoly, provide a stable monetary framework, and relieve acute misery and distress.

Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects (Hoover Institution)

The term can also be found in scholarly papers from 50s-60s, but upon closer inspection they mostly focus on its German variant, “ordoliberalism”, which was closely associated with the “social market economy” – the postwar platform that defined West Germany (though voters could hardly tell what it exactly was).

My understanding is that, at some point postwar, the French involvement dwindled. Also, some German theorists fell from grace in the Mont Pelerin Society context, while US membership increased in number and clamor. The whole approach tilted closer to classical liberal/ libertarian (another note to my – European – self, Edwin van de Haar offers precious nuance regarding such terminology in a fresh post) and away from the “free market, strong state” convictions of Colloque Lippmann. However, Hayek retained cordial relations with the University of Freiburg – where the original ordoliberal theses formed.

Then the shade of neo-liberalism faded, only to be invoked as a nebulous catch-all characterization of free market policies a couple of decades later, almost devoid of its competitive and social security chops. It got a life though, since it was fleshed in the founding Treaties of the EU of the 50s. The institutional apparatus of the Union smugly radiates “free market within the properly defined lines” (the US influence is not be discounted, of course. Case in point, competition law).

EU, as with the Colloque: The French grabbed a coffee with the Americans and threw a party. Then, they took a step back as the Germans stopped being shy and hit the decks.

Back to the kitchen. Late 60s and into the 70s, gastronomic developments trace the retooling of society-at-large. That was the time various “new” national cuisines rose, with the French Nouvelle cuisine once again leading the way and the New American Cuisine taking clue from it (in Greece we usually talk about the “(new) urban cuisine” of that period, as the country experienced a rapid urbanization wave in the preceding decades).

Fantasy unchained: A cooking center in 1980 as imagined in 1973 – source

In the meantime: Political turmoil, be it protests or terrorism, there go Bretton Woods arrangements, productivity flattens, environmental concerns kick-in, enter competition from Asia, human rights against the Soviet Block, university studies expand, telecommunications and transport improve, oil crises, the lights go out in Britain and elsewhere, inflation runs, and so on and so forth. The next decade coincided with the emergence of new political leaderships across the West, as the turbulence discredited the previous guard.

The consensus got a drift for privatizations, deregulation and liberalization of international transactions, with US and Britain adhering to it (though to say that they indeed rolled-back the size and scope of State is questionable). This time, the Nobel Memorial Prizes in Economic Sciences awarded to Hayek (1974) and Friedman (1976) served as a flag (or a scarecrow) for the transition to market-based prescriptions.

The endgame was meant to play out in France. In May 1981, Mitterrand won the presidential election on a pretty standard socialist agenda. The program of nationalizations, hiked taxation, capital controls, grants and subsidies run its course till 1983, when the bad results in deficit, employment, inflation and the exchange rate – underlined by an equally poor performance in local elections – prompted a turn to anti-inflationary rigor and a realignment with more market-oriented policies (Spain and Greece, btw, more or less copycatted the French experience).

In a twist in the myth, three Mitterrand guys even went to assume head posts in international bodies, like the IMF (a member of the unholy trinity of the “Washington Consensus”), and promote capital account liberalization from there.

Endnote: The No Reservations show of late Anthony Bourdain had a role in our family’s inconsistent knack for things cooking/ baking. While writing this, I found out that a documentary on the man’s life just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ Review: The Insatiable Life and Enigmatic Death of a Foodie Superstar (Variety)

Encore: To France”, Mike Oldfield’s cover by power metal band Blind Guardian, from their The Forgotten Tales album (1996). Pas mal.

12 thoughts on “Monday’s frivolous, flimsy, frail flailings

  1. Very interesting disquisition. I just want to add my two bits. I was born in France in 1942 and reared there until I left about twenty years later. In all my childhood and adolescence, I was never exposed to any ideas about or description of liberalism, or about anything abut the virtues of the market, with one exception. The exception was playing Monopoly, an American game.

    • Thank you for you comment (and to be honest, I had half-hoped for your input, half-feared that you might indicate some faux pas of mine…). Your first-hand experience speaks volumes of things long past and, what an honor, seems to rhyme with my mental timeline/ map. I also do agree that simple daily things, like a board game/ pop show/ song/ whatever, capture more than meets the eye about bigger things (not always, but often enough I think).

    • You did commit a pretty bad faux-pas. Cultured French people only use these two hyphenated words to refer to an otherwise virtuous young woman who somehow, for a brief moment, forgot her virtue. Wow! PS Don’t be shy about commenting on tings French in the presence of French people. There is a long history of outsiders (especially Englishmen) doing it to great effect. The natives are often not experts, for the usual reasons: They have trouble escaping national myths.

    • I would be less shy if I could muster a comment like this gem!

    • You are not shy and you are very clear. Too bad, you just fell for one of the most conventional acts of French intellectual intimidation! (But what I stated about “faux-pas” is true.)

    • Such acts I will try to resist and deflect then! However, I cannot help but keep falling for stuff like that faux-pas explanation 🙂

    • The faux-pas explanation is real though I used it to intimidate you. Achieving the level of intellectual viciousness of the average educated French person is almost impossible for a foreigner. That’s because many of us started at kindergarten. Do you watch any French TV?

    • PS French used to a be a beautiful language not long ago. It’s disappearing, not being replaced, just vanishing. If you are a student of French, I recommend that you listen to the songs of George Brassens.

    • Thank you for this slow-cooked, delicious exchange!

      I had a good chance to learn French ~25 years ago and just blew it, for no good reason I can recall. Hence my exposure to French TV and French works in general is minimal (the occasional travel/ food documentary or cartoon, that is.) I feel obliged to point that I drive a French car, and that in Greek we do not use the word “France” – save in some rare derivative forms. We call the country Gallia, which is the Latin version – I think.

      I thought about the faux-pas meaning, and came up with a Greek word that comes close enough (think an archaic form of “slip”), but still it is not quite specific and elegant at the same time, like the French expression. The task seems even more mountainous with the “Elle a vu le loup”!

      How come that French is fading? As I said, not a student, not even a dabbler, but I would expect that the language, along with the cultivated intellectual viciousness made manifest, remain vibrant. I certainly hoped so.

    • First things first: Hardly anyone learns a foreign language anymore. I think the reason i a faster pace of life. Seems to me it takes three years nearly full time for a speaker of a European language to learn another European language well. People haven’t had the time for years. I have been thinking about writing a long essay on the disappearance of the French language. I am not sure I am ready. The strange thing is this: Everyday French borrow a great deal of vocabulary from (American) English such as : “LOL” and “cool,” of course but, the borrowing also takes place wit syntax where it does not seem to serve any purpose. Both forms of borrowing as unexpected because the bulk of French people sure as hell don’t know English. I am vaguely suspecting the bad translations of English in subtitled American movies. That might well be the second most common language in France. Completely separately, I am looking at the large number of non-native French speakers in France. Immigrants often use a simplified form of the mainstream language. The practice may be contagious. Thanks for prompting these superficial comments. The intellectual viciousness is well as long as I am.

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