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The Fear of Xenophobia

May 23, 2016

Politics don’t suit a food blog. I learned that a long time ago. Although there are some people who say that we make political statements all the time by the food we buy and what we choose to put in our mouths.

I just came back from a bit over 24 hours in New York City to visit family. Yes, there was food. Some of it was excellent. But the food part was secondary. As always, there are more places I want to try, than places I am able to visit. The same goes for people too.

One of the things I love most about Manhattan is what an international city it is.

Walking through Central Park, it’s easy to imagine that you could hear almost every language spoken on Earth. There’s not a lot of xenophobia there, because multiculturalism is part of the fabric of the city. It’s hard to have an irrational dislike of people from other countries when they are your friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

But maybe a little xenophobia wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Hopefully, it’s obvious I’m joking. Xenophobia is a terrible thing, and something that seems to be on the rise. So I’m trying to take the path of Stanley Kubrick whose film Dr. Strangelove was also called, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He tried to make peace with a vision of our own self destruction. So read on at your own risk. Disclaimers aside, let’s get back to our story.

Right. Now this visit to NYC was the very first time that I managed to make it into an Eric Kayser bakery in Manhattan.

It was on my first trip to Paris that I discovered this bakery, thanks to the writings of David Lebovitz. And I loved it so much that on my second visit to Paris, my first stop was the Kayser in the 7th arrondissement.

Anyhow, a few years back this famous Parisian bakery made landfall in the US, and spread around New York City. I was ecstatic. The bread I’ve been able to get upstate has been lackluster, even compared to what I used to find in California.

I’m glad to report that the New York version of this Parisian baguette was great. The experience, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired.

2.2 million people live in Paris. 1.6 million people live on Manhattan. Granted, Paris is over 40 square miles, and Manhattan is shy of 23. But perhaps the more salient point is that the Kayser I visited in NYC was right by Columbus Circle. Likely it was packed with tourists, instead of locals, on a temperate and partly sunny Sunday afternoon.

And instead of a non fussy affair of picking up bread (aka the staff of life) for about one euro, there was a line of people picking out all kinds of decadent pastries. Which isn’t to say that pastries don’t play a part in the Parisian spots. They most certainly do. But most people come in for the bread.

The kids didn’t travel with me to Paris, so I was glad to be able to give them an object lesson as to what makes a good baguette. I held it close to their ear and let them hear the crackle of the crust as I squeezed it gently. I tore open the loaf and pushed it under their noses to smell the complex aromas. We looked at the hole structure and elasticity of the crumb. And of course, we tasted real bread, and wondered aloud why more bread wasn’t this good.

But I have to say that it was jarring to have this Parisian friend living in The City. And I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. On a few levels.

Part of me worries that now I won’t want to go next time I’m in Paris. I mean, why should I spend my limited time in France at a place that’s a quick Amtrak ride away? And maybe others will be less inclined to make the trip over to the land of butter and baguettes, because they don’t get what all the fuss is about.

You can import the food, but you can’t recreate the culture. Something is lost in the translation.

So as much as I love French foods, I’m finding myself on the strange side of isolationism. Let’s keep the French out. Bringing more of the food over to our shores is only going to discourage people from making the trip to Terminal 1 of CDG, and getting the chance to experience these culinary delights in the context of their own culture.

And this goes both ways. We should pull the McDonald’s out of Paris. And Beijing while we’re at it. I’ve mentioned before that the lines at McDonald’s in Paris made me want to weep for humanity.

Admittedly, i say this completely in jest. Because for my own selfish interests, I would rather be able to score a serviceable Kayser baguette and financier nature without the international plane fare. Even a shadow of the real thing is better than most of the homegrown examples of these foods I’ve found.

Which isn’t to say a domestic version is impossible. It’s quite possible.

As much as I’d like to argue the case for increasing our national level of xenophobia in order to better protect the great culinary heritage of cultures around the world, I’m certain that it would plunge us into the dark ages of culinary homogeneity. I’m not quite ready for all mac and cheese all the time. Some might argue we’re already there. But I’m going to hold onto my hope for the future.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 23, 2016 12:28 pm

    “The bread I’ve been able to get upstate has been lackluster, even compared to what I used to find in California.”

    Daniel, you’re selling us short. Have you forgotten about Perreca’s? I would argue their bread is world class. It’s that good.

    One of these days, I’m going to be crazy and go to Perreca’s at 5 am (4 on Saturdays) when they first open and get one of those amazing loaves of bread (hopefully) right out of that 102-year-old coal-fired oven. Then I’ll pull a stick of butter and a knife out of my hip pocket, sit at one of the tables outside and go to town.

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