Friday, May 2, 2008

A glass of wine and you

I'm heading back to Paris for the summer in two weeks, after a very enjoyable semester teaching in Boston (although I will will be back again to teach in the fall.) This is the longest period I have spent in the United States in 20 years, and I have obviously been here during a very important period in our country's history. I will probably have a little bit of culture shock when I get back to France, for many reasons, not least of which is that as a general rule the Parisians are really as selfish and rude as the stereotype--although if you are friends with a Parisian (and fortunately I am friends with many) the experience is entirely different. The French tend to put much bigger social, emotional, and psychological barriers between themselves and strangers or mere acquaintances than we Americans do; but they take friendship very, very seriously, and form bonds of intense loyalty once that gap has been bridged.

One thing I am looking forward to is an entirely different attitude towards the serving of food and wine. This may seem a small matter, if not an elitist one, but drinking wine in an American restaurant is often a disappointing experience. White wines are seldom chilled to the proper temperature (if at all), red wines are often served too cold or too warm, and most annoying of all to me is that "wine by the glass" is often wine by the half-glass, for $7 to $9 a shot. The stinginess and profit shines from every goblet. My colleague David Downie, an American food and travel writer in Paris, has an eloquent letter today in the International Herald Tribune endorsing an earlier commentary in the paper by Roger Cohen on this subject entitled "Of wine, haste and religion," in which Cohen laments this attitude, which often takes the somewhat opposite form of waiters filling up diners' glasses to the brim with the apparent intention of inducing them to order additional bottles just so they can enjoy wine throughout the meal.

Cohen's piece is a bit over the top in my view, especially when he accuses waiters of "reducing a bottle of wine to a seven-minute, four-glass experience through overfilling and topping-up of a fanaticism found rarely outside the Middle East." Yet he does get it right when he writes that this practice "tracks with another unhappy New York dining phenomenon at some remove from the languorous pleasures of Manet's 'Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe.' I refer to the vacuuming away of your plate, at about the speed of light, the second you are deemed to have consumed the last mouthful."

Cohen continues: "Just as you prepare to dab bread into the unctuous leftover sauce from those slide-from-the- bone short ribs, the plate vanishes. The fact that others around the table may still be eating – and to be without a plate is to feel naked in such circumstances – does not trouble the stealthy masters of this Houdini routine.

"As usual, in such matters, the French have it right. If you deconstruct the leftover, you find something that's yours, a little messy, even mucky, but yours. No wonder there's pleasure in poking around in it a little. Manet's revelers are surrounded by their picnic leftovers. Nobody's whisked them away."

Like most comparisons between French and American culture, this one is overly simplified and romanticized. But it is true that diners are often rushed in American restaurants, partly because (as Cohen points out) Americans tend to be in a hurry, and partly because high table turnover is the key to profits in the restaurant business. In France--with the very rare exception of those very few restaurants that have two sittings and let you know about it when you reserve--once you book a table, usually for around 8 PM, it is yours for the evening. No one rushes you, no one expects you to vacate it for the next customer. If, and only if, you do leave before the restaurant closes, the management will of course make it available to late diners. But no pressure.

Contrast that to my experience some years ago, when I took my brother out to dinner for his birthday at Michael's in Santa Monica. The reservation was for 8 pm, we had a great time, but imagine my shock (I was already living in Paris by then) when the hostess came up to us in the middle of our animated conversation, at exactly 10 pm, and told us she would be happy to buy us drinks at the bar but our table was needed. She then pointed to a very nice couple standing forlornly by the restaurant entrance, who obviously had a 10 pm reservation--at our table.

Sigh. There is much about the United States that I like, including the friendliness and can-do spirit of its people, even among those who are having a hard time making do. But I also look forward to being back in a country where a long, leisurely dinner is not only appreciated but guaranteed when you reserve. Some day, I would like to find a country that combines the best of both France and the United States. Now that would be heaven on earth!


Knight said...

I will share your lament of being over served wine in my glass. I like pouring my own, or working with a talented sommelier who knows when the right time and amount to pour.

I lived in Santa Monica for many years and a friend of my grandmother's always took me to Michael's twice a year. I never liked the restaurant - both the food and the vibe.

Have fun in Paris!

Anne Gilbert said...

I don't live in Santa Monica. I live in Seattle. And I must say I've never had anybody try to nudge me or the people I'm with out of a restaurant seat. Many places, you do have to make reservations, but after that, they're just glad you're occupying a seat. OTOH, most restaurants in the US, while favoring service, also make profits by volume, which can produce the sort of conflicts you describe. It looks to me like the attitude in France is a lot different. Which is probably a good thing. And probably goes along with a quite different attitude toward things like food, preparation, and serving of same. But since I've never been in France for any length of time, I can't really say. My daughter was, on any number of occasions(and in Paris, too). So I hope you enjoy your stay.
Anne G