By Emily Hong:
I’ve come to appreciate Paris as a metropolis of many food quirks: Parisians disdain peanut butter as “too rich” while hailing fatty duck liver as a national treasure. But it’s not every day that the quick jaunt from my host family’s apartment to the nearest metro stop is interrupted by cattle crossing the street. It happens once a year, when the Salon International de l’Agriculture is in town, that such livestock sightings are common here in the southwest corner of Paris.
As a newly minted Parisian, I felt obligated to pay a visit to the Salon. My host mother only heightened my enthusiasm with assurances that there would be many French cheeses for “degustation,” or tasting. Never one to turn down free dairy products, I dutifully followed the cattle through the park gates.
The Salon, held the first week of March at the enormous Parc des Expositions around the corner from where I’m staying, is equal parts rodeo, Disney World, and trade show. It welcomed almost 700,000 visitors over the course of its eight-day run—that’s almost a third of the entire population of Paris—and is a veritable hive of propaganda, politics, and media coverage. Making a tour of the Salon as a stop on the campaign trail leading up to the April elections was practically required of each French presidential candidate. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who infamously told a French farmer the equivalent of “screw you, you poor fool” on his 2008 visit to the Salon, made a remarkable showing of over four hours spent posing with cows, tasting French agricultural products, and trumpeting.
By courting the French farmer, the candidates hope to tap into the militant locavorism that has marched into France in recent years. Given the enormous attendance of the Salon and the intense national media attention it received, one might believe that France depends on agricultural enterprises. In reality, however, agribusiness accounts for only 2.9 percent of the country’s GDP and is steadily shrinking. The French family farmer is in crisis, under siege by the unholy trinity of economic recession, the globalization of food markets, and industrialized agro-conglomerates. My visit to the Salon showed me that the French people, famous for their fierce protection of their cultural patrimoine, or heritage, will do anything to safeguard their future.
The Salon is loosely organized into four separate pavilions: “Gastronomy of the World,” “Agricultural Services and Professions,” “Crops and Plant Sectors,” and “Animals.” First up on my agenda: gastronomical delights. Modeled after an indoor market of internationally themed food kiosks, this area reminded me of EPCOT’s “It’s a Small World After All.”
Everything from ropes of Spanish chorizo to plastic shot glasses of Japanese sake tempt passersby. Unfortunately for the national waistline (and my own), my host mother was absolutely right: samples were ubiquitous. I was handed a piece of bread covered in molten gruyere by a ruddy Swiss fraulein only to have a platter of Russian caviar, at a nippy four euros a bite, pushed into my face by a small woman in a sarafan.
I was a little taken aback by the division between the “International” and the ”Agricultural”; Outside of the fair-like international gastronomy pavilion, I was barraged by overwhelming, even urgent declarations of the “Frenchness” of this service or that product. The display put on by LU Biscuits, a French company formed in Nantes in 1846, seemed to me an apt metaphor for France’s changing alimentary landscape. Now owned by Kraft, Inc, LU still markets itself as an artisanal, thoroughly French company, even as the cheery sales representatives handed out mass-produced biscuit samples in sterile plastic wrappers.
The Salon also stepped on the environmentalism bandwagon to encourage visitors to choose French agricultural products. Slogans like “manger local” (eat local), or “manger bio” (eat organic), were everywhere. Competition from factory farms and enormous agricultural collectives has forced many smaller producers to market their products as ”artisanal” luxury goods or health products. In the animal pavilion, small French children cooed over piglets marketed as high quality, highly local meat products. Brochures bearing images of steaks, sausages, and hams were stacked neatly next to the animal enclosures.
The cultural and political stakes at the Agricultural Salon were clear. The alimentary nationalism of the Salon’s rhetoric was intentionally appealing to French hearts shaken by drastic change and economic uncertainty. It seemed to suggest that even if French is no longer the language of diplomacy, its cultural dominance persists in one last realm: gastronomy.
But with the impending demise of the French farmer, many fear generations of gastronomical and cultural heritage—French cuisine was added to the UNESCO cultural heritage list in 2010—will be lost. A vibrant locavorist movement has sprung up to defend local markets, and most people in Paris still buy bread from neighborhood boulangeries. France might still be a country of markets, where locally grown apples are often cheaper than imported varieties, but it is actively moving away from traditional ways of producing and consuming food. Large grocery stores have gained ground, and one of the most popular brands sold in France is Picard, which sells only frozen food.
As an adopted French daughter, I hope they continue to fight for this tradition; it is truly something worth saving. Consider the simple raw milk cheese and perfectly crusty, lightly salted baguette de tradition—this divine combination can only be found in France: raw milk cheese is barred by US pasteurization laws, and the Parisian baguette has a lifespan of less than six hours. Heaven could never taste the same produced en masse abroad and shipped to France in plastic.
EMILY HONG ’14 is an Environmental Engineering Major in Pierson College College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.