I was poking at a dessicated branzino at the Union League yesterday, half-listening to a schoolmate drone on about international alternatives, when he mentioned off-hand that the United States and France are gearing up for a trade war. Bordeaux could cost a bomb; brie could break the bank. I dare say, it shook me to my coeur. Thank God it’s not Sancerre season.
They’re decorating the club for Christmas, so I worried I was delirious from the smell of brass polish. I excused myself and discreetly logged on to see that, alas, the dreadful news is true. It’s bad enough that they’re banning foie gras in New York, which is as civilized as burning churches. Now the feds are getting in on the act too.
I consider myself a Francophile despite the Dents’ colorful history with our sister republic. An ancestor was driven out of New France for pirating beaver pelts and, after a perfunctory proceeding, had to make a dash out of the Château Frontenac. Another, accordingly to unconfirmed family lore, served as an aide to Lafayette during the Saratoga campaign. My father turned 19 en route to France in the late summer of 1944. I was his last child, and as a family rule we’re disinclined to disclosure, so he said little about the war. Still, I suspect his time in France was, well, formative.
In ’89 I spent a long summer smoking Gauloises and feigning literary ambition, and retreated to the Riviera after my second divorce. I’ve been known to gourmandize when encountering French cuisine, whether in Nice or Nashville, so I’m hardly a disinterested party.
Nonetheless, the more I think about this trade war, the angrier I get. The whole row smacks of misdirected populism. Frog-bashing is good politics in America, just as kicking Uncle Sam is the last refuge of every French politician caught playing at pantouflage. We’re alike in this as in so many other things. If, as Shaw said, Americans and Brits are separated by a common language, France and America are stubborn siblings who disdain one another for all the traits they self-evidently share.
Can we not admit, at least among friends, that it’s all idiocy? I can accept a healthy kicking from the masses of my fellow countrymen. Hatred of the American elite, of which I am a member in good standing, is well and truly warranted. But when the democratic impulse doesn’t end at the water’s edge, you wind up with ‘Freedom Fries’.
I especially loathe the idea of choosing between my patriotism and palate at the behest of Silicon Valley. Rewarding America’s most deracinated industry by punishing France’s gastric gifts to the globe is perverse. Those tech titans Trump is shielding would incorporate their operations in Kabul if they thought it would give them a point and a half per annum. They’ve already done it once in Dublin, which is almost as embarrassing.
Better I say to embrace the best of France rather than reflexively defend the worst of ourselves. Why give into culinary nativism? France’s teeming shore offers pinot, syrah, and grenache that will open as it breathes. For camembert or either type of brie I’ll lift my lamp beside Emma Lazarus’s golden door, or at least my fork. Trade wars may be good and easy to win, but vin et fromage is far better.