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How the Middle Eats: French Add Convenience To Customary Cuisine

October 11, 1995

A big pot of chili con carne is simmering on the stove. In the living room, guests sip aperitifs and nibble on Old El Paso tortilla chips and salted peanuts. A Leonard Cohen CD plays in the background.

It is a casual dinner party for about a dozen friends hosted by Florence Boitelet and Jean-Paul Jean-George at her home in Aubenas, France. In the town of 13,000, in the temperate southeastern province of Ardeche, regional delicacies include marrons glaces, glazed chestnuts. But American-style convenience foods _ from takeout pizza to the fare served up by hamburger and Tex-Mex restaurants _ have spread to Aubenas from cities like Paris and Lyon, and they are changing one of the most traditional aspects of French life: la cuisine. One of the hot spots in Aubenas these days is Cafe Cactus, a Tex-Mex restaurant. ``It’s all the rage,″ says Ms. Boitelet, a pedicurist.

Dinner is served in Ms. Boitelet’s cozy kitchen at a broad wooden table. The meal starts traditionally, with a locally made pate, a green salad with warm chicken gizzards, a fresh mushroom salad and sliced baguettes. The main course is a startling departure: Mr. Jean-George’s homemade chili, served in bowls, with tortilla chips on the side. Next: a large cheese platter, which generates a vigorous discussion of the merits of strong-smelling cheeses. Dessert is a homemade creme Anglaise, or custard, that has been chilling outside on the doorstep, and a fresh apple torte.

The meal winds down at 11 p.m. with tiny cups of very strong coffee and quiet conversation around the table. One guest, local architect Bernard Bancion, tells of the McDonald’s restaurant he is designing _ the town’s first. But designing it is one thing; eating there is something else. Puffing on a cigarette, Mr. Bancion holds forth on the superiority of French cooking, declaring that ``in the U.S., proper cuisine simply doesn’t exist.″

A few years ago, French traditionalists sounded an alarm that the country’s cuisine was under attack by American-style fast food and in danger of becoming extinct. They were right _ but only in part. There has been a change in the way the French cook and eat, but it’s not necessarily for the worse. With more women working and more families headed by single parents, a result of a rising divorce rate, dishes that are easy to prepare are at a premium. And the main meal of the day is shifting from midday to evening.

France’s big and small towns alike still have their open-air markets, but the French are in love with their sprawling supermarkets. ``When you go to the outdoor market, you have to carry everything,″ says Yvette Rey-Herme, a friend of Ms. Boitelet in Aubenas. ``In the supermarket, you have a wagon.″ And parking is easier than near the packed outdoor markets. There also are popular retail chains that specialize in frozen meals, from couscous dinners, quiche Lorraine, tiramisu and creme brulee to gratin of eggplant, paupiettes of veal, roast pork filets and ratatouille.

``Two-career couples want prepared foods,″ laments Jean-Louis Plancher, a third-generation butcher in Aubenas who in recent years has seen his meat, game and poultry sales slip as purveyors of ready-to-eat meals prosper. ``The traditional sector is in a constant decline.″

These changes do not necessarily mean that the quality of French home-cooked cuisine has deteriorated. Experts in French cuisine such as Jean-Pierre Coffe, an author and television personality, say that the ingredients sold by large supermarket chains are comparable _ and sometimes superior _ to those found in mom-and-pop groceries. Additionally, across France there is a growing concern with healthy eating; the French are eating less traditional butter- and cream-laden dishes and fatty cuts of meat. They are also eschewing breads made from refined flour _ such as the once-ubiquitous baguettes _ in favor of whole grains.

A result: French cuisine is increasingly a convergence of traditional and contemporary dishes emphasizing freshness, health and presentation _ as well as convenience. There is also more of an international flavor, a result of the rising tide of immigration.

At the Klinghofer house in Aubenas, around the corner from Ms. Boitelet, you’ll find crunchy fresh loaves of bread from a nearby boulangerie, vegetables bought fresh from the open-air market in town or plucked from the family’s garden and an assortment of cheeses ripening on a platter that is brought out at the end of the evening meal. But supplies also include a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix; packages of potato chips; and boxes of quick-cooking rice, instant mashed potatoes, salad croutons, dried spaghetti and fondue mix. ``We’re copying the United States,″ says Odile Klinghofer, a mother of two sons. Cooking American-style, she says, is ``simpler, more youthful and faster.″

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