4 Sep 2010

American Bubble-Gum

Brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins... These are words that need no description, no explanation and no translation (they are untranslated, and maybe even untranslatable). Taking France as an example, those words have invaded our dictionaries and vocabulary like in their day 'jerrycan', 'week-end', 'chewing-gum', 'rock 'n' roll', hamburger and other terms of welcome (or imposed) American endearment. They are understood by most of us, maybe bar the centenarian living in seclusion in a remote village. Brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins have advanced onto our shores with ease but has this advancement brought progress to mankind? I wonder...

Creeping up our bakery counters, gaining column inches in food magazines, chosen by the cool-on-the-go, these cakes have won an incredible battle pit against France's honed, skilled  and world-reputed pâtisserie tradition, a battle of easy over fiddly, plain over tasty, fast over slow, filling over fancy, cheap over less cheap, a battle of taste, a battle of texture, a battle of colour. This battle of grub, of stodge, against delicacy was no charm offensive and I don't think it was ever meant to be.

Despite the fact that there is more to American specialities than Brownies & Co., the latter have succeeded in ramming Americana further down our throats. They are another example of what I call 'American bubble-gum', a cultural model that promotes a vision based on mass-consumerism (and this is not simply related to food), levelled expectations, levelled taste leading to its aseptisation, itself leading inexorably to loss of taste. And the loss of taste gives credence to a taste for insipidity.

Chocolate Mini Sparkle Doughnut by Starbucks: vector of propaganda?

I deplore the levelling of traditional French pâtisserie values to the so-called mass-market appeal, based on the promotion of universal uniformity and mediocrity of taste and experience to an audience of un-afficionados. By un-afficionados, I mean those French people and foreign visitors alike who do not seek, either out of choice or ignorance, the appreciation or savoir faire behind our expertly-skilled pastries, which are an integral part of our heritage at large. And through this we all are the (un-)willing witnesses to the levelling process of cultural difference.

This erosion of cultural difference is reflected further with mass-tourism. Instead of satisfying one's curiosity and embracing cultural difference, mass-market tourism will seek false reassurances by encouraging the readily availability of fast-food products that are familiar to all (beyond our American pâtisserie theme, but fully endorsed by the American food model), from pizza to kebab, from burger to pannini, from brownie to cookie, a commonly understood culinary language ('culinary' being an exaggeration). This levelling, led by the American model itself, threatens to enlist irrevocably our European youth (and their parents) who seem either happy to embrace it, indifferent about it, or resigned to accept it... I have chosen to raise my voice about the whole thing, and so be it if I have offended some of my readers. Please, I am no anti-American, but that doesn't mean I am ready to accept (and swallow) anything America throws at me.

Brownies au Chocolat Blanc et Noix de Macadamia by Elle à Table
P.S: I haven't mentioned the much-lauded cupcakes in this article on purpose. Because - in contrast with brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins - their elaborate colourful presentation demonstrates a certain amount of skill and talent, although the basis for the cupcake itself remains plain and easy. Cupcakes are 'couture cakes', as I like to describe them. The secret to their success lies in the decorative expertise of the cook/ baker, resulting in an individual, even unique style. Therefore for these reasons, I would put the cupcake in a higher league to that of Brownies & Co.

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