Monday, October 17, 2011

How do you say "Miss the point" in French?

Pardonnez-moi un moment while I get my rant on.

In the October 6 Los Angeles Times, special correspondent Kim Willsher wrote an article with the title: "France bans ketchup in cafeterias." Note the slight disclaimer in the subtitle: "Well, it's allowed with one side dish (guess which one). But putting it on veal or boeuf bourguignon is now interdit at schools nationwide."
Hilarious: those funny frogs and their stuck-up culinary ways, trying to forcefully wrench the world's most beloved dipping sauce from their children.

I'll come back to the hurtful cultural stereotypes this article employs as its hook. Let's first discuss some plain bad journalism. The new policy was implemented on October 3, 2011 to improve the health of public school lunches after more than four years of expert nutrionist research. Here are the real highlights:
  • A variety of 4-5 dishes must be served at both lunch and dinner
  • At least one of theses dishes must be a vegetable-based side and one must include dairy products
  • Fries (high in calories and sodium) can only be served once a week
  • Water and bread must be freely available, but
  • All sauces, including mayonnaise, vinaigrette and - yes - ketchup, are served in fixed portions directly on the student's plates and only when those sauces would be appropriate to the meal.
This policy will be enforced because schools have to document exactly what they are serving to students and report to the government. These records must be kept up to date for the previous three months.

This is a fantastic policy. France, who is simultaneously being a team-player in the European Union with this legislation, is doing hard scientific research and applying that data to better look after the health of its citizens. It's being responsible with both the content and enforcement of its legislation and shaping good eating habits in its youth. And yet, Kim Willsher decides to go with the "France Bans Ketchup!" angle?

A quick scan through Willsher's other articles for the LA Times demonstrates a competent journalist who specializes in news from Europe. The tone is even, the research is well-done and the writing is clear. So it's baffling to me how such a professional could succumb to such facile xenophobia. Let's put aside the poor translations of a few key words in the article. ("Canteen"? Really?) Maybe Willsher isn't a professional translator; but a the large proportion of articles about France, I will assume this person is at least competent in reading the language. Let's merely discuss the fact that it took me 10 minutes to Google the straight facts about this entire thing. To wit, after a digging through a "ketchup interdit" Google search, I found:
And from that article, I made a simple search for "Journal officiel", then looked within that site for the October 2 publications. Egads, I had to cross-reference a pair of one-page publications to get the skinny on ketchup and its evil cohorts mayonnaise and vinaigrette. This kind of irresponsible journalism riles me to no end. It doesn't help, of course, they this article perpetuates anti-French stereotypes, but the fact is plain and simple KETCHUP IS NOT BANNED. Fact-check; sheesh.

However, what's more pernicious here is the xenophobia that allows such an article to be published. This isn't Willsher's fault alone. Maybe Willsher thought it would be a funny fluff-piece, maybe the editor did, too. But it sticks in my craw that this last line from the LA Times article is certainly meant to be a zinger: "Food is very important here," said Hazan of the parents federation, "and we can't have children eating any old thing."

That's not funny, that's a profound statement of cultural values. It's also plain common sense: we shouldn't have children eating "any old thing." We should look after their nutritional well-being. And in France, a country with a very rich culinary heritage, it's also a matter of national pride. But Willsher and the editor and probably several people who read the article all thought that it was hilarious. Because, you know, the French are narrow-minded and denigrate anything not in line with their simplistic world-view and maniacally seek to exclude foreign products and workers and tightly control their media and economy so that it wobbles on the brink of isolationism.

Oh wait...

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