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July 07, 2007


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The organizers of a book signing…

The organizers of a book signing in Aix-en-Provence invited Jill and me to a party in a lovely apartment in the center of town. There were mounds of pasta, wonderful greens, and lots of wine. Many of the other guests were food people and there were a few farmers in the mix. By then, we had been in France for nearly a month and that afternoon, at the book signing, I had talked a little bit about the excellence of the food we had found – especially in the countryside. I spoke with admiration about the cheeses and sausages we found in the country kitchens of our friends. The cuts of meat purchased from a one-man butcher shop in Normandy. What we had found was that there was an enormous sense of pride in the producers and that this “hand-made” dimension was easy to recognize in the taste of the food. As I glanced around the party at the hale, hardy, and lean Frenchmen engaged in strenuous debate, the health benefits of such a food system seemed obvious too.

I listened in to a conversation between Jill and a wild-eyed and young wine maker. I recognized his longish blonde hair and crooked teeth and knew he was the man who, that afternoon at the book store, had made the comment from the audience that he remembered slaughtering hogs on their farm as a kid. We were talking about how Wild Idea harvests our buffalo and he lamented that such community based slaughter had been outlawed by new European Union regulations designed for huge corporate slaughterhouses. Jill was extolling the virtues of the vegetables and fruits we had been eating. The man smiled and cradled an unopened bottle of wine like a child. It was clear to me that this was wine that he had made from grapes he had grown and that he considered it the best fruit of all.

The party moved on and I found myself in front of a computer screen looking at pictures of another man’s handy work. He was a cabinet maker at a shipyard that specialized in very expensive yachts. The cabinet work in the pictures was of a quality that I did not know existed and I was leaning very close to the computer screen when I heard the long haired farmer come into the room behind us. Everyone had had plenty to drink by that time but from his gestures and broken English I understood that he wanted me to have a glass of a special Bordeaux wine he had made. Of course I accepted, and had to admit that it was very good stuff indeed. “My grandfather made this wine. My father made it. I make it!”

“But you don’t slaughter hogs any more?” I asked.

“No killing of hogs on the farm. EU son-o-bitches. Hogs from Belgium.” He was drunker than the rest of us and had become impassioned for reasons that I knew well. He slung his glass of wine to punctuate his frustration but never spilled a drop. He was a Monty Python caricature of radical French Farmer and I loved him. But I felt sorry for him too. He raved on about how California wines were of such inferior quality that there should be a law against them. “Australia,” he said as if the word was an insect in his mouth. Sausage from confinement hogs in Belgium, wines from every sunny paradise the world over. All of it cheaper than this man and his friends could produce it. He was getting Globalizationized, materialized, and neutralized, and though he felt the initial stirrings of the great mediocre, anonymous beast, he had no real idea how insidious it could be.

In some ways I wanted to take him for lunch in America. I wanted to hear his ravings as we strolled down a strip mall, wanted to see his face when he tasted “food” labeled with an ingredient list he did not recognize and that no one could pronounce. I’m afraid that such a walk would be like an afternoon spent in a time machine for that farmer and tens of thousands like him. It frightens me to think that hamburger stands, pizza joints, look-alike sports bars all sporting the cheapest, least healthy, and characterless food the world can produce might be the future of even places with the traditions of France.

But maybe not. My French farmer friend poured us another glass of his fabulous wine and he pointed to the label and tried to explain what it meant in relation to his father and to him. “The Chile sons-o-bitches don’t say nothing,” he said. “We put it right here.” He ran his finger along a line of French words beginning with appellation but meaning nothing to me. We had both drank more than our share and we leaned our heads together. He smiled. “You know Jose Bove?” Jose Bove is the notorious French farm activist that famously drove his tractor into a McDonald’s restaurant to make a point.

“Of course I know Bove,” I said, and leaned my head even closer to his.

His drunken eyes shifted left and right in a highly conspiratorial way. “I voted for him,” my friend said softly. “For president of France!” Then he smiled with his crooked teeth. “Next time we are going to win.”

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