The French Are Spinning American Food

Viande Americaine is definitely food, but it isn't American. And so what?

Let them eat bagels!

Photographer: Norman Hollands/Photolibrary

Spring twilight comes late to northern France, and around 9, when we left the Marine Le Pen rally, a hush was settling across the countryside. This, the candidate had said, was the real France, and it was certainly the France that American tourists long for, untouched by the homogenizing forces of global travel.

Every step away from the village square seemed a step away from modernity, into a peasant history so ancient as to be functionally eternal. Venerable trees creaked in the breeze; deep grasses gently waved; the farmers in their brick houses were already putting themselves to sleep beside the fields that would need their labors come sunrise.

But then we reached the jarringly modern car, and that most modern decision: Where shall we eat this evening? Phones came out; choices were made. We headed for Saint Quentin, the nearest large town, where the internet suggested a variety of promising restaurants. My travelling companion, a Frenchman and an impressive gourmet, regaled me with descriptions of the local specialties I might want to try.

Turns out "nearest" wasn't very near; we arrived close to 10 p.m., and found Saint Quentin’s lone open restaurant. And laughed. In the middle of northern France, we had found our way to an American-themed bar.

I’ve always been somewhat bemused by American tourists who flock to American joints when abroad. I am not above eating at Pizza Hut, but I sure wouldn’t fly 3,000 miles to London’s Piccadilly Circus to get myself a Meat Lovers Personal Pan pizza. However. Here we were in Saint Quentin, and it was 10 o’clock, and I hadn’t eaten for many many hours, and I confess, I had a certain curiosity as to how a provincial French restaurateur would interpret my native cuisine.

The answer, in case you’re wondering, is “oddly.” Not nearly as odd as the "Mexican" food you find in Europe, which has always reminded me of the plastic nigiri in the windows of sushi restaurants: It looks just as it should, but don't try taking a bite.... In Saint Quentin's Le Golden Pub, the American food was at least both food and American. Sort of.

Americans certainly do enjoy our bagels with cream cheese. But we do not enjoy them enough to put them on the dinner menu of our local pub.

Instead I settled on a meal as quintessentially American as the stars and stripes, or the Solo cup: a burger, a soda and a banana split.

The burger came with a local cheese called Maroilles that I’d never heard of. The canonical American burger cheeses are, like the ideal American, a simple, friendly lot. These cheeses are selected heavily for melting ability and unobtrusiveness, rather than complexity or dark charm. This cheese was assertive and pungent, and still quite solid. Atop that cheese sat aioli, and a profusion of cornichons rather than dill pickles. The bread was some sort of ciabatta, too big for the patty and rather more chewy than Americans expect from a hamburger bun.

“It’s the bread,” said Pascal, my dinner companion, when talk turned to the strange things that happen to burgers when they venture abroad. Pascal, a great lover of American food, turned out to have given the matter of burger structure and form a great deal more thought than I ever had. “American burger buns are slightly sweet, which you never find here.” They are also spongy, soaking up the meat juices until burger and bun meld into a nearly indistinguishable whole. European burger bread, in my experience, keeps fighting for its separate identity to the very last bite.

At least the burger could reasonably be recognized as a burger. My banana split, on the other hand, was an enormous confection, round rather than banana-shaped, and taking up a sizeable dinner plate. It contained a few paltry coins of banana, buried in approximately 1,700 calories of whipped cream. The fudge sauce was not hot, and had assumed a texture somewhere between those of Magic Shell and a gummy bear.

I was reminded of a college friend whose father had worked in a restaurant for the first few years after he arrived in the U.S. from China. It took him nine months, she told me, to realize that the food they were serving was supposed to be Chinese. One could easily imagine the same fate befalling an American who came to work at Le Golden Pub.

I pause here to note that I'm not that American who goes abroad and complains that nothing is as good as it is at home. This meal was, in fact, delicious, at least an 8 out of 10 in the category of bar food. The Maroilles was marvelous, and, I have sadly learned, is not readily available in the U.S. In any case, my hope upon finding an American-themed bar was not that I would find good food, but that -- after a lifetime of experiencing American renditions of other cultures' cuisines -- I would see how the French do American food. 

Volumes are written about the terrible things that Americans do to other cuisines, whether it be the teeth-aching sweetness of General Tso’s chicken, or the Godzilla-like growth of the American burrito. In most of the conversations I’ve had about this, the assumption is that there must be something wrong with Americans, that we cannot enjoy foreign dishes the way they were intended to be eaten. Or even worse, that we are culinary imperialists, plundering the recipes of other nations, and then screwing them up. What the heck is an "Asian salad," anyway?

But every cuisine gets lost in translation, and always for the same reasons. The source's ingredients are hard to get in a foreign land; the original skills are hard to teach to foreigners; local palates are hard to please with food that seems entirely strange. And local knowledge -- like “bagels are a breakfast food” -- doesn’t necessarily get transferred along with the recipes. I hardly need to point out that France has a formidable food culture, full of good chefs and great restaurants. But it’s no better than we are at replicating someone else’s tradition. The result is the culinary equivalent of Franglais.

Which is all to the good, as the results of these translation errors are often grand. With rare exceptions like succotash, every great “American” dish is someone else’s native food, altered beyond all recognition. The hamburger itself seems to have come from German immigrants, but upon these shores, it gained a bun (slightly sweet), tomato ketchup, and a slice of dill pickle. Thus armed, it strode forth to make global culinary history. And who am I to say that Saint Quentin’s interpretation is any less valid than New York’s?

Telling Americans to stop appropriating someone else’s cuisine is demanding an impossibility; almost everything we eat has been appropriated from somewhere. Other cultures' chefs should appropriate freely as well!

I left Le Golden Pub as I’d come, a little disappointed that I didn’t get to try the traditional specialties of northern France. But I walked away pleasantly full, and wondering if I hadn’t been present at the birth of some future classic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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