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The Village Bakery in France   August 16, 2005

Even Americans who loathe French culture place one element of French life on a pedestal: the French way with food. Although it may seem to have started with those precious books about the lad-di-da life in Provence by breathlessly awed Americans--"they actually sit down for lunch! I burst into tears at the sheer joy of it all"--its roots trace all the way back to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson's leisurely posts in France as representatives of the nascent United States of America.
The boys had a grand old time in Paree, schmoozing it up with French politicos and bigwigs and downing the trendiest wines of the time. (No word on how Tom's companion and favored slave, Sally Hemmings, fared.) Recall that Franklin and Jefferson each served the Republic at different times, not concurrently, and that the presence of the French fleet at Yorktown sealed the fate of the British army trapped onshore. (No French fleet, no victory for the rebellious colonies.)

Jefferson's stint as American diplomat in France launched his interest in wine-making, that necessary precursor to wine drinking, and as a result he set up vineyards and a winery at his rural estate in Virginia, Monticello. In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that Jefferson was an equal-opportunity drinker, as he also brewed beer in the basement of Monticello.

As you can imagine, the Francophiles reigned supreme in the young States, for the thrilling rhetoric of the new French Revolution was certainly sympatico with the young Republic's ideals. Anglophiles either fled to Canada or dear old England, or simply kept their mouths shut; after all, some 40% of the Caucasian population of the colonies supported the British Crown's attempt to suppress and eradicate the rebels.

So before you lay waste to French snootiness and its kissing cousin, French anti-Americanism, remember that the Founding Fathers lucky enough to nail down a post in Paris found a very congenial atmosphere. In other words, despite all the precious blather written about the City of Lights (as in lighten your wallet, je pense) and Provence--not that the ga-ga Americans actually toil under the hot Provencal sun to nurture those glorious fresh vegetables or old vines; they hire local peasantry to actually do the real living--there is something to the notion that the French do appreciate food and the taking of meals in a way which is utterly foreign to our Fast Food Nation.

By way of example, consider the essential role played in rural life by the village bakery. Villages which lose their bakery lose an essential component of French life, and so the loss of a village baker is a communal tragedy. One village in the Cevennes region (west of fabled Provence) lost its baker to an auto accident, and the blow to the community cannot be adequately described to an American inured to buying plastic-wrapped loaves of unknown origin from a supermarket. My brother (a resident of those parts for many years) reports that there is a shortage of bakers nowadays, for the usual reasons: it's hard work with wretched hours, and young people hope to become bankers or hip-hop stars (practically the same thing, only bankers prefer Mercedes over Bentleys), not village bakers.

The baker in a nearby village occasionally drinks too much, which interferes with waking up in the wee hours of the morning to start the day's bread, and so the village is rather understandably annoyed to arrive for the morning bread and find not fresh bread but a hung-over baker. But the difficulties of replacing a baker preclude even the slightest remonstrance--perhaps one under the breath--but the risk of alienating a community treasure far outweighs the brief pleasure of a sound scolding.

The photo above is of the bakery in my brother's small village. When I visit, we make the short walk there and buy the morning's croissants and bread. Neaby bakeries make the biologique (organic) whole-grain breads preferred by my family, but the village bakery certainly gets their business. Though the proprietors do not speak English, my schoolboy French suffices; heck, you can always just point to what you want and hold out a euro or two-- French bread and pastries are cheap by American standards.

The closest analog I can suggest to the importance of the village bakery is Main Street in an older American town. The French bakery is Main Street; without it, the rest of the village businesses wither away. With a bakery, you might support a cafe and a restaurant, and retain your equally valued post office; but without a baker and a bakery-- le village, c'est fini.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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