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When French Food Didn't Have to Advertise

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"The gastronomical meal of the French" has landed on the UNESCO world heritage list for "intangible" cultural treasures. That was great news for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He's been pushing this for two years. But is it good news for French food?

There was a time when French cuisine didn't have to broadcast its virtues through international awards. It was the undisputed standard for fancy dining, from Chicago to Moscow. And in Washington, D.C. — especially Washington, D.C.

No first couple today would dare turn the White House kitchen into the temple to French cuisine that Jackie and John Kennedy did. The recent death of their Vendee-born chef Rene Verdon has revived memories of an era when Americans hoisted French cooking above their own.

Fifty years ago this month, Verdon presented his first official White House meal, a lunch for British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The menu listed such items as beef filet au jus and a dessert called "Desire d'Avril," which translates to "April Desire."

When Princess Grace came over to dine in 1961, the menu included spring lamb a la broche primeurs, petits fours secs and demi-tasse. And the heck with California wines. The wine list started with Puligny-Montrachet and ended with Dom Perignon Champagne.

Right before the Kennedys it was canned vegetables and iceberg lettuce. For a 1955 dinner honoring the king and queen of Greece, Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower served shrimp cocktail, coleslaw, Boston brown bread sandwiches and toasted Triscuits.

After the Kennedys came Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson, who hired a "food coordinator" from Texas. He told Verdon to make garbanzo bean puree.

Of course, Kennedy was hardly the first American president to hire a French chef. Thomas Jefferson famously turned his Executive Mansion into a center for classic French dining. Patrick Henry thought this un-American, and grumbled that Jefferson had "abjured his native victuals."

John Quincy Adams expressed some reservations about the experience after dining at the mansion.

"There was, as usual, the dissertation upon wines, not very edifying," Adams wrote. (As president, Jefferson spent more than $2,500 for wine, David McCullough recounts in his book "John Adams.")

State dinners turned steadily less French after Jefferson. But other presidents continued to admire the cuisine. Even the "man of the people" from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, kept a French chef in the White House.

Today's presidents would not exalt French cuisine for danger of seeming too fancy-pants, and in some parts of the country, not adequately American. In response perhaps to all that silly questioning of Barack's American birth, the Obamas kept on George W. Bush's chef, Cristeta Comerford. (It happens that she was born in the Philippines.) But the White House has also employed a highly visible No. 2 chef, a Chicago boy named Sam Kass.

The Obama White House kitchen seems to favor domestically grown and organic victuals, nowadays the leading theme among America's culinary pundits. One could not imagine the Obamas' putting something called "Desire d'Avril" on their menu.

French cuisine has become just another great culinary tradition, alongside Italian, Chinese and Mexican. The loss of dominance may explain France's wish to see its gastronomy honored by UNESCO — alongside the Croatian carnival bell ringers' pageant.

Even in this victory, however, supporters of French cooking are toning down their claims of culinary superiority. "We have the best gastronomy in the world," Sarkozy said, quickly adding a politically correct disclaimer, "at least from our point of view."

There was a time when the French would have laughed off the notion of seeking official recognition of its gastronomic might. Apparently no more. But good French cuisine remains darn magnifique nonetheless.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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