Not Your Usual French Travelogue

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There seems to be no end of books about France and its food, and yet somehow they all seem to be of a single type. We’re introduced to a cast of stock characters who then proceed to charm us in all the most obvious ways. Or not. Like ants trapped in amber, they have a golden glow but are completely without life. Once again, it’s “look at the colorful peasants” time.

What’s best about Mort Rosenblum’s “A Goose in Toulouse” (Hyperion, $25) is how he flirts with this style just enough to be entertaining and then dances away in time to inform us. As a result, he turns up bits that are fresh and alive in what otherwise is a well-plowed literary field.

Perhaps the reason Americans are so fascinated by the French attitude toward food is that it is so different from our own. To imagine how the French feel about cooking, you’d have to roll up the American passions for baseball and rock ‘n’ roll into one giant sausage, and then serve it with a healthy helping of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


In France, food has been both a keystone of cultural life and a source of chauvinistic pride for centuries. And (like rock ‘n’ roll and baseball), it’s also something that keeps changing with the times.

This is where most writers on France and food fail. They don’t seem to realize that what they’re writing about is not some black-and-white Pagnol film but a dynamic contemporary culture.

“Goose” is both hard-eyed and affectionate. The people who inhabit it are both charming and utterly maddening. They are capable of profound insight and of oblivious hypocrisy. In one scene, a small-town bistro owner complains bitterly about how “McDo” (McDonald’s) should be driven out of town, even as he is refusing to serve lunch because it is two minutes past closing time.

As entertaining as the book is, Rosenblum is playing for bigger stakes than most writers of his ilk. Rather than settling for an armchair travelogue, he is trying to capture in fleeting vignettes the way both the French and their food are changing today. The “peasants” in this book may be colorful, but they are modern people living in a time of profound cultural change.

If anything, the vignettes are too fleeting. Rosenblum, who wrote last year’s prize-winning “Olives,” is a longtime Associated Press newsman who has been based in France since the mid-’70s. Ever the old wire service correspondent, he never seems to stay in one place long enough for you to feel you’ve gotten the complete picture. On the other hand, the effect of so many small pieces is that of a kind of a mosaic or a collage, where you have to do some of the work of fitting together what seem like disparate parts.

In any case, it’s a fine book when your only complaint is that there’s not more of it.