I have no idea who runs it now – and I’ve never actually eaten there to begin with – but at one point in time, the restaurant atop Boston’s Prudential Building, Top of the Hub, was run by Stouffer’s. Our joke*at the time was that they boiled the plastic bag containin your meal by the side of your table, like when the waiter showily bones a fish, makes steak tartar, or mixes up a Caesar salad. (Are any of these still done anywhere? The Caesar salad production number was performed before Caesars became ubiquitous.)
Fast forward a couple of decades, and there was a baguette problem in France when it came to the fore that a lot of the little corner boulangeries were no longer baking their own, but were selling bread from commercial factories. Of course, factory bread in France is not exactly a loaf of Wonder Bread. Nonetheless, bakers who do their baking on-site now display signs that read ‘Artisan Boulangerie.’
I’ve been to Paris a few times, and baguettes, and their skinny sister, the ficelle, have always been on my must eat list while I’m there.
A couple of visits ago, we saw a colossal line outside a bakery in our ‘hood. We decided that its bread must be pretty good, so the next morning I headed out to pick up a baguette. Alas, when I got there I found that the bakery was closed for good, and that the line snaking outside was just the locals grabbing their last. We missed out on what was probably a very good thing. But Paris being Paris, there was another boulangerie around the corner, and I got myself a baguette. Whether it was factory-made or home grown, I don’t recall.
Apparently, it’s not just the baguettes that are mass produced.
As I saw in a recent Economist, not-invented-here dishes are all over the restaurants. And the situation has made it all the way into the halls of government, where:
…one of the hottest topics in parliament these days is how to force restaurants to reveal whether they make their boeuf bourguignonon the premises or rip open packets and warm up the contents. (Source: The Economist)
What? Madame et Monsieur Manger aren’t back there behind the swinging doors whipping up canard and quenelles and coquilles saint jacques? Sacre bleu, is nothing sacred?
On June 27th the lower house approved an amendment to a consumer-rights bill that will force restaurants to label the dishes they prepare from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens as “fait maison”, or “home-made”. This is tougher than the optional label the government proposed, but less stringent than the obligatory description of every dish on every menu as either home-made or based on industrial products, which some want.
On the one hand, if someone can’t tell the difference – and that would probably include moi – what’s the difference?
On the other…
If you believe that you’re paying for Madame et Monsieur Manger aren’t back there behind the swinging doors whipping up canard and quenelles and coquilles saint jacques, because you like those dishes and you don’t have the time, interest, or ability to cook ‘em up for yourself, and M et M are just peeling back the lid on a high-tone version of an MRE, well, that doesn’t seem quite right, does it?
The estimate is that at minimum one-third “of all restaurants serve dishes prepared largely or entirely elsewhere…Improbably long menus at small eateries are one giveaway.”
Back home, I don’t think that I frequent restaurants that don’t at least cook from scratch on the entrees. But I do always gag a bit when I see “house-made” or “artisanal” whatever.
Maybe it’s time for a little truth in menu-izing on this front, too.
*Which works if you remember that Stouffer’s frozen dinners used to come in boil bags.