It was a history-besotted few days in London last week. The first big question was whether the Olympic Games in 2012 would be held in there, or in Paris. London won that one in a squeaker, and the principals gathered for the G-8 meeting in Scotland sounded eager to address a matter that everyone seemed to care more about than world poverty, though that is a callous way to say it. Safer–and more accurate–to say that winning the Olympics bid generates locally much more satisfaction than increasing prospective calorie consumption in Africa.
Then almost immediately, as if specially designed to abort celebration, the bombings came. Four explosions in London, bringing pain to hundreds, death to more than 50, and a reintroduction, to a nation that has had so much of it, of life in the age of terrorism.
The Brits seemed to take the developments in stride, one more chance to spit in the face of nettlesome intruders on the British way of life. But there is most adamant talk now of the need to regulate immigration. There are an estimated half million illegal residents here, and some of these get satisfaction from planting bombs in subways and buses.
But the most resonant explosions were brought on not by terrorists, but by Jacques Chirac. He was dining with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cafe in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, which was celebrating its 750th anniversary. As he chatted with Schroeder and Putin, he did not notice a French newspaper reporter at a nearby table pulling out a tape recorder. The reporter captured words which might have brought on a world war, and some British seemed to be almost in the mood for it.
The casus belli was what Chirac confided to his fellow world leaders about British cuisine. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as [the British],” he told them. “After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.” M. Chirac was quite obviously carried away with his mission to educate Germans and Russians, advising their leaders that the “only contribution” the British have made to agriculture has been “mad cow disease.”
That really did it. The Daily Mail began with a grand overview of Franco-British relations. “With the exception of two world wars in which, oddly, we found ourselves on the same side, we have loathed the French since 1066.” The Mail’s Simon Heffer went on to excoriate French agricultural policies, which have the effect of bringing undernourishment and even starvation to thousands.
The paper’s food editor is not to be trifled with. Clarissa Dickson Wright not only defended British cooking, she contrasted it to the dangers of eating in France, where, she said, she had even lost a family member. “Some years ago great uncle Bertram dined in one of those charming little provincial restaurants the French love to bang on about. He ate a classic French regional dish, tripe à la mode de Caen. Afterwards he died of acute food poisoning.” She left her readers wondering that there were so many Frenchmen still alive.
Even Finland lived to fight again. A London-based Finnish food writer reminded the British that “the success of any dish depends on the quality of its ingredients. And few countries offer greater access to fresh, wild, and delicious ingredients than Finland.” The writer thought it odd that Chirac should have said such things about Finnish cuisine, having a few years ago benefited from a dinner in his honor in Finland. “On the menu was a variety of Finnish delicacies–morel soup, terrine of trout, filet of reindeer with wild mushrooms and lingonberry ice cream.”
A Daily Mail editor rounded off the discussion by contributing a welter of “Jacques Jokes.” They included, “What did the Mayor of Paris say to the German army as they entered the city in World War II?” A: “A Table for 100,000, M’sieur?”
The British have survived the bombings from the terrorists and from the president of France.