Things may be tough here for diners in the U.S., but at least we can rest easy that Europe will always be the bastion of good eating in the Western world, right?
Well, not exactly.
According to a couple recent news reports, you have reason to be concerned about the state of cuisine in two of the regions Americans usually think of when they think of good European food, France and the Mediterranean.
In the New York Times, doctors in Italy, Greece and Spain are worried that rapidly changing diets are causing an obesity epidemic. Instead of the much-vaunted Mediterranean Diet that's been popular among many American dieters, the real, contemporary version is approaching American standards of saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar and sodium.
"[The Mediterranean diet] is almost a perfect diet, but when we looked at what people were eating we noticed that much of the highly praised diet didn't exist any more," says Josef Schmidhuber, a senior economist at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. "It has become just a notion."
As American-style fast-food joints, ice-cream, snack foods and soda have become increasingly popular, so have Greeks, Italian and Spaniards ballooned in size, bringing with them the associated health problems. From 1982 to 2002, the rate of overweight 12-year-old Greek boys rose by more than 200 percent, and that rate is accelerating. Among Greek adults, three out of four are overweight or obese.
The NYT article doesn't discuss how much of the diet change came about for economic reasons rather than simply changes in taste and convenience, but that brings us to France, where the issue's not nutritional so much as wallet-based. Restaurants are having trouble filling seats, according to an opinion piece in The Independent.
"Heaven forefend, French waiters are being rude to customers. Not just hapless tourists who dare to order in faltering French, but natives with the temerity to insist that they do not want an aperitif before their meal," the column reads. "Even worse, some diners are being asked to leave a restaurant if they decline a starter and ask to go straight to the main course. French diners are quite literally tightening their belts as the economic downturn bites, and some restaurateurs, in indignation, are biting the hands they should be feeding."
In general, French restaurant sales are down between 20 and 30 percent, it goes on, with the worst-hit being eateries in the suburbs, and 3,000 cafes and restaurants going under in the first half of this year alone. Diners are forgoing desserts and wines to accompany meals, there's been a five-percent drop in the amount of coffee drunk at restaurants, and French workers are more and more likely to eat McDonald's take-out at their desks, just like any American working schmo.
The Independent says it's time to be afraid. Very afraid:
"This is more than a blow to a single industry. It strikes at the cultural heart of Europe , for the French, with their 35-hour weeks and two-hour lunches, have long set the leisurely eating standard to which the rest of the Continent always aspired. It established perspective and showed a respect for human dignity. If it goes, something rather deep will wither in the European soul."
Of course, Americans aren't included in that assessment, but it's fair to say that our feelings about the French and Mediterranean lifestyles are similar: a model for us to strive to emulate, to bring more love of good food and well-spent leisure time into our own lives. But these are game-changing times, and we can't count on the old truisms anymore, like the French love to eat out, Mediterranean diets are healthy, and Lehman Brothers will never go bankrupt.
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