La Dolce Vida: Novelists on American versus French Food in the 1930s

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

La Dolce Vida: Novelists on American versus French Food in the 1930s

First, from George Orwell (1903-1950):

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it….[1]

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English–no French–and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not…. [2]

While the Frenchman ate, the patron’s wife stood behind the grille of the kitchen door and watched the expression of his face. Next night the Frenchman came back with two other Frenchmen. This meant that we were earning a good name; the surest sign of a bad restaurant is to be frequented only by foreigners. Probably part of the reason for our success was that the patron, with the sole gleam of sense he had shown in fitting out the restaurant, had bought very sharp table-knives. Sharp knives, of course, are the secret of a successful restaurant. I am glad that this happened, for it destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it. Or perhaps we were a fairly good restaurant by Paris standards; in which case the bad ones must be past imagining. [3]

And from Henry Miller (1891-1981):

The only place to find a good loaf of bread is in the ghettos. Wherever there is a foreign quarter there is apt to be good bread. Wherever there is a Jewish grocer or delicatessen you are almost certain to find an excellent loaf of bread. The dark Russian bread light in weight, found only rarely on this huge continent, is the best bread of all. No vitamins have been injected into it by laboratory specialists in conformance with the latest food regulations…. [4]

Another fact…. Food, when it is not enjoyed, kills. The best diet in the world is useless if the patient has no appetite, no gusto, no sensuality. On the whole, Americans eat without pleasure…. [5]

We throw bones to the dogs and eat the dogs instead of the bones…. [6]

Americans can eat garbage, provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or any other condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish. On the other hand, olive oil which the French eschew when preparing salads because it has too strong a flavor, Americans hardly ever use in their salads. [7]


[1] Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. 1930. XIV.

[2] Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London XIV.

[3] Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London XXI.

[4] Miller, Henry. The Intimate Henry Miller. 1939. Signet Book. April 1959.  p. 71.

[5] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 74.

[6] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 76.

[7] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 78.



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