The great eclair vs. brownie war: American food invades France

The p^atisserie on the rue de Rivoli is doing brisk business. Shoppers wait to buy mid-afternoon snacks. Office workers hanker for a coffee-break goody. Tourists flock there, thinking, ``if the French are lining up, it must be really good.''

They don't find eclairs. This bakery sells brownies.

American cooking has become the ``in'' cuisine in this capital of fine food. After spending years deriding hamburgers as junk food, the French are finding that American cooking fits their fast-paced life style and that the culinary repertoire from across the Atlantic consists of more than a beef patty on a bun.

Drawing on a growing facination for American culture, the French are:

Eating piping-hot chocolate chip cookies from the ovens of two dozen cookie outlets nationwide.

Drinking California wines at cafeterias and bars.

Dining on barbecued spare ribs and chicken, corn on the cob, strawberry shortcake, and pecan pie at half a dozen new American restaurants.

For years, the French were food purists. Proud of a centuries-old gastronomic tradition, they sniffed at foreign cooking. But now it's `a la mode. Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and North African restaurants are packed with variety-hungry French diners. One Vietnamese establishment even boasts what thousands of French restaurants cannot: a Guide Michelin star.

The new interest reflects a changing life style. The French don't have time for three-hour lunches anymore; they travel more; immigrants have brought new traditions. At the same time, the quality of French food in small local eateries has declined and prices have soared. Little wonder the French are drawn to American fare.

``We've given the French an escape from the traditional brasserie and bistro you find around the corner,'' says Marshal Backlar, a former TV producer whose Los Angeles-style restaurant is the talk of Paris. His carte du jour features hamburgers and regional American cooking from California pizzas to Maryland soft-shell crabs.

``Anything American is . . . in, especially with French youth,'' says Jean-Pierre Bourbeillon, who opened an American specialty-food store here last year. Mr. Bourbeillon believes more and more French return from trips to the United States raring to cook up dishes savored there. Bourbeillon's General Store stocks fixings from across America: crispy tacos, salsa sauce from Arizona, Wisconsin cranberry compote, Georgia boiled peanuts, Vermont maple syrup, plus dozens of brand-name items American shoppers routinely toss in their grocery carts.

The French also find that American food is more portable than French food.

``It's much harder to walk down the street eating an eclair or a Napoleon than it is a chocolate chip cookie,'' says Rita Levy, a native of Detroit who came to France two years ago to study cooking. Last year she began baking for the French. ``In the beginning, it was ridiculous,'' says Ms. Levy, of the French consternation over American baked goods. ``They'd say, `Is there meat inside?,' because the shape of the cookie was so different.''

These days, there are plenty of converts to cookies, not just at Levy's Cookie Connexion but at two American chains, Laura Todd Cookies and The Original Cookie Company. This summer, a French company, Cookis, launched more than 12 franchises across the country and hopes to have 50 soon. Chocolate-chip cookies have caught on with at least three major French biscuit manufacturers, each having launched a new product line.

Catherine Noiret, product manager for Generale Biscuit France, says the company was searching for a new food for younger consumers and decided to adapt American cookies to French tastes. The result, she claims, is decidedly French, despite its name, ``Hello.''

But the French aren't about to abandon cr^epes suzette for cookies. Over bowls of nachos and plates of salmon salad, French diners still praise home fare and fault American cooking for its lack of distinctiveness.

``It's half Mexican, half something, half something else,'' said one recently. Said another, ``American food is just for snacks.'' And yet another dished out the worst insult or, perhaps, the highest compliment to an American chef in Paris -- he said the food was very French.

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