Could the French be gaining on us?

February 13, 2014 

Vincent: And you know what they call a ... a ... a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?

Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn't know what ... a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: Then what do they call it?

Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.

Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?

Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?

Vincent: I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.

From the movie “Pulp Fiction.”

Whatever they call it, the French are loving it. They’re eating hamburgers as if they were ... well, Americans.

Burgers now make up about 45 percent of all sandwiches sold in France, according to research from the French consulting firm Gira Conseil. CNN reports that France is McDonald’s second-largest market in the world, after the United States, with 1,300 outlets.

Now, instead of steak frites and a croque monsieur (basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette), French diners are asking for burgers – or le burger, as the generic beef-on-bun sandwich is listed on French menus. The French now eat more burgers –14 each, on average, per year – than any other Europeans on the continent.

Three quarters of France’s 110,000 restaurants now serve hamburgers. And food trucks hawking burgers are swarming Parisian boulevards.

Not all of France’s burgers are sold out of fast-food joints. Upscale restaurants also offer burgers, but you’re not likely to find them on the dollar menu.

A place called Big Fernand’s, for example, offers 3,840 different burger combos with your choice of Charolais or Normandy beef for about $18 apiece. Frites or le onion rings are extra.

Restaurant critics now are getting in on the act, touting their favorite burger outlets, no doubt arguing among themselves about which burgers have the perfect fat content and the best buns. Scoff if you must, but France suddenly seems to have become a burger lover’s paradise.

And that is a little unnerving. Are we sure we want France co-opting the quintessential, all-American food item, one that is perhaps even more American than apple pie?

Sure, we have purloined foods from France – French fries, French toast, French onion soup. But we haven’t necessarily improved on them.

And, yes, the French have stolen things from America. But, for example, when they took Jerry Lewis, the joke was on them.

In this case, the French could be poised for a burger breakthrough. Don’t neglect the fact that they know their way around the kitchen.

They might end up making a better burger than ours.

Impossible, you say? Well, remember the wine competition of 1976, where some of the finest French wines were pitted against California wines in a blind taste test? Even with an all-French judging panel, California wines took first place in both the white and red categories.

France has yet to live down that humiliation.

It’s all too easy to imagine a panel of American judges, arrayed before a cheeseburger, carrying on about its unique American qualities – the crusty but juicy meat, the tangy yellow mustard, the perfect summer tomato, the crisp lettuce, the sweet ketchup and sour pickles, all covered with melted American cheese – only to learn that it was made with French beef by a French chef on a French griddle. And, no, the cheese was not American cheese.

The embarrassment would be excruciating. How could this still be America if it isn’t home to the world’s greatest hamburgers?

One thing Americans always have been able to count on was getting lousy hamburgers in other countries. Ask for a hamburger almost anywhere beyond the shores of the U.S., and, in the past, you were likely to get a gray disk of unrecognizable meat on a dry, tasteless bun with condiments that not even schoolchildren in a cafeteria would touch.

What happens to the world order if France develops a superior burger capable of challenging ours? It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Nonetheless, it is a distinct possibility. Our only recourse as a nation is to continue to produce better and better hamburgers and to ensure that the French never, ever develop a taste for pulled pork barbecue.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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