We eye the future of branding and assess the sartorial statement of the ‘gilets jaunes’. First up: the influence of French words and how to bring people together through a love of good food.
Kamal Mouzawak is a Lebanese food activist who uses cooking and education to make cities better places in which to live. In 2004 he founded Beirut’s first organic farmer’s market, Souk el-Tayeb, and through that set up outreach schemes designed to empower small-scale farmers. The idea is that fostering co-operation between ethnic groups in the country helps heal divisions. The mantra: Make Food, Not War.
Now Mouzawak is taking his formula for food activism to Marseille’s Quartier Nord, a notoriously deprived area where there is tension between the different French North African communities who live there.
“We’re training 20 women in cuisine; ultimately we’d love them to be part of a cooking collective,” says Mouzawak. “The idea is to take this group of women who are from different backgrounds [in the same quarter] and have them work together. They realise they aren’t any different and they are going to bring this message home to their families.”
Mouzawak says the 20 women selected for the programme already know how to cook. “It’s not about teaching them cooking; it’s about fine-tuning what they do and presenting it to the customer. It’s about choosing the right dish for the market and giving their skills economic value.”
The group will cook at events throughout the summer, all culminating in the Kouss-Kouss festival at the end of August. “It’s going to be centred around couscous,” says Mouzawak. “It’s part of their heritage.”
Will the same recipe for food activism be as successful in Marseille as it has been in Beirut? Mouzawak is confident that it will. For him the two cities have a similar energy and air of spontaneity: “Marseille has the same clutter and disorganisation. It has the same diversity.”
English is the lingua franca of global business but a few French loan words don’t hurt. Try posher ones, ushered in after the Normans arrived in Britain to enslave Germanic speakers in 1066: “mansion”, “chauffeur” and “hors d’oeuvre”. Germanic words? Mundane: “house”, “stool”, “angst”. French may not drive through a deal but it still suggests a mastery of the English tongue.
In 1993 the late Prince Rogers Nelson famously demanded that he be referred to only as a symbol. It was a decision intended to frustrate his record company Warner Brothers – who owned the rights to the name “Prince” – and enable him to break the constraining shackles of his own appellation.
Using words to describe what you do is becoming passé in 2019. All the biggest brands want to be recognised by their symbols alone: whether a tick (alright, a “swoosh”), a bullseye or a fruit silhouette. The latest is MasterCard, now recognisable in certain contexts only by its red and yellow Venn diagram logo. Does the whole exercise smack of some sort of self-aggrandisement? Perhaps. But it does look neater and, according to the folk behind the design at Pentagram, 80 per cent of focus-group participants recognised MasterCard by its logo.
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of ad firm Ogilvy, thinks it “is valuable to have a logo recognisable from graphics alone”. He adds: “There is a huge proportion of the world that doesn’t read roman script; we are negotiating the world by icons.” When Prince dropped his name he paved the way for a period of unfettered creativity; maybe MasterCard is hoping it will do the same. Either way, going scriptless is a sign of the times.
The yellow vests. The politics are one thing, the roundabout colonisation another. The graffiti-happy wilfulness perhaps displays a desire towards a certain visual identity, while the punctual rallying of masses from the provinces to Paris demonstrated some spirit of togetherness, at least. But man, what went wrong with the style?
During the revolution of 1789, the sans-culottes dressed “without breeches” to flaunt their prole cred (and save their bacon). Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” painting of 1830 shows Marianne wielding the revolutionary Tricolore and wearing a red Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty since the freed slaves of ancient Rome. In 1968 students protested in Paris and, briefly, changed the world wearing horn-rimmed glasses and black rollnecks. It was the uniform of the posturing pacifist and an outfit that displayed intellectualism and fraternity with the workers (ties are for those bullies, your bosses, brother).
This Left Bank standard would become a fashion staple for shy men everywhere – and all these styles became “looks” referenced by Dior, Saint Laurent and Westwood. In 2018, enter the yellow hi-vis tabard, that doughty staple of forklift-truck drivers, parking attendants and those little helpers whose job it is to look the wrong way at football matches. Put simply, they look shit. And that, presumably, is the point.
In the popular imagination France owns the very notion of protest chic. The French, rich in practice, know the significance of the blockade and brushing up well; the strike and the scarf, the theatrical semiotics of having a dust-up on a tree-lined boulevard while dressed to impress. Plus ça change? Please get changed.
Is it time we re-evaluated our understanding of French cuisine? Steak tartare, frogs’ legs and all the haute cuisine pageantry that has, arguably, been the country’s biggest cultural export (fashion is up there too) for the past 100 or so years isn’t actually as French as it is Parisian.
This fallacy stretches back about a century. In his 1980 book France, 1848-1945, Taste & Corruption, scholar Theodore Zeldin posited that our global understanding of French food is actually the result of a huge branding exercise devised in Paris in the 19th century. Zeldin talks about a clash between “Jacobin centralisation – the efforts to create a French national style of cooking – and regional individuality”.
Fortunately French food is in the midst of a refresh and wider appreciation of the culinary riches of France’s regional pockets is creeping in (following on from a similar acknowledgement of Spanish and Italian provincial cooking). UK food writer Felicity Cloake is fresh from a tour of such regions and writes about them in her latest book One More Croissant for the Road. In examining 21 classic dishes she marvels at the diversity of the country. From the sand-grown carrots, saltmarsh lamb and cider of the north coast and Italian influences of Provence to the dark, heavy breads and ferments of Strasbourg. Not to mention the cheesy stodge that alpine folk eat in order to propel themselves up and down mountains all day.
On the restaurant scene we are witnessing a similar shift. Rather than trying to replicate the silver-serviced haughtiness of haute cuisine, young chefs are weaving a love of French produce and regional recipes into their menus. The result is a more nuanced, rustic and broad appreciation of France’s cooking canon. There has never been more to keep our gueules amused.