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Football, Food and Nationality

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The summer of 1998 was truly a time to remember. The French National Football (soccer) team had won the World Cup, the Holy Grail of all football events. Les Bleus beat the talented Brazilians by an amazing 3 goals and, what was even more exciting, they did it right here at home, in France. People poured out into the streets in an incredibly loud, joyous victory dance, drinking champagne, hugging each other, cheering loudly amid the honking horns, the chanting and the singing of La Marseillaise. The following day, the team was welcomed like prodigal sons in all of their glory as their bus carried them down the Champs Elysées. It was a moment of pride and togetherness: this sporting event, this great win had brought together a nation. The government touted the multiethnic team as the perfect example of successful immigration, the symbol of a diverse yet harmonious nation, a perfectly integrated France and, no matter the makeup of the team, this group of men did indeed seem to be one big happy, unified family. But sadly, the honeymoon could not last forever.

Since that great win, we have watched the slow, painful unraveling of the French National team. Discord, talk of cliques within the team, divisions and contention which made it not so much a team but rather a disparate group of discontented, disconnected angry, and spoiled young men. And it all came to a painful head this past week with the utter failure of Les Bleus in South Africa. Not even making it into the Round of 16, the team was sent home. Words like debacle, disaster and disgrace were splashed across the front pages of newspapers and news programs were filled with nothing else for days both leading up to and after their final fall from grace. Government ministers have been shunting around the blame as they have been publicly scolding the team and the opposition is now using it as the perfect example of, yes, a failed immigration policy.

Somehow likening losing the World Cup to a failed government policy seems rather far-fetched; shouldn't football simply be football and sports, sports? Amid all the brouhaha and the politicization of this sporting failure, I came to ponder the meaning of "successful immigration." I am second generation American. My grandparents and great-grandparents were part of that huge wave of Russian Jews that landed in New York's Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th Century and my sons themselves are the product of a culturally mixed marriage, raised in the native homeland of only one of their parents. I have seen "immigration" and "assimilation" close up and this entire uproar started me thinking: when is a community truly integrated and considered part of the national fabric? I begin to wonder if, indeed, a group of immigrants, a new community are integrated into their adopted society when the dishes that they brought with them become part of the national cuisine rather than something still seen as foreign. Is there a parallel between the integration of a new ethnic group and the acceptance of their cuisine as part of the national menu? And should it be a two-way street?

The French began eating couscous shortly after the conquest of Algeria by Charles X in the early 1800s. North African restaurants can now be found in every French city large or small and I can purchase a coucoussière almost as easily as I can find a pot in which to cook a blanquette. I can even find cans of prepared couscous on the supermarket shelf snuggled up next to the cassoulet and the ratatouille. I don't know one French home in which couscous isn't regularly found on the family dinner table and it is considered the favorite dish of the French, second only to veal blanquette. I buy prepared Chicken Yassa, a specialty of Senegal, at the weekend market and Vietnamese restaurants serving bo-bun or beef Luc-Lac are as common as MacDonald's; my sons will ask for nems for lunch as easily as a grilled cheese sandwich, just another everyday treat. But as common and familiar as these dishes are here in France, have any of them found their way into the national cuisine alongside the daube and the coq au vin or are they still considered foreign fare? And, in return, have the immigrants who brought these dishes (or the like) and introduced them to eager palates adopted the host country's specialties, aspects of the new culture?

Shouldn't food be something that brings people together? When we open up our home and share what is on our table, we share something of ourselves, teach others our culture as well as accept the stranger as one of our own. Breaking bread is a sign of peace and respect for the other. A newcomer introduces his traditional dishes, new spices, cooking methods and household customs. But would this person refuse the invitation to break bread in the other's home, dine on this friend's home cooking? Like two passionate cooks sharing their grandmothers' recipes or trading herbs grown in their gardens, the give and take of foods brings with it the interchange, the understanding and acceptance of each other's cultural differences. A mere two generations ago, that first wave of Jewish immigrants were hawking funny round breads with holes in the center or rich onion-spiked mashed potatoes wrapped in dough up and down the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, and now bagels and knishes are part of the American culinary tradition. And tit for tat, this once-foreign population has opened themselves up and embraced their new country as is evident in any Synagogue or community cookbook where you can be sure to find Veal Scaloppini, Beef Stew and Strawberry Shortcake.

Societies change and evolve. Is there one factor, one measure of knowing when a new community is totally and, yes, successfully integrated? As individuals, families, and whole communities emigrate, they bring with them their eating habits and traditions, yet over time must and do change ("Americanize", "Frenchify") their cuisine, adapting to available ingredients, modernizing to fit a new lifestyle. And as these immigrants find their place in a different society, their traditional dishes, new and intriguing, are welcomed and embraced by the citizens of this new homeland who, in turn, adapt the recipes to their own taste and everyday lives, slowly but surely considering one or another as part of their own family cooking. It is vital that each community, each individual maintain and preserve their special cultural gifts and personality, holding on to what makes them who they are; yet both immigrants and their cuisine must adapt to their new surroundings and evolve, assimilated yet unique.

And as sure as I am sitting here, couscous, accras and nems have indeed spiced up the French national pantry.

So, is the whole hullabaloo over the French football team a question of immigration policy? Is France going through an identity crisis, uncomfortable with and refusing to accept the strangers who have arrived on their doorstep? As I sit over a steaming bowl of harira or a plateful of spicy cod accras and consider the question - and those brilliant young men, that culturally diverse team, who brought this country roaring to their feet in 1998 - I think not. It seems to me to be simply a question of bad management and spoiled young men. Maybe they should work it all out over a good meal.

Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.

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