There was a time when to start up a hamburger chain in France was to declare war on the world’s greatest agro-culinary tradition. Farmers would reverse their tractors into the barely opened restaurants and block off the streets with piles of burning sheep. Waiters and chefs at three-star brasseries would fire-bomb the trucks delivering the mass-produced, American-inspired slop that threatened their and their children’s and their children’s children’s livelihoods. On orders from the Elysee, the gendarmerie would pointedly look the other way while the mob wreaked its havoc.
More recently, opening a string of hotdog and sandwich outlets became acceptable, but heaven help you if you called the product le fast-food or named the company something like Quick. The language guardians of the Academie Francaise would have screamed in horror at this importation and imposition of the hegemonist English tongue. (In 1990-91, there was talk of compulsory interpretation into la langue de dieu at all international scientific conferences in the Republic – until the local version of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism took effect.) Today, some 350 branches of Quick dot the nation’s cities and no-one stops to ask whether they should be called Vite.
So has restauration rapide nothing left on offer to offend easily irritated French people? Luckily, in these modern, enlightened times, it has: Quick’s decision to declare a small number of its eateries to be halal. This means they substitute turkey for pork and use only meat slaughtered in accordance with Muslim requirements. (As with the Jewish code, animals are cut at the throat and bled, but the butcher must also invoke the name of God. This is why halal meat is more acceptable to moderately fussy people who eat kosher than vice-versa, though the more mentally imbalanced believers will rant about this all day. See below for a gory eye-witness account.)
Quick is not run by Muslims – indeed, even the fiercest Islamophobe would admit that the company’s origins represent an even greater blight on our planet than Mohammedans: it is Belgian. The halal initiative is commercial; it is a minor change in the menu aimed at increasing business in certain neighbourhoods. Put bluntly, the management wants to pull in as many customers as possible and maximize profits.
But much Gallic mouth-frothing has erupted, with excitable town mayors planning to sue the chain for discrimination and the country’s Agriculture Minister accusing it of ‘communautarisme’ (don’t ask).
The funny part of all this is that halal food, like kosher, is essentially a way to gouge religious believers. The dietary strictures, dating back to the impressively wacky Book of Leviticus, are little more than superstition in this day and age (though in all fairness ancient wisdom would have been spot on about turkey being preferable to fatty, salty bacon). Food marketed as ritually permissible has to be specially prepared, and inspected by money-making licensing authorities, leaving halal/kosher products costing more than the otherwise identical infidel stuff.
Quick would argue, like all merchants of unhealthy and overpriced goods targeting children and the feeble-minded, that it is merely responding to customer demand. On the other hand, a rigorous Marxist-Foucaultian-materialist-gobbledegook-dilatectic of the sort the French once excelled at would portray the company as evil greedy capitalists and the Muslim diners attracted by the halal sign at the door as exploited victims. Mais non: the chain is being more or less accused of conspiracy to force an entire nation of gastronomes to eat fowl instead of pig. It’s funny – though it would probably be funnier still if it weren’t happening in a country that sent some 80,000 Jews to death camps in World War II or whose police led a little-remembered pogrom as recently as the 1960s that left hundreds of Algerians dead in Paris, complete with bodies floating down the Seine.
That gory eye-witness account…
It was a hot, sunny afternoon at a Moroccan country market and I was accompanying someone buying a calf for a wedding feast that evening. We chose and paid for a less-scrawny-than-average, reddish-brown specimen with big shiny black eyes and not too much dribble on its chin. The creature was then led, rather reluctantly, to a small concrete building maybe 100 yards away and through a very wide doorway into a bare room with a few hooks on the walls, drainage channels in the floor, a few flies and a stray dog peering in.
We were greeted by a tall, stocky, bearded man wearing a long, thick leather apron and wielding a dagger with a 8-10-inch double-sided blade. With one hand he held the calf’s head close to him for a few seconds to calm it, and then moved his body in such a way as to drag the animal to the ground on its side – sort of a slow judo throw. He probably muttered “bis m’allah” at this point. Within seconds, in maybe three or four strokes, he had cut the throat from the left side of the spinal column round to the right and pulled the head back to expose the windpipe. The heart pumped blood out of the carotid artery a couple of times before giving up, pink foam bubbled out of the windpipe, the calf’s eyes rolled for a few seconds and its legs kicked a few times, and that was it.
The man and a boy assistant stuck a hook through – if I remember rightly – the area where a rear leg met the groin, and pulled the corpse up against the wall on a rope. The head was severed and a bag tied round the neck. And this is where it got interesting: the butcher pierced a thigh with the knife and put his mouth to the hole. He blew until the skin started to bulge like a balloon and separate from the underlying muscle. He then carefully slit the torso down the belly, and all the lungs, intestines, and other innards flopped out onto the ground (I don’t recall a receptacle) into a big steamy pile. And then he gently peeled the skin off the carcass. That was his pay.
We were then invited to choose some cuts for ourselves before the butchering began and everything was wrapped up to take away for the night’s feast back in the village. I made a rough guess at where I thought steaks should come from and how they should be carved off; they were OK, but the spiced stew later prepared for all the guests in earthenware pots was better – fragrant enough, I have no doubt, to win over the most militant animal rights activist.