What is the absolute most French food you can think of?
…Chances are, frogs’ legs come to mind. In a sense, you would be right – of 160 million frogs reportedly consumed in Europe each year, exactly half of those are eaten in France. The French are undoubtedly the biggest fan of the tiny amphibian…so much so that they have driven their own frog populations to near extinction, and were forced to place a ban on frog hunting in 1980. In order to maintain high levels of frog leg consumption, France now must import its amphibians from Asian countries with thriving frog populations, namely Indonesia, the #1 exporter of frogs’ legs globally. So it seems that suddenly French frog legs’ are no longer French, but Indonesian.
While there are still truly French frog legs available on the black market, these are illegally caught by poachers who might face a €15,000 fine and up to a year in jail. The safe bet, it seems, is to import from places like Indonesia, where frog populations (and farms) are still booming. But the Indonesian frog supply isn’t endless; recent concerns cite environmental shifts in declining frog populations. Before Indonesia, India profited from the frog trade until near-extinction forced them to ban frog exports in 1987. Bangladesh took over the market for two more years, until they followed suit and banned frog exports in 1989. Indonesia has hung on for more than two decades, but it seems that environmental degradation is becoming clearer and more imminent. Decreased frog populations mean an increase in certain pests, which could disrupt the balance of delicate ecosystems.
Could frogs’ legs be headed the way of the ortolan? Is consumption just too high to realistically maintain stable frog populations? And, as always, are the French too attached to antiquated culinary traditions in their quest for sustaining national and cultural identity in the face of globalization? The fact that France has turned from its own land to foreign suppliers in order to perpetuate a tradition of frogs’ legs in French gastronomy seems like a bit of a sign. When the product is no longer French, when does it become a mere representation of what once was? Doesn’t tradition directly reference time and place, and tie people to their own soil? Frogs legs are slowly becoming a global commodity, a symbol of globalization and the international marketplace rather than a symbol of French national identity and food culture. What it means to be French through food is decidedly shifting, and unfortunately the tight claim on French identity may be harming environments elsewhere. Are frogs legs worth it?