Opening with a tongue-in-cheek discussion on whether gourmandism is a sin in France (or anywhere), the author is equally at ease citing evangelical and Pauline epistolary evidence as the classical Greek and Roman philosophical commentators on how to live life well. For those concerned with the eating habits of Jesus, the author points out that once the fasts ended, Jesus ate and drank heartily with the best of them.
From there, the lively analysis moves to explain that French food is so varied because it lay on the path between the warring and striving clans of the past. Political changes brought trade and the next thing you know, wealth builds, which buys good cooks, fine ingredients and the leisure to stay at table.
The Parisian dedication to eating and measuring success by wealth of the table long predates the ostentatious 1890’s or the studious culinary minimalism of the 1980’s. The Venetian ambassador to the King of France in 1577, surely no bumpkin, commented on the diverse provisions and how rich and poor alike eat well. In the early 19th century Parisians could buy strawberries in January, grapes at Spring solstice and pineapples year round.
The big advance in French cooking occurred with the change in meat preparation from roasting on an open fire or boiling in a suspended pot to a raised prototype stove called a potager. Built of bricks and tiles, a similar cooking system existed in Italy a century before it arrived in French kitchens in the 1700s. Hot coals were arranged inside the potager and cooks could simmer broths, stir sauces, and braise meats. “Henceforth, cooking was done standing up, close to the source of heat, a position more favorable for producing complicated hot dishes.” Of course the elaborate presentation caused the food to cool by the time the dish reached the banquet table.
In more recent centuries, the author’s primary source archives expand. Chapters dedicated to the French royal and imperial kitchens extend to the rest of Europe because any duke worth his salt wanted a French chef. Contemporary French food nationalism, street eating habits and the revival of regional producers dedicated to traditional specialties come under Pitte’s scholarly scalpel, always leavened with humor and graceful translation by Jody Gladding. In the end the author is hopeful that the French will abandon fast food and nouvelle cuisine, returning to their gourmandizing and sinning ways.
French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, Jean-Robert Pitte
Columbia University Press, 2002, 207 pages with index.
Reviewed by L. Peat O’Neil who teaches Food and Travel Writing for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and L’Academie de Cuisine.