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The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800 -- NY Times Review

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  • Michael Robinson
    November 30, 2008, The Sophisticated Table, By CAROLINE WEBER A REVOLUTION IN TASTE The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800 By Susan Pinkard Illustrated. 317 pp.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2008
      November 30, 2008, The Sophisticated Table, By CAROLINE WEBER

      The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800
      By Susan Pinkard
      Illustrated. 317 pp. Cambridge University Press. $32

      In the 1660s, discussing the culinary innovations that had recently
      taken root in Louis XIV's France, an English chef named Robert May
      bemoaned his French counterparts' newfound focus on "Sauce rather than
      Diet." To calorie counters who recoil in horror at the butter and
      cream that abound in French haute cuisine to this day, May's lament
      will strike a familiar chord. (Once, in the naïveté of youth, I was
      almost thrown out of a venerable Parisian restaurant for asking if the
      chef could prepare a "low fat" version of his lobster bisque.) But in
      fact, when discussing the meals served across the channel, the
      Englishman was distressed by something other than their high fat
      content. He was referring instead to a distinct change in the way the
      French had come to view and practice cooking. Historically, European
      cuisine had promoted the pseudomedical belief that particular
      seasonings and modes of preparation could — and should — eliminate
      imbalances in the human constitution. In the middle of the 17th
      century, however, leading French gastronomes let go of this idea and
      undertook the refinement of flavor for its own sake. Butter and cream
      sauces, whose value was gustatory (enhancing the taste of underlying
      ingredients) as opposed to medicinal (recalibrating the body's four
      "humors," as set forth by Hippocratic physicians), thus came to the
      fore, and an elegant, toothsome new brand of cooking was born.

      In "A Revolution in Taste," Susan Pinkard, a historian at Georgetown
      University, explores the striking technical, material and
      philosophical shifts that profoundly altered French cooking between
      the second half of the 17th century and the revolution of 1789. Before
      this period in history, Hippocratic dietetics had maintained that
      disease was caused by excess humors (moist, hot, cold or dry) for
      which food could correct. Seasonings, in particular, were thought to
      adjust a dish's elemental properties in crucial, therapeutic ways. For
      example, "dangerously cold and moist fish, such as lamprey eel (a
      surfeit of which was said to have killed Henry I of England), could be
      transformed by a sauce of pepper, garlic and marjoram into a delicious
      and healthy dish." Guided by these curative principles, ancient and
      premodern chefs relied heavily on spices, which masked underlying
      tastes and aromas. This practice gave rise to the conviction that fine
      cooking "fused many layers of flavor into a single, unitary whole,
      rendering individual ingredients unidentifiable to even sensitive
      palates." As Pinkard astutely points out, this culinary aesthetic
      persists today in regions ranging from Mexico to the Middle East.
      "Mexican kitchen lore," she writes, "claims that if one can identify a
      recipe's ingredients by smelling the steam rising from the pot, the
      mixture must cook longer to achieve a perfect blend of flavors."

      This perspective held sway in French kitchens until the 17th century,
      when a population boom led to the expansion of suburbs outside Paris,
      thereby driving the moneyed families who had once spent summers in the
      city's immediate environs to seek bucolic escapes in the countryside
      proper. Owning farms and vineyards soon became commonplace for rich
      Parisians, who thereby metamorphosed — intentionally or otherwise —
      into part-time farmers and vintners. A profusion of newly available
      garden-fresh ingredients in turn inspired techniques that enhanced the
      foods' intrinsic qualities instead of submerging them in spice. The
      result was a cuisine that one of its founding fathers, Nicolas de
      Bonnefons, called le goût naturel (the natural taste). "A cabbage soup
      should taste entirely of cabbage, a leek soup entirely of leeks, a
      turnip soup of turnips and thus for others," Bonnefons decreed in "Les
      Délices de la Campagne" ("The Delicacies of the Countryside"), his
      seminal 1654 cookbook. "Food should taste like what it is."

      While it might sound self-evident in the age of Chez Panisse and Whole
      Foods, this promotion of culinary simplicity and purity revolutionized
      the way the French thought about food. For starters, as Bonnefons's
      list of examples suggests, it sparked a new appreciation for
      vegetables. In the days before le goût naturel, vegetables had been
      unwanted guests at the sophisticated French table; even the great
      14th-century chef Taillevent — who prepared dishes for the Valois
      kings and from whom one of Paris's most superb restaurants today takes
      its name — mostly excluded them from his repertoire. (The single
      exception was his recipe for stewed cress, which Taillevent
      recommended as a cure for gallstones.) With Bonnefons and his confrere
      La Varenne, whose influential work "Le Cuisinier François" ("The
      French Cook") appeared in 1651, vegetables assumed pride of place in
      French cooking, served only with mild seasonings and smooth,
      emulsified sauces that allowed for their essential flavors to shine
      through. Meat, fowl and fish soon received the same treatment, most
      notably with the development of "basic preparations" like roux, jus,
      coulis and marinade, as well as sauce blanche and sauce veloutée.
      Still essential to countless canonical French recipes, these
      enhancements represented a move away from old culinary practices in
      that they served "to accent the natural characteristics of principal
      ingredients, not to transform them chemically, nutritionally or

      During the Enlightenment, this emphasis on culinary naturalness took
      on a strong political dimension, as philosophes like Denis Diderot,
      the Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt and Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed
      against the aristocracy's inauthentic social posturing and wasteful
      spending habits. These practices, which functioned to maintain or
      improve people's standing in an unequal, prestige-obsessed social
      order, prompted Rousseau to champion a return to a simpler, more
      natural way of life. For him as for many of his contemporaries food
      prepared plainly and with an eye to its innate characteristics thus
      formed part of a broader social program: that of restoring dignity to
      man as he was born, not as an unjust, artificial society had made him.
      Although concerned with the rites of cooking and not the rights of
      man, Pinkard's lucidly argued and carefully researched account is, in
      this respect, more than just a story about food. It is the story of a
      society that broke with the past — and became modern.

      Caroline Weber, the author of "Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette
      Wore to the Revolution," is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

      Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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