Slow Food

Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food

by Jean-François Revel, translated by Helen R. Lane
Doubleday, 289 pp., $24.95

Plenty of aesthetic history—in so far as we can talk of the history of aesthetic response—is presented to us in the words we use for selecting, eating, and liking food, and mixing it, and making it more likable. If we start with cookery words, our prime vocable may be or may long ago have become English enough. From the Latin coquus, “cook” (“coc” in Old English) has been around for most of 2,000 years, if for most of that time cooks haven’t worn white hats and aprons. But we moved quickly enough into French, after 1066, under Norman kings and abbots and other territorial grandees. Sidestepping that decidedly English pudding, which to begin with denoted a brutish stuffing of pig meat and blood into guts, tart and soup are French or come to us from French; and it is the same with veal and pork and beef and venison and mutton and vinegar and verjuice and sugar, and with process words, roast and toast, fry and boil and poach.

With such words “cuisine” has begun, that whole business of cooking under its French name, and as the English move via the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment into modernity their vocabulary for cooking and eating, their menu and mealtime vocabulary, becomes more blatantly, at times even ridiculously, French; and in our usage we add to quite a number of those borrowed words an extra tone, or a tone of extra meaning or attitude, which the dictionary definitions don’t specify as a rule.

Cuisine is such a word. In French “cuisine” is cooking; in English it is a style of cooking—and then in speech we add to that dictionary meaning of a style of cooking the meaning of a style we approve, a style related to French excellence and denoting the opposite of good old plain English roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; but as well we may say “cuisine” with a sneer, and we can be and usually are unapproving when we talk of “gourmet” and “gourmand,” indicating preciosity and snobbery and extravagance in our eating and drinking.

It is through such terms, respectable in their French, and rather suspect in their English, borrowing, that Jean-François Revel conducts his decidedly French romp through the semihistory of fine cooking or of fine and finer cooking succeeding brutish or mediocre work in the kitchen. His French title was Un Festin en paroles—“’A Feast in Words”; a decently modest title for a writer who isn’t too sure about history and soon talks of his attempt to penetrate “the well-nigh impenetrable mystery that surrounds the gastronomy of the past.” History—real history—he forgets after a glance at the grand names Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel, coupled with a suggestion that he attempts for cooking what art historians attempt for painting when they try to establish the how and the why of ancient modes of feeling and vision.

So instead his book proffers a not always well-connected but always interesting medley, chronologically arranged, of facts and suppositions…

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