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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 and contradictions. Necessary names and subjects are paraded, theories are advanced, myths are corrected, periods are distinguished. Here is a word, a paragraph, a page for Athenaeus or Apicius or that king’s chef Taillevent, whose Viandier of 1490 is “the great document synthesizing medieval cuisine,” the book Villon sarcastically applies to for the awful fricassee, in Le grand Testament, in which certain envious tongues are to be fried. Pierre de Lune and La Varenne, of the seventeenth century, have to be mentioned, and Carême and Brillat-Savarin and Mrs. Beeton and Eliza Acton, Escoffier, Soyer, and Curnonsky—the writer and chef of our own century who laid it down that “cuisine is when things taste like what they are.”

There are documents to be scrutinized, of course, such as cookery books age by age; but to be scrutinized as well is an absence of cookery books in one period or another. Positives can be reconstructed from negatives, unmentioned likings from mentioned dislikings and vice versa. Primacy and wholesale borrowing of terminology, as in the superabundance of French cooking words in English, legitimately point to the history and extension of cuisine, and of culture all told; and one merit of this intelligent writer is that he is neither xenophile nor xenophobe. A French emphasis, in the facts of the affair, is inevitable, but then what is Italian or Spanish or English is shown to be so unequivocally. Often what we take to be a certainty in the history of cuisine is shown as well to be either a myth or no more than a half-truth or quarter-truth. We think we know when cuisine in France emerged from the medieval, from over-spicing, and from social exhibitionism and play-acting, from peacocks and from the presentation of living birds under pie-crust and cooked animals coming to table reinserted in skin and feathers.

The accepted case is that a revolution in cooking (as in much else) was caused by the marriage in 1533 of Catherine de’ Medici to the prince who was to become Henri II; from Florence with Catherine de’ Medici came sophisticated Italian chefs cooking sophisticated Italian dishes. Jean-François Revel does not believe in cultural revolutions, correctly, and he uses an observation of his own to turn the case upside down. Times of change, times of innovation in cuisine are marked by argument and polemic, and by a proliferation of cookery books; and he notes that between Taillevent’s Viandier of 1490 and La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois of 1651 not a single real cookery book appeared in Europe (viandier in Taillevent’s title meant a general cookery book, not one applying solely to viandes, to meat of one kind or another). Taillevent was still printed, as was another handbook of medieval cookery, the Grand Cuisinier de toute cuisine, compiled about 1350, printed for the first time in 1540, and then reprinted again and again down to 1620, “ample proof of the persistence of medieval cuisine at the very height of the Renaissance.”

Exit the Medicean revolution, after the presentation of additional evidence for the still rather medieval condition at that time of the nature of Italian cooking; what was taken to be revolution turns out, in fact, as M. Revel would have it, to have been a slowly cumulative procession of the new, or the no longer so new. M. Revel prefaces this by affirming that cuisine “travels as badly in space as in time”; adding “the same is true about information about cuisine: the Hungarian goulash to be found in Hungary is not a stew but a soup, the paella valenciana that is eaten in Valencia is based not on seafood but on rabbit, and so on….” And think how long it takes new ingredients, new vegetables, and new fruit to be commonly accepted, even today. Tomatoes had to wait most of four hundred years. Bananas, probably the most anciently domesticated of all fruit, are fairly recent entrants into Western cooking; the French haven’t taken to sweet corn, on the table, though they grow hundreds of thousands of acres of corn to feed chickens and the chemical industry; and only lately have mangoes begun to glow in Western supermarkets.

Also in this matter of sluggish change, sluggish evolution, in cooking, sluggish extension of gastronomy, Jean-François Revel speaks of medieval concern for dishes and foods which in a magical or medicinal way were supposed to be good for you as a supplement to your habitual and normal supply of daily fuel. But here we are, some of us, so long after antiquity and the Middle Ages, indulging our better-informed roughage-conscious and vitamin-conscious selves in much the same way, half rationally at the most. Even the French buy health food in shops, though the shops may have a gray, rather empty look of only demi-conviction.

What we are made to realize is that medieval remnants of cooking survive in such a seventeenth-century book as La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois much as remnants of medieval thought and belief survive in the poems of, say, John Donne, and that multitudinously and genuinely inventive cuisine takes its place in time with multitudinous and genuinely inventive science and speculation.

Here is a book that wanders around, jamais pressé and as if toujours entre deux vins, using phrases of the gentle life, rather like Montaigne’s essays or Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût. I value it most for its fricassee of information, and for this French author’s insistence that it is wrong to speak of national cuisines, and right only to speak of the internationality of good cooking, reserving the notion of regional cooking only for geographical regions in a fairly large way.

As for the incessantly proffered items of information, did you know that “gourmand,” a word for a connoisseur of the table which is more voracious in its overtone than “gourmet,” means in Old French a wine taster’s assistant? Or that the customary breakfast of the ancient Greeks was breadcrumbs and wine? Or that “restaurant” until about 1760 wasn’t a noun but a present-participial adjective meaning only fortifying or restorative, and “applied to certain bouillons and eggnogs consumed to restore one’s strength after an illness or great physical exertion”? Or that “chef” is shortened from chef de cuisine, the chief of the kitchen, the head cook who has under him the rôtisseurs, the roasters, the pâtissiers, the pastry cooks, and all the scullions hithering and tithering? Or that the ancient Greek Aphtonitas invented the black pudding? Or that European peasants (is this true?) do not like eating their meat red and raw?

I would think Culture and Cuisine a better, solider book if it were rather less a festin en paroles, if it were written to follow a less ambiguous theme or indeed if it were written to a real theme of historical reality. In its wandering urbanity it leaves me uncertain whether it is about cuisine as an element of culture or culture as an element of cuisine: it is hard to fix its center of gravity; and, as with the old outmoded dichotomy of art and fine art, it seems no longer valid to distinguish too preciously between tasty simple cooking and fine cooking or complexity of combinations (Curnonsky again: “Cuisine is when things taste like what they are”). Then again, this book might have been written, to begin with at any rate, with more lucidity. I found I had to read the prologue and at least the opening chapter again and again to get the hang of them, unsure whether the fault wasn’t that of Jean-François Revel unburdening himself helter-skelter, or whether a rather plummy translation wasn’t also to blame. But then the book eases after a while.

To be sure lively paragraphs abound: “But as you leaf through the books of the time”—Jean-François Revel has reached the last decades of the seventeenth century—“and when you enter a kitchen, the smells are, nonetheless, not the same as in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: when you raise the potlids of the Middle Ages, there rises to your nostrils a harsh meaty steam with the odor of cloves, saffron, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon mingled with the acidity of verjuice; as you lean over the cooking vessels of the Renaissance you breathe in a sweet, fruity cloud that smells of cooked sugar and pear or currant juice, all silently boiling together. The Middle Ages was the era of seasoned stews, the Renaissance the age of tasty sweetmeats.” Good.

A last consideration when you look back after finishing this book: apply the author’s test of decided change, innovation, and advance in cuisine, his test by the number of new cookery books published, and our present age in cooking, in spite of everything, in spite of convenience food in tins, and packed and frozen, in spite of milk deprived of its savor and fruit grown for yield instead of taste, must be the most innovatory and progressive in the whole history of eating, at least in England, Italy, the United States, and France itself.

A startling conclusion, since we are always saying the opposite, always boasting of our degeneracy, but if we consider the kitchens of the starred restaurants and the kitchens of apartments and private houses in our Western world, probably a conclusion that cannot be denied.

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