French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion

French Gastronomy by Jean-Robert Pitte

Jean-Robert Pitte
Translated by Jody Gladding
Columbia University Press ($24.95)

by John Toren

Why did France, rather than Italy or Austria or Spain, become the center of world gastronomy? In the course of answering that question Jean-Robert Pitte reiterates a variety of well-known facts about his native country. It was a Roman colony, which helped it on its way; it remained a Catholic country, which allowed it to retain a more relaxed idea of what gluttony is; it is blessed with several regions well suited for growing fine wines, and a system of rivers that make it easy to transport commodities; its government became centralized earlier than any other European power; and the seat of that government happens to be located in a region well known for its dairy products.

So there are no surprising elements in this depiction of France's rise to culinary excellence. What makes the book interesting is the witty and erudite way Pitte, a geography professor at the Sorbonne, has assembled his ingredients.

Did Jesus like to eat? Pitte takes up this question briefly in the course of examining the role played by the French monasteries in developing wine and cheese-making techniques (the answer, by the way, is 'Yes'). Religious factors are less significant, however, than the political transformation France underwent during the Renaissance. The French learned about good eating during their Italian campaigns. In their subsequent efforts to centralize politically, they also established Paris as a locus for the exchange and cross-fertilization of far-flung foodstuffs, and turned eating itself into an instrument of state.

During this period a radical change in taste took place as well, with oriental spices (symbols of wealth and power throughout Europe at the time) giving way to milder French ingredients—shallots, chives, anchovies, and truffles. Pitte also notes the increasing significance of dairy products: the widely used 14th-century cookbook of Taillevent refers to butter in less than 1% of its recipes, while La Verenne, in the famous work of 1674, makes use of it in 55% of his dishes.

From Louis XIV's lavish meals to the modern restaurant is but a short step: during the Revolution lawyers and courtiers from all parts of the nation poured into Paris at precisely the time when many court chefs were losing their jobs. To those familiar with the history of French cooking, the appearance soon afterward of Carême, Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin will come as no surprise.

Quoting liberally from secondary sources, Pitte brings us up to the present by way of the automobile, the roadhouse, the Michelin guide, TV chefs, and finally nouvelle cuisine, which he associates with the revolution of 1968, and the need felt by the young of that time to expose the underlying "truth" about everything, including food. He discusses the widely noted decline in good taste among the French in our day, and the influence of agribusiness and Americanization. From his position of broad historical perspective, Pitte reassures us that it has always been thus. Good taste has always seemed to be in decline, throughout the long and fascinating history of France's (and the world's) rise to greater and greater understanding of how pleasing our relations with the stuff of the earth and barnyard can be.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003