A Francophile takes a spirited jaunt through French history, focused on food.
A resident of Paris since 1986, Downie (A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, 2015, etc.), whose enthusiasm for food and travel has resulted in more than a dozen books, offers a loving, celebratory, and irreverent look at French eating habits, from ancient times to the present. Short, pithy chapters brim with quirky details: frog legs, so quintessentially French, were “beloved of the centurions and gourmets of antiquity”; mustard, too, was a Roman favorite. Not until the 17th century did dining rooms exist in Parisian residences, and knives and forks came late to the French table. In the court of Louis XIV, diners ate “quickly and greedily,” licking their fingers with pleasure. Meals were abundant: “everyone but the poorest devoured unimaginable quantities of meat,” including veal, mutton, beef, and various species of bird, along with eel and fish. In the 1700s, French cuisine became “the unofficial state religion,” and “nouvelle cuisine” was invented, with “theorists, chemists, chefs, philosophers,” and assorted other experts engaged in parsing the meaning of taste “and the differences between gluttons, gourmets, gastronomes, and other varieties of eaters.” The first restaurants appeared in the mid-1700s; by 1789, there were about 50, which burgeoned to 3,000 by 1814. Downie recounts the culinary influence of Grimod de la Reynière and his more famous contemporary Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of many food-related aphorisms. “The destiny of nations,” he wrote, “depends on the way they feed themselves.” The author also offers capsule reviews—not always favorable—of some of Paris’ 10,000 restaurants. He is not a fan of pretension, noise, corporate ownership, stratospheric prices, or what he calls “karaoke cuisine,” characterized by “industrial sauce,” microwaved entrees, “multiple courses for under $20,” and “pink and familiar decor.” His disdain is especially harsh regarding “super-bobo” eateries with “could-be-anywhere cooking.”
A zesty, entertaining romp through the landscape of French food.