The Art of Eating magazine founder Behr (50 Foods, 2013, etc.) serves as an admirable traveling companion through the world of French cuisine, offering high sailing on gustatory seas as well as grounding in history and broader cultural concerns.
“France is the greatest country for bread, cheese and wine,” writes the author, “and its culinary techniques are the foundation of the training of nearly every serious Western cook and some beyond.” However, determining what is definably French is more elusive, given its diversity, global influences, and the fact that there are really two Frances: Paris and the rest of the country. In reintroducing us to French food, Behr's attempts to secure this definition are mixed but generally engaging. He is most successful in his evocation of the spirit of French cuisine, its origins, and numerous ironies, though his chapters could have utilized a more logical progression and less (save for connoisseurs) technical exposition. Still, from classical and nouvelle cuisine to an unparalleled world of wine and fromage, Behr goes behind the scenes to reveal the hows and whys of French food in all its manifestations, each allied to a desire for balance, harmony, and sensual pleasure. The story of French food “is disproportionally the story of food in Paris,” the author writes, but he takes us on a detailed gastronomic tour of the entire country, including those regions whose tastes don't seem terribly “French” to outsiders. He also affords readers an informed survey of the finest writers on French food, including the 20th-century critic and author Curnonsky (aka Maurice Edmond Sailland) and the American expatriate writer Richard Olney, while celebrating the minuet danced by server and served in a good French restaurant.
French cuisine once was unassailable, the West's finest, but while its influence has diminished even in France—as have many of the dishes that established its reputation—French food still commands a certain fascination, and Behr explores it with appetizing ardor.