A husband and wife—he is French; she, American—move briskly through the history of France with a picnic basket full of information about the connections between history and gastronomy.
The research underlying this account is sturdy and impressive. Hénaut, who has had a long, diverse career in food, and Mitchell (War Studies/King’s Coll. London) take us on a tasty chronological journey, beginning with the Gauls and ending with McDonald’s (France is “the second most profitable market for McDonald’s worldwide”). In a series of brief chapters, most only a few pages long, we learn about a variety of iconic French foods; when, why, and how they emerged; and what their status is today. The authors discuss baguettes, brie, honey, champagne, vegetables, fruit, salt, vinegar, sauces, chocolate, crêpes, and chicken. We see the emergence of table manners and customs, from sitting while eating to wielding a fork. Readers will enjoy learning how certain historical luminaries are associated with the popularity of various foods: Charlemagne and honey, the Black Prince and cassoulet, Louis XIII and chestnuts. The authors also show clearly the effects of warfare on cuisine. The World War I trenches in France featured a sustaining cheese for the beleaguered troops. We learn, too, about the integration of foods originally from external sources—e.g., couscous from Algeria is now a fond French favorite—and we see the effects of improved transportation on the French diet. The authors do not float lightly over the darkness of history. They write bluntly about the egregiousness of colonialism, slavery, warfare, and inhumanity of all sorts. They also work hard to separate fact from legend, which is not always an easy task. The authors chronicle the emergence of certain brands we associate with France—like Gray Poupon mustard—and discuss the lack of popularity of peanut butter.
A genial journey through history that will leave readers both satiated and ravenous.