Book Review: “An Illustrated History of French Cuisine” by Christian Guy

After a satisfying breakfast at the Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland last week, I drove up to Black Oak Books on San Pablo, a place where I can always kill a couple hours by browsing their used cookbook section. I have a penchant for kooky old books that are long out-of-print, and when I had discovered an old copy of 1962’s “An Illustrated History of French Cuisine” by Christian Guy, I was hoping that the book would be filled with lots of great vintage illustrations, as the title seems to suggest. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the case, at least not to the extent that I had hoped. Although the book does contain a few dozen black-and-white drawings — mostly old renderings of fat French aristocrats seated around the dinner table — the title itself represents a slight misnomer: In fact, this history of French cuisine is “illustrated” mainly through a litany of historical anecdotes, which combine to lend an informal, stream-of-consciousness-type approach to the text. But despite the book’s unorthodox narrative structure, this compendium of culinary tidbits does offer a decent (if not spotty) glimpse into French culinary history.

As one might expect, much of Christian Guy’s book covers the dining habits of the French royalty, since the aristocracy has certainly been the one group that has always eaten well, even during the most devastating famine. Tales of royal gluttony are sometimes amusing, although personally, I have very little interest in the French royalty themselves. In general, European History was easily my most boring subject when I was in school; kings, queens, popes and religious differences never really captured my interest — I grew up a baseball junkie, and I devoted much of my early memory to batting averages and baseball card prices. But as my appreciation of food and wine began to develop later in life, I did begin to develop an appreciation for culinary history, which for me, can certainly present the past through a much more interesting lens. I’m far less concerned with royal marriages and political alliances, but I am intrigued by what they might have served at the weddings.

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In the last few centuries, the French have provided a profound culinary influence on Western culture, and as Americans, most of our culinary roots still have their origins in Europe (though Pan Asian influences have been steadily gaining ground since the 1980s, especially here in California). Although France definitely boasts a rich and lengthy culinary history when compared to the United States, it’s quite interesting to consider how recently many elements of French have emerged: For instance, France’s first “restaurant” didn’t appear in Paris until 1765, while the potato didn’t appear in France until 1785, when it was presented as a gift to Louis XVI. To me, both of these events seem as though they could have easily occurred much earlier in history (after all, coffee had already arrived in France by 1644, while most exotic Eastern spices had already appeared by the 1300s, thanks to the Crusades). I had long assumed that the simple potato, in particular, would’ve surely been a staple of Medieval peasant cookery, and not a vegetable that emerged just prior to the French Revolution (in my mind, the Western concept of “meat and potatoes” seems as though it must be much older than 250 years, as basic as it is).

Pondering our own culinary heritage has often lead me to consider not only what we eat, but also how we eat. Today, much of Western civilization has become accustomed to “Russian style” service, in which meals are delivered as individually-plated courses. But this manner of dining had only become the French standard by 1810 or 1811 — before then, all food would have been delivered to the table at once, family style, in elaborate displays and centerpieces. In terms of utensils, the fork only became popular in France during the late 1700s, although Catherine de’ Medici first brought it from Italy in 1533, when she married Henri II. Before the advent of the fork, diners were likely to spear their food with the tips of their knives, a practice that first appeared during the Ninth Century, under the reign of Charlemagne (who was also the first to allow women at the table, so long as they weren’t wearing heavy perfumes). But even though Charlemagne did help to usher in a more genteel era, the individual cup was not yet in fashion, as folks still passed a communal goblet around the table. I suppose the term “backwash” just wasn’t in the French lexicon back then, or perhaps folks were just much friendlier in the old days.

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