Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fjordman: French Haute Cuisine and the Birth of the Western Restaurant

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at Tundra Tabloids. Some excerpts are below:

Forks existed in Greco-Roman Antiquity, but then as pitchforks and as a serving utensil. From the tenth through the thirteenth centuries AD they were fairly common among the wealthy in Byzantium. In the eleventh century, a Byzantine wife of a Doge of Venice brought forks to Italy. While spoons and knives were well-known in the ancient world, the triumph of the knife and fork as the mainstays of European tableware was slow in coming. It was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the fork became a standard item at elite tables.

Forks used solely for dining were luxuries and markers of social status among the nobles. At the court of Versailles, Louis XIV of France allegedly did not approve of forks, yet his grandson adopted the custom. Even in the late 1600s, commentators noted that the English do not use “forks but fingers.” They initially ridiculed forks as being effeminate and unnecessary, but eventually, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy British citizens.

Like many other ideas and habits, the custom of eating with knife and fork was spread from Western Europe to other parts of the world during the colonial period. The most important holdout has been East Asia, where chopsticks as eating utensils originated in China in ancient times. They are currently used in neighboring regions such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam as well, often made of bamboo or plastic, but also of metal, ivory and different types of wood.

The Italian Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Platina, or Sacchi (1421-1481) in 1465 composed De honesta voluptate et valetudine (“On honourable pleasure and health”), which became the first printed European cookbook. After him, surprisingly few similar titles were written. The great French chef François Pierre de la Varenne (1618-1678) published Le cuisinier françois in 1651. Most food writing took the guise of medical and dietetic advice in the humoral tradition, with less practical advice on how to prepare food to make it as delicious as possible. “La Varenne’s book was not really about how to improve one’s health by adjusting one’s diet. It was a cookery book and it was perhaps the first European cookery book almost entirely dedicated to the task of instructing its readers how to cook food.” It introduced a whole new culinary vocabulary to its readers. He published his work in the vernacular at a time when Latin was losing out to French as the lingua franca of Europe’s elites.
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After La Varenne, the development of a highly influential French haute cuisine (“high cooking”) continued with the chefs Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) and Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). Escoffier contributed to Prosper Montagné’s (1865-1948) publishing of the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique, an encyclopedia of French gastronomy, in 1938. Carême was a great theorist and classifier who specialized in pâtisserie (pastries and sweets), “which he considered to be a branch of architecture, and saw himself as a culinary artist, an inventor, a creator.” Chef to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) or Talleyrand, the influential French diplomat and political survivor, Carême subsequently worked briefly for Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825), then George IV (1762-1830), King of Hanover and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and finally James Mayer de Rothschild (1792-1868) of the prominent Jewish banking family.

Some early English cookbooks were The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) and The Compleat Housewife from 1742 by Eliza Smith. The Joy of Cooking, first published in the United States in the 1930s by Irma S. Rombauer (1877-1962), has been printed in millions of copies. Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911) published the major Italian cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (“The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well”) in 1891, following the political unification of Italy.

Elliott Shore tells the story of the Western restaurant in Dining Out — The Development of the Restaurant, a chapter in the fine book Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman:

“People in the Western world have eaten away from home for centuries, but the restaurant as opposed to the inn, foodstand or other modest convenience or necessity, has existed for merely 250 years. The restaurant began, and remained for about its first century of existence, as an exclusive place for the wealthy, which served — in London, Paris, New York, Berlin — an international more-or-less French cuisine with little variation. Even as the restaurant started to become more accessible to a varied clientele, the uniformity of the offerings remained fairly constant for another century. It is only in the last fifty of those 250 years that we can start to speak of the move towards the phantasmagoric array of food, of atmosphere and of styles of service that have made the restaurant such a successful and ubiquitous feature of the culture of taste. Naturally, long before the modern restaurant was born in the mid-eighteenth century, there were many occasions to dine, or at least to eat, while travelling or during the urban workday. Travellers had to eat some place, after all, and in medieval and early modern Europe pilgrims, students, emissaries and soldiers thronged the roads and had some expectation of being fed.”

Nevertheless, the first restaurants were found in China. In the twelfth century AD when Hangzhou was the Chinese capital city it had hundreds of tea-houses, theaters and hotels and numerous restaurants. In the West, although taverns serving meals had existed since ancient times, the first luxury restaurants developed in the late 1700s. Late medieval China had a sophisticated system of communications, with waterways and roads facilitating trade in products from all provinces of the Empire and beyond. You could get cheap-but-good noodles, or sit in a luxurious tea house in a garden landscape filled with colored lanterns and paintings and drink tea from fine porcelain. If it were a hot summer day, you could get refreshing iced drinks or even iced foods. Restaurants in Song and Yuan Dynasty China had waiters and menus along with some aspects of a sexual marketplace and social meeting place.

The restaurant is a specialized place to eat, not a traveler’s refuge that also serves food, like an inn. The Western restaurant with a professional waiter and all the attributes we now associate with it emerged during the 1760s in Paris. A coffeehouse or a café was not a restaurant in the modern sense because it did not have an extensive selection of cooked foods made for the diner and ordered from a menu. The Caffè Florian at St Mark’s Square in the middle of Venice, Italy has been in continuous operation since 1720 and has attracted famous guests from Goethe via Charles Dickens to Marcel Proust, but although it was a valuable place to socialize, its menu was limited to pastries and snacks to accompany the caffeinated beverages.

Read the rest at Tundra Tabloids.


Unknown said...

What is with all the elegies already?

Fjordman said...

It's not an elegy, it's a hymn praising our achievements.