French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion

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JEAN-ROBERT PITTE. French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion. Jody Gladding, Translator. Columbia University Press, 2002. 176 pages. $24.95.

Any francophile is acutely, indeed admiringly, aware that at the heart of the French national consciousness is an appreciation for food and its preparation that perhaps more than any other feature defines this nation. In this brilliant and elegant book, Jean-Robert Pitte, a cultural geographer at the Sorbonne, seeks to answer the question: "Why France?" What is it about the geography, history, and culture of the French people that has made for such a rich culinary tradition? What has made France a country of gourmets and gourmands? And, how is it that the rest of the world has come to regard them as such?

To answer these questions, Pitte, the geographer, turns first to the land and climate of France to consider the influence of place on France's rich culinary heritage. Here he emphasizes the dynamic interaction of the landscape and the culture of its inhabitants. It is not "natural" that the French achieved culinary greatness; it is, rather, the result of a very specific historical course that began with the Gauls, who placed food at the center of their social and political lives. Geographical and climatological diversity in turn determined that the farmers of the various regions of France would give shape to distinctive and richly diverse provincial traditions.

How did French society respond to the rich culinary possibilities offered by France's diverse landscape? Positively and in a relatively uninhibited manner. Gourmandism has never really been a sin in France. The Church maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the pleasures of the table, condemning gluttony, praising restraint, and yet the monastic communities produced some of the great wines of France. Not even Protestant austerity could seriously dampen France's enthusiasm for food, even when juxtaposed with the Catholic Reformation whose position on food and the enjoyment thereof was complex, to say the least. The reformed Catholic church maintained a more or less lenient attitude toward the enjoyment of food as part of the larger enjoyment of existence. Still, gluttony was a sin for the Church, and Pitte concludes that it is no easy task to sort through the relationship between Christian tradition and gourmandism.

Then, factor into this increasingly complex equation the roles of the city, the state, and the individual. City dwellers, especially in Paris, by virtue of their money and more

leisured lives, produced a gastronomic culture that siphoned from the countryside its best commodities to circulate in a stimulating urban marketplace of plentitude, quality, and diversity. And beyond Paris lay Versailles, where Louis XIV used the dining table to assist in constructing an absolutist image of the state. According to Pitte, French cooking ". . . only really developed, acquiring a true French personality, as the political and cultural prestige of its monarchs increased in Europe" (pp. 89-90). Here he relies on the authority Brillat-Savarin: "meals became a means of government"(p. 100). Of course, Louis XIV was a rather notorious glutton, but his enthusiasm for dining stemmed not only from his personal appetites. Louis envisioned food as a means of asserting French originality and refinement and of creating cultural hegemony, just as he sought to centralize his hold on the country and to dominate the European diplomatic scene. …