A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Brennan, Thomas
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Pinkard, Susan
Accession Number: 254405166
Full Text: A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine. By Susan Pinkard (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xv plus 317 pp.).

The history of food has become a vast and eclectic enterprise. After counting calories with the demographers and studying diet with social historians, food historians turned to the semiotics of settings, the identity of terroir, and the culture of cuisine. By any of these standards, Susan Pinkard's A Revolution in Taste is hard to classify. It begins with a striking argument about the "revolution in taste" promised by the title and ends with an extensive appendix of recipes. In between there is much history of food and its preparation, of meals and their consumption, as well as the science and techniques of cooking. The combination is somewhat awkward, yet the individual ingredients are often fascinating and the historical discussions offer a compelling framework for integrating the history of food into its social and cultural context.

The book begins with a brief overview of medieval cooking that emphasizes its complexity, even confusion, of ingredients and flavors. Reinforced by classical theories of diet, the medieval meal tended towards meat and few or no vegetables, in recipes that combined the sweet, pungent, and perfumed with as much artifice as the consumer could afford. The book then turns to two French texts, Le Cuisinier francois by La Varenne and Les Delices de la campagne by Nicolas de Bonnefons, written in the middle of the seventeenth century that launched the culinary revolution. A lengthy discussion of the recipes found in these books, and even more of the way they talked about the foods that formed their ingredients, makes the point that these two writers now wanted gastronomy to focus on the natural taste of foods. They devoted their primary attention to describing the range of meats, fish, vegetables, and sauces that an attentive cook needed to understand in order to prepare them as they deserved.

Pinkard, too, devotes a great deal of attention to these recipes, to an extent that will warm a cook's heart but may leave the historian puzzled. Since the analytical core of this book is a dozen or so cookbooks, however, the recipes are texts that the author parses for all they can yield. She even reproduces many of them for the modern cook at the end of the book. The chemical analysis of sauces, the technology of cooking, the genealogy of recipes are all discussed in elaborate detail. Sometimes they illustrate the dramatic changes in French cuisine during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but some of this seems like an unnecessary distraction.

Far more pertinent and persuasive is the author's effort to explain this revolution. Pinkard points to the Parisian elites' conquest of the city's exurbs during the seventeenth century and their consequent access to fresh food from their own lands. In a chapter that reviews the social history of Bourbon Paris, Pinkard is able to show how the supply of fresh ingredients, coming particularly from the rural properties of Parisian elites, combined with a new culture of civility and "honnetete" to redefine eating and dining. This was a revolution in refinement that emerged not at the court but amongst the urban milieu that was redefining social hierarchies. Their replacement of the formal banquet with the intimate supper brought with it changes in the shape of the table and, with it, the kinds of foods, courses, and service that defined the meal. Thus, "Innovative cooking in the second half of the seventeenth century continued to be intimately linked to the dinner party."[126]

Cooking, or at least cookbooks, in the late seventeenth century also became more systematic in the preparation of recipes and so, by "demystifing" the new cuisine, spread it to a larger audience. Although more systematic, the cooking was still quite elaborate, thus limiting its appeal to modest households or, apparently, to the English. It also lost favor in some elite French circles in the eighteenth century, as cookbooks promoted a "new" cuisine of simplicity.

The century of changes in raw culinary materials, their preparation and presentation contributed to an aesthetic revolution, an embrace of authenticity in taste but also, Pinkard argues, in other parts of life. Thus she follows the revolution into the eighteenth century where it echoed in Enlightenment debates about art, nature, and luxury. The trend towards simplicity in cuisine could give Rousseau yet more ammunition with which to criticize the artifice of civilization. "Food that tasted like what it was had become a symbol of freedom and authenticity."[236] Pinkard also finds the triumph of natural taste reproduced in the realm of drink, particularly as innovations in the preparation and preservation of fine wine allowed for more complex and distinctive flavors. Presumably the new colonial beverages that pervaded elite society also demonstrated a taste for strong, distinctive flavors, though she does not make this point in her discussion of them. The analysis here is less focused than earlier ones, and the argument is less pointed.

On the other hand, such a comment probably misses the real aim, and the real audience, of the book. Much of the material covered in this book is a synthesis, known already to those who work in the field. Clearly it is aimed at a wider audience that is not so familiar, that enjoys the details as much as, or more than, the thesis. For them, the 50 pages of recipes at the end will bring this subject alive in ways that few historians can.

Thomas Brennan

United States Naval Academy
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.