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Wilfrid

The historic success of French cuisine

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The thread about Fine Dining vs. Cheap Eats opened up a discussion about why and how French cuisine achieved dominance in so many territories beyond its borders. The fact of the success of French cuisine - not worldwide, I would say, but throughout most of Europe, North America and elsewhere - seems undisputed. But how did it come about, especially over the last 150 to 200 years?

If someone has the answer, go ahead, but I think it would be interesting to do some research on this subject. I have read plenty of books about the development of French cuisine within France, and about the invention and development of the restaurant, as conceived in France. What I am having trouble pinpointing are any secondary sources on the successful export of French cuisine to other countries, and its dominance in hotel and restaurant catering. Reading suggestions would be very welcome.

Let me throw out some hypotheses, all any and of which might prove to be unsustainable.

1. A fashion for French food went along with a fashion for other aspects of French culture; the language, especially, but also manners, arts and dress. Of course, this explanation may work better for some countries - Russia - than for others - Britain.

2. One shouldn't discount the role of exceptional individuals. Many of the leading French chefs of the last 200 years spent years cooking outside France. Escoffier's influence on upscale dining in London is well-documented.

3. What about hotel management? French and Swiss proprietorship of hotels abroad doubtless favored the recruitment of French chefs.

4. And an idea advanced on the other thread: a French passion for order, cataloguing and codification, carried into their cuisine, made it a tangible, exportable body of knowledge.

These are first thoughts. Better ones are solicited.

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"I have read plenty of books about the development of French cuisine within France, and about the invention and development of the restaurant, as conceived in France. What I am having trouble pinpointing are any secondary sources on the successful export of French cuisine to other countries, and its dominance in hotel and restaurant catering. Reading suggestions would be very welcome."

So Wilfrid--what's been on your reading list so far?

My favorite of the Escoffier books is Timothy Shaw's "The World of Escoffier" (1994) though "Auguste Escoffier--Memories of My Life" (1997) translates more of Escoffier's own words on the issue of French culinary supremacy and international hotel cuisine.

Chapter 6 "Chefs and their Publics" in Stephen Mennell's "All Manners of Food" covers the ground best from Careme through Escoffier to nouvelle cuisine. (Mennell has put together an incredible bibliography as well.) Raymond Sokolov's chapter "Revolution Now" is another concise read on point--in "Why We Eat What We Eat" (1991).

And don't forget Anne Willan's "Great Cooks and their Recipes: From Taillevent to Escoffier" (1977).

As to why the success of French cuisine continued past Careme, past Escoffier and the dull La Grande Cuisine--I've always been partial to Roy Andries de Groot's "Revolutionizing French Cooking" (1975).

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The fact of the success of French cuisine - ... throughout most of Europe, North America and elsewhere - seems undisputed.

Are we really agreeing the dominance of French cuisine in Italy, Spain, Central Europe, Scandinavia?

I'm happy to yield to the more knowledgable amongst you, but though in London or New York if I asked somebody the best place to go for dinner they might well say a French place (i.e. within the confines of Michelin's macaronic inferno, or a Hotel within the Franco-Swiss tradition), were I in Budapest, or Graz, or Barcelona or Bilbao or Milan or Rome or Uppsala would I really be steered towards a French restaurant?

If the triumph of French cuisine is less than total then a far more partial explanation may be in order.

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following on from that, i suspect far more people cook/eat chinese rather than french (including various derivatives)

ditto restaurant nos.

shouldn't we be debating the historic success of chinese cuisine? ;-)

j

ps actually the same is probably true of Indian too...

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Steve, I may try and get a list together (and thanks for your suggestions). This is the book I have recently found most impressive on the subject, by Dr Rebecca Spang. It made me realize that the fairly straightforward story of the development of the French-style restaurant from the success of the restorative-soup-selling business is only part of a far more complex history.

Gavin and Jon: I take your point. I was assuming, quite unfairly, that everyone had read the Expensive/Cheap thread. I am referring to the enormous success of the French in setting trends for menu and service-styles, exporting cooking techniques, and establshing a repertoire of dishes in moderate to upscale restaurants in at least many parts of the world during the course of the last century. I agree that French gastronomic hegemony is not absolute, and it's also very clearly under challenge.

To be honest, I was also hoping to direct the discussion away from "Is French food the best?" and to ask about why and how it's reputation and prestige was histrocially distributed.

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Is the spread of French cooking connected with the wine trade? The dominance of French restaurants is probably greatest in the UK which has historically also been the largest consumer of French wine, I believe. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch that French fashions in food should follow their wine.

Any single explanation is bound to be wrong, of course of course.

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Yes, Wilfrid, I've read the Spang book as well but it predates the era that I think you want to address most--it is so insular and skirts your larger themes and issues--but if you liked it in style, sourcing and attention to detail--start with the Mennell. It's too bad Spang doesn't really deliver on the full promise of her title--"Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture"--for me, there was too little connection made to the sweep of gastronomic culture after her time frame or a sense of how significant her observations of the late 18th/very early 19thC would play out afterward.

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Steve, I am being careless today. Spang is indeed not about this subject. But I found her very compelling on the narrow subject she does address - the origins of the restaurant considered right alongside the development of the concept of restaurant-style dining. Yes, the title promises much more, but what I most liked was the sense I had of a serious historian, who had read the primary sources, reflecting the sheer complexity of the topic. Refreshing change from the anecdotal. I also liked her willingness to analyse contemporary art as well as written records.

Sokolov I have read, and I mean to look again at the weekend to refresh my lousy memory. I also have the Willans book, which is very attractive. I know there are some more potential sources at the New York Society Library, but those must await a little leisure time.

Any chance of an eGullet research grant? :biggrin:

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Any chance of an eGullet research grant? :biggrin:

meatpie.gif

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The food tastes better and to think anything else is condescending.

If one doesn't agree with this for reasons other than the ones Robert Schonfeld raises, one should go get their palate checked by a doctor.

All the rest of the reasons you state have to do with why it is better, not if it is better. There are numerous reasons why and most of them have been raised in the other thread. But the only reason it's better is because it tastes better.

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If the prevalence of French food in some countries can be explained merely by its superiority then the converse question needs to be answered. Why is it not prevalent in Italy, Spain and elsewhere?

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Amy Trubek's Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession, which I just found cited in an online doctoral thesis, looks dead on point. Is anyone in a position to comment on its quality?

I am linking to Amazon, not to promote their service, but because you can look at the Table of Contents and stuff:

Here's the link.

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Points well taken, Wilfrid. Anyone who can translate and annotate Grimod de la Reyniere must be serious and one look through her 68 pages of notes will attest to that fact. She's spent a lot of time in libraries and archives. However, I've used her notes much more than I've returned to her actual writing.

In this "scholarly" mode--though off-topic for this thread's purposes--is Barbara Wheaton's "Savouring the Past" (1983)--a must read, alongside the Mennell, as far as setting the stage is concerned.

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" If the prevalence of French food in some countries can be explained merely by its superiority then the converse question needs to be answered. Why is it not prevalent in Italy, Spain and elsewhere?"

That is an excellent question. Isn't the obvious answer that Spanish and Italian cuisines are complete cuisines based on itheir own cooking strategy and that stratgy was devised hundreds of years ago? And while those cuisines are dominant in their own native countries, isn't the reason that French is preferrable because the technique is more modern and refined?

And let me ask it a different way. If there wasn't a Spanish Inquisition and Spain didn't eradicate cultural diversity, would their cuisine have not fallen into the dark ages between 1500 and 1970? And if the modernization of Italian cuisine was something that happened more recently than Catherine di Medici, do you think French cuisine would be as dominant as it is today?

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And what about the following book : French GastronomyThe History and Geography of a Passion (Arts and Traditions of the Table)

It least according to reviews on amazon it should provide some answer to

Wilfrid's original question.

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Helena, I am hoping you might weigh in with some thoughts on why French cuisine became prestigious in pre-Revolutionary Russia?

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OK, I'm willing to add a totally untested hypothesis, based on an almost total lack of factual knowledge.

1) During the 19th Century, French was the lingua franca of a significant portion of the "civilised" world. It was certainly considered the language of culture, and the language of choice of the upper classes, including Russia and England.

2) The geographic distribution of cuisine would require similar distribution of recipe books, and since French was the widely spoken language, French cuisine won the commercial race.

Ta-daaaa

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Now this is interesting. If there is a citation for writing on the subject of the success of French cultural exportation, I'd be very glad to have it, or them.

Wilfrid and Macrosan, I'm wondering why, by the 19th century, French was the standard language of culture and diplomacy and of the upper classes. Could it have anything to do with the cultural success of the Louis courts and the desire of some neighbors - not the Italians, I don't think, as they had been there, done that already - to emulate them?

I'd just like to add that I know as little or less than anyone who has already claimed to know not much about this subject. I'd like to read up, though.

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Thanks for all the bibliographical material. I have the de Groot book, but none of the others; will go to library. I too know almost nothing about this subject and just a bit about French provincial cooking, so please forgive, and don't hesitate to correct, errors in terminology. Also, the questions I have may be somewhat off topic and I won't be insulted if you tell me to start a new thread. I would rather not confuse issues at the start.

I'm particularly interested in the "frontier" regions of France -- those that shared borders and intermingling of populations with adjoining countries, rather than central French regions. As someone said in the other thread, recipes in the Mediterranean area were probably passed from neighbor to neighbor with regional variations happening along the way. Were these frontier regions sort of buffer zones which resisted French haute cuisine (correct term?) spreading to neighboring countries? Would Burgundy, the Lyonnais, the Loire and the Ile de France regions be those in which haute cuisine developed and flourished? How did haute cuisine coexist with provincial/home or bistrot cooking, from the point of view of the "low" cuisine; when refinements were made to this low cuisine, how were they regarded by those cooking/eating the new dishes? I'm thinking of Keller's "Coffee and Doughnuts" dessert, Boulud's hamburger. (The Chinese did plays on peasant cooking, often as refinements, or as commentary on their haute cuisine.)

Another question about French cuisine in 18th century America -- I have scattered information in my head about French-American friendship during the American Revolution; also about Jefferson's interest in French cuisine and his bringing some of it home with him to Monticello and then I would guess, to Washington. Also, French colonies in the West Indies, Louisiana territories, Canada? During the 19th century turmoil in France, did French chefs come to the Americas?

A last question: in the previous thread, the chefs and creators of the cuisines being discussed were rather absent from the discussion. Was the French system of training new cooks in place in large court and estate kitchens before the Revolution and then transferred into the restaurants that opened? And did this system ever catch on in the countries which adapted French cuisine?

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I haven't seen mentioned in this or the previous thread (perhaps I missed it) that, so far as French cultural and gastronomic influence on England is concerned, it came by force with the Norman invasion in 1066 and continued during several hundred years in which England ruled much of northern and western France. French was the language of culture in England up to Chaucer, who was the first to write serious literature in the East Midlands dialect of Middle English. Chaucer's cultural models included the mediaeval French romance and the Decameron of Bocacchio, which served as the model for the Canterbury Tales.

And remember that port was invented by the English as a byproduct of their effort to produce, in Spain, a substitute for the claret lost to them by the 100 years war.

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Does it follow, then, that French cultural influences were transmitted to the English-speaking world through England? In any case, what explains the French influence on Russian culture?

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And remember that port was invented by the English

And let's remember that, according to Plotnicki, port is a high class drink.

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What about the countries that France colonized in the 19th century? What French influences did they accept into their own cuisines? Thinking mostly of SE Asia, which at the time of contact with the French had successfuly incorporated Indian and Chinese cuisines to make something unique. Did cuisines based on oil rather than butter never embrace French cooking in its entirety?

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For a glimpse of the extraordinary richness and sophistication of American Colonial cuisine, see Chapter 3 of John and Karen Hess' _The Taste of America_ and Karen Hess' critical edition of _Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery_. One thing that emerges is that skill, complexity and sophistication of cuisine are qualities that are most likely to emerge when societal change is slow and allows for a gradual evolution rather than constant dramatic changes. The very idea of "food fads" would have been unthinkable during much of human history. Even the revolutionary changes that took place in Europe as a result of the burgeoning Spice Trade were slow by modern standards.

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All very interesting. I do plan to do some reading before pontificating.

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