Accounting for taste, the triumph of french cuisine
Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson is a professor of sociology at Columbia University Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 2004 ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24324-5

Présentation de l’éditeur

French cuisine is such a staple in our understanding of fine food that we forget the accidents of history that led to its creation. Accounting for Taste brings these « accidents » to the surface, illuminating the magic of French cuisine and the mystery behind its historical development. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson explains how the food of France became French cuisine. This momentous culinary journey begins with Ancien Regime cookbooks and ends with twenty-first-century cooking programs. It takes us from Careme, the « inventor » of modern French cuisine in the early nineteenth century, to top chefs today, such as Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pepin. Not a history of French cuisine, Accounting for Taste focuses on the people, places, and institutions that have made this cuisine what it is today: a privileged vehicle for national identity, a model of cultural ascendancy, and a pivotal site where practice and performance intersect. With sources as various as the novels of Balzac and Proust, interviews with contemporary chefs such as David Bouley and Charlie Trotter, and the film Babette’s Feast, Ferguson maps the cultural field that structures culinary affairs in France and then exports its crucial ingredients. What’s more, well beyond food, the intricate connections between cuisine and country, between local practice and national identity, illuminate the concept of culture itself. To Brillat-Savarin’s famous dictum « Animals fill themselves, people eat, intelligent people alone know how to eat » Priscilla Ferguson adds, and Accounting for Taste shows, how the truly intelligent also know why they eat the way they do. Parkhurst Ferguson has her nose in the right place, and an infectious lust for her subject that makes this trawl through the history and cultural significance of French food from French Revolution to Babette’s Feast via Balzac’s suppers and Proust’s madeleines a satisfying meal of varied courses. –Ce texte fait référence à l’édition Broché .

Editorial Reviews

French cuisine may or may not be the world’s best, but it certainly is the most widely influential cooking style, and it is unquestionably the standard against which all other cuisines are measured. In this culinary history, Ferguson traces how the cooking of the French nation survived revolutions and changes in fashion to reach the summit of good taste. She contrasts the aesthetic of French dining with the raucous, undisciplined cuisine of America. But she does find America’s attitude toward a single meal, Thanksgiving, a revealing exception to the general rule. In a striking epilogue, Ferguson minutely analyzes the film Babette’s Feast, showing how French cooking came to stand in the film for art in general. She also delves into the differences between the film and Dinesen’s original story, which gave Babette a harder edge than did the movie. Although this work is determinedly academic, those interested in the history of food will discover a wide-ranging, intelligent, and original approach to the preeminent role of French cooking in the history of civilization. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
« Today more than ever in the culinary world we have a curiosity for how cooking has developed. French cuisine has been nurturing chefs and diners alike since its emergence. Priscilla Ferguson sensibly captures the essence of French cuisine by following the steps of its evolution as one of the most influential cultures in the world. Accounting for Taste is truly a remarkable contribution to gastronomical literature. » – Chef Charlie Trotter« 

Prologue (texte intégral)


Eating Orders


The destiny of nations depends how they feed themselves.

—J. A. Brillat-Savarin. Pltysiology of Taste (1826)

The art of eating and drinking. is one of those on which more depends. perhaps, than on any other. since health. activity of mind, constitutional enjoyments, even learning, refinement. and, to a certain degree, morals, are all, more or less, connected with our diet.

—James Fenimore Cooper. ‘On Civilization’ (1838)

“Mann ist, was er iBt »—We are what we eat, the German adage tells us, and it has never been truer. In a veritable explosion of critical work on food over the past decade or so, literary critics and sociologists, historians and anthropologists, not to mention nutritionists and organic farmers, have repeated, claimed, and examined this truism from every conceivable angle. Some reverse the dictum, starting from, rather than ending with, identity. But whether practitioners take the culturalist tack—we are what we eat—or the materialist notion—we eat what we are—virtually every discipline now understands that food presents us with what Marcel Mauss called a « total social phenomenon, » that is, behavior and products so tightly woven into the fabric of the social order that society cannot be imagined without them.

Recently critics have begun to explore how and why and under what conditions this work of cultural weaving occurs. The same interest has prompted a proliferation of journals and conferences, series at university presses, articles and textbooks, degree programs, literary works, investigations in a great number of fields, and finally, organizations that range from the Association for the Study of Food and Society to a cosmic answer to fast food—namely, « Slow Food. » The sudden intense scholarly and cultural interest in food must be looked upon as a fin-de-siecle phenomenon, one that deserves close consideration as we move into the new century.

Accounting for Taste takes up this enthusiasm through a French version of the German axiom: “Tell the what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. » The aphorism, from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s totemic culinary text, the Physiology of Taste (I826), reminds us that food practices are constructed within a social relationship. Like Brillat-Savarin, I listen to what people say about food, most especially what they write about food; and I do so to discover what, in a very fundamental sense, they, and we, are. I take France as the template for thinking about food because, now as in the nineteenth century, France and its culinary customs, or foodways, are emblematic of a distinctive, highly constructed, and sophisticated conception of food with a special emphasis on its role in cultural understandings.

The first problem in such an investigation is a fundamental one. How do we get a handle on « food, » the physiological need that is always more than nutriments? Where does one start to follow the many transformations and metamorphoses of food: what concepts do we use; what analytic perspective do we adopt; and, for that matter, how do we define food in the first place? Do we follow the farmer and the cook or the diner and the chef, the dietician and the doctor or the customs officer and the restaurant owner? Each will have different and possibly conflicting agendas and idiosyncratic definitions of what food is, what it does, what it should do, and how to talk about it. The physiologist and the biologist look at the foodstuff itself: how and where it is grown, and its place in the food chain. Others focus on the symbolic manifestations and meaning of food: the writers who describe food in their work, the painters who dole on representations of it, and the critics who try to address both the writings and the paintings. Economists will likely track the production of food, while historians work to reconstruct patterns of its consumption from the past. The anthropologist typically examines the foodways of a given group, while the sociologist will focus on institutions such as the meal or the restaurant, on occupations, on concepts. Still—and however convenient in the disposition of the intellectual and even the “real” world—these divisions are largely artificial, the by-products of disciplinary and occupational boundaries that are themselves constantly challenged.

Accouting for Taste examines the scene of « culinarity, » or what the French would call le culinaire, « the culinary. » It seeks to circumscribe, to explore, and to elaborate some of the ways in which food structures and expresses the worlds in which it is found. If, as Claude Lévi-Strauss famously put it, food is « good to think with, » it requires a form that makes such thinking possible. For Levi-Strauss that form is myth. For me it is cuisine—the code that brings food into the social order. As dining socializes eating, so cuisine formalizes cooking, and it does so by reworking the fundamentally private act of consumption. We cannot share the food we actually eat, but food as subject and scene creates a collective experience that we can and indeed must share.

There is a larger theoretical point to stress here that turns on linguistic categories. It is all too easy to conflate food and cooking, gastronomy and cuisine. They are, after all, closely related phenomena, each impinging on the other in ways both expected and unexpected. But beyond the fact of the relations, translation and conversion govern the connections. To understand the larger cultural system in which these conversions operate, we must work to keep the terms distinct in a more finely tuned awareness of their mutability. Food refers to the material substances we humans consume to meet the physiological requirements for sustenance; food is what we eat to live. Cooking begins the primary transformative process that puts food in a state ready to be consumed. But if cooking involves chiefly the producer of the dish, gastronomy (a new term in nineteenth-century Paris) points to the sophisticated diner, to the embodiment of Brillat-Savarin’s ideal consumer: “Animals fill themselves, people eat, intelligent people alone know how to eat.” From eating simply to live, gastronomy moves us into the realm of living to eat. Comprehending producer and consumer, cook and diner, cuisine refers to the properly cultural construct that systematizes culinary practices and transmutes the spontaneous culinary gesture into a stable cultural code. Cuisine, like dining, turns the private into the public, the singular into the collective, the material into the cultural. It supplies the cultural code that enables societies to think with and about the food they consume. As cooking makes food fit to eat, so cuisine, with its formal and symbolic ordering of culinary practices, turns that act of nourishment into an object fit for intellectual consumption and aesthetic appreciation.

I propose this book as both a geography and genealogy of culinary culture. Taking cuisine as a privileged agent for the elaboration of a collective identity, I focus on culinary texts ranging from cookbooks and menus to poems, novels, essays, and latterly film and television, to track French culinary identity from its beginnings in the seventeenth century through its elaboration over the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, as my last chapters suggest, this conception of culinarity continues to counter the ephemeral nature of food and to dominate the transitory culinary gesture, both in France and abroad. For it is the tour de force of French cuisine to be defined as at once national and cosmopolitan. National identity is invariably constructed from without as well as from within, and French cuisine offers a case in point,  playing as it has these three hundred years and more both abroad and at home. Today, French cuisine has competitors that it did not have a quarter century ago. Diners everywhere have discovered tastes of which they had no inkling just a few years ago. Long gone is the unquestioned superiority that allowed a French restaurant guide to judge Japanese cuisine as neither good nor bad but simply « astonishing. » Other cuisines today lay claim to culinary precedence. Even so, and however assertively its ascendancy is contested, French cuisine retains its power as the ideal of culinarity. Today as in the nineteenth century, though differently, French cuisine supplies a point of reference and a standard. It is that identification of cuisine, country, and excellence that Accounting for Taste seeks to understand and, indeed, account for.


And so one can hope to discover, for each particular case, how cuisine is a language in which a society unconsciously translates its structure, unless, equally unconsciously. It agrees to reveal its contradictions.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’origine des manières de table (I968)

The French, as we all « know, » are culinary masters—so much so that to modern ears, gastronomy sounds far more like a French enterprise than the original Greek word on which it is based. The etymology of the term—the law (names) of the stomach (gastro)— presumably refers to a biological fact, but the law of the stomach in France legislates much more than what actually enters the digestive tract. It bespeaks the normative nature of French foodways that so strikes foreigners. At some level, everyone acknowledges the rules, regulations, and hierarchies that make eating in France at its best a distinctive experience. However much culinary dissidents may flout these rules, few can afford to ignore the laws of gastronomy. As an emblem of French civilization, cuisine ranks right up there with cathedrals and chateaux, recognized by citizen and visitor alike as somehow intrinsically French. Not without reason did that superlatively French writer, Marcel Proust, identify his great novel with a cathedral on the one hand and a sculptural beef in aspic on the other. Moreover, the recognition obtains whether or not the cathedral is actually visited or the great meal consumed. Each belongs to the national heritage.

But what makes Proust’s beef dish French? How did it get to be part of that heritage? How does it differ from the boiled beef that is a staple all over the world? Why does food loom larger in the cultural landscape of the French, if in fact it does? True, French elites have invested heavily in culinary affairs at least since the seventeenth century; to what extent have these official resources moved down the social scale and out to the country as a whole? What does French cttisine « do » for France? Why has this tradition not become just another vestige of the Ancien Regime, such as Versailles or the chateaux of the Loire Valley, visited for their distance from life today? Finally, what future does ottr assertively postmodern era hold in store for distinctive cuisines, French along with many others? How do the cooks and chefs, these artisans of the everyday, cope with contemporary pressures of globalization, internationalization, rationalization, democratization?

These questions led to this book. The ensuing answers have turned up less in the particulars of French culinary history than in an ideal that accounts for the extraordinary vitality of this cultural product and its position in French culture. As anthropologists have long known, foodways set societies apart from one another. The French can invoke a vast number of regional specialties, from Roquefort cheese to foie gras, but they are hardly alone. Americans, too, can turn out a sizable list of culinary products defined by place—from New York bagels to North Carolina barbecue, New England clam chowder to southern fried chicken, scrapple from Philadelphia, and on and on. These foods, anchored in place, lay the foundations of regional cuisines—the culinary practices defined and enriched, and also limited, by local products and producers. A truly national cuisine is something else again. A modern phenomenon, a national cuisine is part and parcel of the nation-state that emerged in the West during the nineteenth century. As a culinary system both different from and greater than the sum of its regional parts, French cuisine materialized across a tumultuous century of political, social, and cultural revolutions. Cuisine supplied one building bIock —a crucial one—for a national identity in the making, for it encouraged the French to see themselves through this distinctive lens as both different and superior. Moreover, this form of Frenchness compelled all the more because, unlike Bastille Day or “La Marseillaise, » it was not an artifact of official decree. The power of French culinarity comes from its reach into daily life. Not that regional cuisines disappeared. On the contrary, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw their integration in a French culinary landscape where they became what they still are: vital components in the intellectual and cultural construct of French cuisine, a lively type for the relationship of the regional parts to the national whole.

An illustration from a guidebook of the mid-nineteenth century cleverly captures the status of cuisine as national cultural good. The tour of Parisian dining in Eugene Briffault’s jocular Paris à table (1846) takes us to a familiar Parisian monument, the Pantheon. Begun as a church in the mid-eighteenth century, this imposing edifice served the French Revolution as a final resting place for its great men, Voltaire and Rousseau most notable among them. Paris à table shifted these priorities. In place of the imposing classical dome, a giant oven-chef bestrides the frieze. With a kitchen knife stuck in his apron and two sauté pans dangling in front, the monumental chef sports two forks as arms, one of which brandishes a giant skimming ladle. A steaming stew pot-face grins under the pot-cover hat, from which stringy vegetable tops stick out like unruly hair. The inscription on the tnonutnent conveys the redirected expression of patriotic gratitude: replacing the “Aux Grands Hommes la Patrie reconnaissante » of the original—To Great Men the Grateful Country—this version of the Pantheon proclaims “A la Cuisine la Patrie reconnaissante”—To Cuisine, the Grateful Country.

France had every reason to be grateful. At least from the mid-seventeenth century, French chefs had journeyed to foreign courts as culinary missionaries. In the expanding economy of the nineteenth century, as Briffault and many others incessantly rhapsodized, the production and consumption of food kept the commerce spinning and the culture lively. All of the many regimes that followed the storming of the Bastille—three republics, three monarchies, and two empires from 1789 to l870—relied on culinary practices to further their own ends. All of them operated from the urban center of Paris and its definition of country. In this domain as in so many others, it was the bourgeoisie that legislated in the name of France, and it legislated from Paris. Hence the culinary pantheon could stand nowhere else. Like any other cuisine with claims to a national audience, French cuisine negotiates the shifting space between the center and its peripheries, between the capital and the provinces, between the ties to geographical place and those, no less real, to an inclusive cultural space. As the culinary pantheon makes abundantly clear, French cuisine conveyed, promoted, and inspired Frenelmess—no small contribution in a country where regional divisions ran deep enough to compromise a fledgling national unity more than once over the century.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, neither the revolution of 1789 that overthrew the monarchy nor the new century of Napoleonic conquest and nation building wiped the slate of cultural legacy clean. Indeed, the purposeful melding of antithetical traditions with contemporary concerns constitutes one of the enduring paradoxes of French society. The new century only strengthened the centralizing forces inherited from the Ancien Regime. “Since 1789, » a critic on the Far Right groused in 1870 as Paris was besieged by the Prussians, “there has always been a king of France, and only one: Paris.” Others greeted this Paris-centric society with joy. It was, after all, the immense concentration of cultural institutions as well as economic assets in this city that led Walter Benjamin to his celebrated characterization of Paris as the Capital of the nineteenth century.

And one great resource of this kingdom, as Paris à table impresses upon us again and again, was the range of public dining it offered the wealthy and (relatively) impecunious alike. Although restaurants first appeared in Paris in the late eighteenth century, they did not dominate public space until the nineteenth, when they became one of the most visible and distinctive of modern urban institutions. In contrast with the Ancien Regime, which coupled cuisine and class, nineteenth-century France tied cuisine to country. It urbanized and then nationalized the haute cuisine once sustained by the court and the aristocracy. It translated largely class-oriented culinary practices into a national culinary code. The elites that supported the haute cuisine of the new century shifted as well. Most of them were new to their entitlement, which originated more from wealth than from birth. (Until the Second Republic in I848, postrevolutionary regimes restricted the right to vote to men of a given tax bracket.) Consequently, the ostensibly apolitical nature of French cuisine was a great advantage in promoting national goals over partisan interests. Culinary practices served political objectives all the more effectively in that the fellowship of the table seemingly transcended political divisions to draw groups together.

In connections that are more than incidental, the French language took a similar path from the old regime to the new. The fetishizing of the French language has its parallel in the adoration of French cuisine; both presumed not simply excellence but also superiority and order. The cuisine of France, like its national language, is greater than the sum of its parts. Each illustrates the relationship between language and speech, between grammar and rhetoric, between code and usage, between collectivity and creator. During the Ancien Regime the use of the French language characterized a specific group—the king and court, the administration and elites more generally—and a particular place—Paris. The events that followed upon I789 turned that language into the language of the Revolution, loosening the connections to place by extending the collective identification beyond elites and beyond Paris. Of course, the « frenchification » of France required a century. It began with the dismissal of the many other languages spoken in French territory as dialect or patois, neither of which had any place in the new and, it was hoped, unified country. How to decide? In the oft-cited definition of the great twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand Brunot, a language has an army and a navy. So it was with French cuisine. It could call upon an external, incontrovertible authority. As the great chef Auguste Escoffier would observe with pride, it could call on a cadre of missionaries to spread the culinary good news. French cuisine was, he boasted, one of the most effective forms of diplomacy.

These examples raise central concerns of cultural construction and survival. How do cultures work to reconcile past and present? How do they resolve the constraints of tradition with the imperatives of innovation’? Studying any culture in isolation skews perspective and compromises every conclusion. Accounting for Taste therefore invokes multiple frameworks of comparison. Although my focus is squarely on cuisine in France during the formative years of the nineteenth century, I set culinary culture against other subcultures within French society. I consider French cuisine and French foodways in terms of other cuisines and other foodways, and I look at the nineteenth century against the eighteenth and the twentieth, and the twentieth century against the fledgling twenty-first. These many perspectives allow a clearer sense of the myriad ways that modern cultures evolve and function in different places at different times and with different agendas. Issues of cultural survival warrant our concern. Yet the pressures of rationalization, globalization, and internationalization, although identified with contemporary society, do not begin with it. People of the nineteenth century, too, had to deal with the costs of modernization, with the losses as well as the benefits of an industrializing, urbanizing world. French culinary matters hold lessons that reach well beyond either France or culinarity. They touch on issues that should carry great weight for us all—the opportunities for cultural construction and the possibilities of resistance, survival and demise, and, perhaps, revival. Our place in the future depends on understanding our relationship to the past.

The cluster of activities that surround cooking and eating stakes out culinarity as a privileged entry into the social order. Food and foodways afford a singular insight into any culture—into the worlds of women, the empires of men, the realms of children. Cuisine shifts agriculture into culture and inserts physiology into society. Whether taken as product or practice, chef or consumer, or everyone and everything in between, cuisine acts as a vital agent of socialisation. It translates the corporeal, « natural, » uncooked, and unprocessed into a social actor. By fixing the individual gestures that would otherwise remain buried among the pots and pans, cuisine pushes culinary practice out of the kitchen into the culture beyond. There, in that larger culture, cuisine reaches beyond the food that supplies its raw materials; it outperforms the cooks by whom it is produced; it outshines even the consumers who justify the cycle of production. All this is possible because cuisine is not merely a culinary code that anchors custom. It is as well a panoply of narratives that sustain praxis. Cuisine constructs and upholds a community of discourse, a collectivity held together by words, by language, by interpretations of the world in which we live.


Modern myths are even less understood than classical myths, even though we are consumed by myths. Myths press on us front everywhere, they serve for everything, they explain everything.

—Honoré de Balvaz, La Vieille Fille (1836)

Myth is a term chosen by history: it cannot come from the « nature » of things.

—Roland Barthes, Mythologies (I957)

Every culture has its myths. Neither right nor wrong, neither truthful nor mendacious, myths are. Above all, they are useful. Products of a collective imagination, these understandings of the everyday serve individuals as they work for societies. Whether we are aware of these stories or not, every one of us needs them to make sense of the world that we inhabit, and that need is no less pressing today than in the past. As the exuberantly modernizing Paris of the early nineteenth century impressed upon Honoré de Balzac, myths suround us on all sides, all the more powerful because they are seldom recognized as the outsize narratives that they are. A century later, Roland Barthes located the power of modern myths in just that misrecognition. Putting myths back into history, discovering how, when, and why they took hold, revealing how they work—this is the task that Barthes set for the critical “mythologist.”

Accounting for Taste considers one modern myth and the community of discourse in which it operates: the collective understanding that French cuisine offers French culture. Why France? Surely, all cultures have more or less distinct foodways, and many, perhaps most, can lay claim to distinctive foods. Yet few will deny that culinary matters are not everywhere equally present and are not equally valued. Not many cultures look as far as the French beyond the immediate, material consumption of food or cast culinary practice as a general social good. Just why this should be so is by no means self-evident. “Of course, » one eats better in France; gastronomy is « unmistakably, » “unquestionably” French; and it has “always” been so. That we encounter frankly bad meals under the guise of French cooking only means that the French are not living up to the standards that we accept and believe in. Our acceptance of this “naturalness » and our reluctance to imagine otherwise allow Barthes to identify a myth. Like every other myth, that of French cuisine appeared in particular historical circumstances and continues in others, equally specific, equally discrete, equally compelled by social change.

French cuisine also stands apart not simply as a set of culinary practices, but as a grammar, a rhetoric of that practice, a discursive space. Although every cuisine is a code, some cuisines—and French cuisine has long supplied the paradigmatic example in the West—are considerably more codified than others. If, as commonly alleged, there is no American cuisine, it is because for all kinds of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, cooking in the United States ranks low on the scale of formalization and codification.

The importance and significance to cuisine of language, texts, and representations can hardly be overstated. As much as the foodways by which it is shaped or the actual foods consumed, words sustain cuisine. These words, the narratives and the texts shaped by them, are what translate cooking and food into cuisine. They redefine the individual act of eating into the collective act of dining. In explaining these modifications in French cuisine and its culinary culture, I have also endeavored to keep in mind what this particular cultural phenomenon might imply for processes of cultural formation generally, it is not just a question of finding out about cuisine and food in a given social setting but of exploring culture itself—how it works, how particular phenomena create and sustain a collective cultural consciousness. French cuisine offers one means to this larger end of understanding how discourse identifies a collectivity.

Chapter I, “Culinary Configurations,” places « cooking » against “cuisine.” It sets the analytic logic of the culinary code against the diversity of culinary practices, thereby allowing me not to trace a history of French cuisine—vast numbers exist—but to pinpoint some of the culinary narratives that the French have told about themselves and their food at least since the seventeenth century. Written up, written down, and published, these stories make the text the primary vehicle for the distinct, and distinctive, cuisine of France.

In a close study of the career and the culinary systetn of Marie-Antoine Caréme (I783-I 833), chapter 2. “Inventing French Cuisine,” focuses on contemporary French cuisine. For it is to Caréme that we owe the reconfiguration of the aristocratic cuisine of the Ancien Regime into the elite and assertively national cuisine of the nineteenth century. Analyzing his career and the culinary system that he perfected tracks the emergence of both modern French cuisine and the modern French chef. The portability of Cari‘-me’s resolutely rationalized culinary code enabled the subsequent professionalization of cooking within France as well as its diffusion abroad; the nationalization and internationalization of French cuisine proceeded apace. A predictably emphatic culinary nationalism in turn made this cuisine integral to a newly identified national patrimony even as it traveled around the world.

Chapter 3, “Readings in a Culinary Culture, » moves from the producers and production of cuisine to its consumers and consumption. Here I situate the emergent gastronomic field in the new production site of the restaurant, in newly utilitarian attitudes toward pleasure, and above all, in the gastronomic writings that were published in such numbers beginning in the early nineteenth century. The expanding publishing industry was a boon for food writing of every sort. Here we also shift methodological gears from a historical to a more properly sociological perspective in order to ask what social structures apply to cultural change. The gastronomic field that took shape in the decades following the French Revolution represents a modern cultural formation that grounds a highly developed, particularly acute culinary consciousness in France. These writings—Car€-me’s culinary treatises, the gastronomic journalism of A. B. L. Grimod de la Reyniere, the protosociological essays of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the « gastrosophy » of the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier, and finally, the novels of Balzac—signaled the metamorphosis of the consumption of material foodstuffs and corporeal satisfaction into an intellectual and aesthetic pursuit. French cuisine is French at least in part, this chapter argttes, because so many have written so much to insist upon the connection.

Chapter 4, “Food Nostalgia, » examines some of the texts that marked French cuisine as a dominant trope of French national identity and reflects on some of the consequences of that dominance. The culinary paradigm evolved in the dialogue between city and cottntry, capital and provinces, nation and region, (male) chef and (female) cook, tradition and innovation. Coming at the juncture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marcel Proust’s /l la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) illuminates wonderfully well the dynamics of this nationalizing culinary culture. In a country where the written word has long dominated public discourse, literary connections enhance any cultural enterprise. Although « gastro-literature » is hardly a French monopoly—some of the greatest examples date from antiquity—the salience of the connection between matters literary and culinary is a distinctive feature of French culture generally.

The last chapter, « Consuming Passions, » reflects on the place of French cuisine within the culinary order of a postwar, postmodern, postindustrial society marked by both globalization, which markets uniformity of production and product, and internationalimtion, which promotes difference and “authenticity.” French cuisine in the twenty-first century works off both registers in telling ways. I draw on intensive interviews with leading chefs and restaurateurs in the United States and France to highlight the striking changes of the twentieth century and the skillful adjustments that French culinary leaders have made as a consequence. These postmodern chefs are masters of the art of the everyday as well as cultural heroes in the public eye. In an almost impossibly intense world of competition and change, they are bound by a culinary contract that constrains consumer and chef with reciprocal obligations, shared ideals, and a common history. As these chefs testify so eloquently, the continuing presence of French cuisine is one of its unmitigated triumphs in the twentieth century.

An epilogue focuses on the quasi-cult film Babette’s Feast as a modern fable of French culinary culture. That a film should supply an iconic culinary text for the twentieth century is surely appropriate for a food culture that has become at once more cosmopolitan and more local. A celebration of the senses, Babette’s Feast invests cuisine—very pointedly French cuisine—with incomparable powers of conversion. The spectacular repast that caps the film summons up a vision of sensual and spiritual well-being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who, through her art, recreates her country. Babette makes the vital link in the culinary chain that converts the raw to the cooked and the material to the spiritual. This film takes French cuisine as emblematic of the community that the culinary creates, sustains, and restores.

Cuisine, then, for me, is both a structure and an action, a set of principles as well as practices. Following Pierre Bourdieu’s injunction to keep contraries in play at all times, we need to think dynamically of a structuring structure and a structured action, a changing structure and a fixed action. This dual perspective leads me to consider the many ways that eating structures society, how individual acts of consumption create and become part of the collective order that we usually term culture. The significance of the claims made by Brillat-Savarin, Cooper, and Lévi-Strauss in the epigraphs of this prologue lies in their insistence on just this connection between eating and the social order.

Accounting for Taste deals with the many explanations that French cuisine gives of taste. I consider the characteristic stories about food and the people who tell them, the ideas no less than the products that sustain a distinctively French culinary order. And since French cuisine has long played in an international arena as well as on a French stage, this culinary world has shaped the experiences of food around the world, often in unexpected and even unlikely venues. Taking a cue from Norbert Elias, who famously claimed that “civilization” constituted the self-consciousness of the West, I suggest that cuisine in France, French cuisine, has acted as the culinary consciousness of the West and, at times, its conscience as well.

Culinary conscience ? The claim is a large one, but it applies. Individuals and groups always coordinate in the making of a decision, whether it is personal or public. We are shaped by the arrangements that society sometimes allows, sometimes gives, sometimes enforces. What we decide, then, is a mixture of choice and cultttral formation. The development of French cuisine offers a wonderful example of how this process can achieve unprecedented heights in common understanding and celebration. As such, it is an exciting story that carries beyond itself in what might be called the sociology of cultural agreement. Taste is intensely personal and simultaneously a matter of collective conception. Just as we see only what we allow ourselves to see, so we taste what experience has taught us to accept. No one ever sees quite the same thing, and there is no taste on which everyone will agree. French ideas about food rose to dominance through an extraordinary collaboration of the general and the idiosyncratic. In a remarkably short period of time, a handful of striking figures put their stamp on the way food should be prepared, consumed, and, even more important, thought of. That said, they were able to conceive better than they knew only because of the social institutions within and against which they acted. The centralization of individual initiatives through institutional affiliations and codifications is a very characteristic French behavior pattern. That this phenomenon came to rest so powerfully and permanently on food, its preparation and its consumption, is the mystery that this book seeks to explain. And the answer will lie in another collaboration. For whatever the difficulties of the enterprise, the pleasures in the accounting for taste won the day—a day that extends from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first.

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