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Defining Culinary Authority: The Transformation of Cooking in France, 1650-1830.

Defining Culinary Authority: The Transformation of Cooking in France, 1650-1830 by Jennifer J. Davis. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2013. x, 246 pp. $47.50 US (cloth).

In A History of French Passions, Theodore Zeldin identified the nineteenth century as the period when French cuisine came into its own. He ascribed this phenomenon to four groups: gastronomes, restaurateurs, professional male chefs, and women who cooked in bourgeois households (Oxford, 1977, vol. 2, p. 732). Today it is clear that the transformation of French cooking began earlier. The food culture of Paris acquired its distinctive features before 1789, even if these took another century to transform the habits of the country as a whole. Nineteenth-century gastronomes valourized culinary trends that emerged before the Revolution. Restaurants existed in the ancien regime, but they became laboratories of culinary invention in the 1800s. Cooks, however, figure more prominently than ever. Much of what we know about the development of culinary technique, menus, and ingredients prior to 1789 derives from the work of elite male cooks who also wrote books. Sean Takats recently filled in another side of the picture by exploring cooking in private households as a working class job open to women as well as men (The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France, Baltimore, 2011). Historians have identified other groups who shaped Parisian food culture. For example, Sydney Watts has written about butchers, market culture, and public hygiene (Meat Matters, Rochester, 2006), while Emma Spary has addressed the intersection between colonial trade and scientific opinion in shaping the reception of coffee and other novelties (Eating the Enlightenment, Chicago, 2012). The book under review is a valuable contribution to this expanding conversation.

In her core chapters, Davis focuses on "public cooks," a category that included members of the caterers' guild and related trades, such as patissiers, roast cooks, and proprietors of cabarets, among others. At a time when entry into many guilds was restricted to the sons of masters, the culinary trades were open. Most apprentices were the sons of urban or agricultural labourers, while others had fathers who were servants, merchants, soldiers, or bureaucrats. The examples of feasts prepared by candidates for mastership that Davis cites suggest that trainees who reached that level acquired a wide array of sophisticated skills. Some apprentices found employment in domestic service, others in hospitals, monasteries, or the military. Those who became masters assumed a range of public responsibilities to enforce quality standards as well as compliance with Catholic rules about fasting. Unlicensed cooks were often cited for serving meat during Lent even after the habits of Parisians shifted away from strict observance of the fast.

Public cooking was gendered masculine. A handful of female relatives of masters participated in the official culinary trades. In the realm of domestic service the opposite was true. Women dominated the market for cooks in middling households. Although the wealthiest families usually employed male cooks, women were increasingly competitive in that market as the century progressed. Davis asserts that this was so because the style of cooking that became fashionable by 1700 required less expertise than traditional cuisine, which stressed elaborate visual presentations, and that this, in turn, meant that unskilled women could take the place of skilled men. Male cooks, according to Davis, returned to dominance by claiming superior knowledge of science and thus could concoct healthy meals; although, confusingly, she also claims that the "association of women with simplicity and health would confer authority over cookbooks to female authors by the nineteenth century" (p. 86).

These claims are contentious for a number of reasons. The cutting-edge cooking of the day embodied a minimalist aesthetic. The idea was to showcase the fine seasonal foodstuffs that were becoming available in Paris markets in larger quantities and greater variety. Cooks developed the repertoire of techniques aimed at intensifying flavours while preserving colour and texture that are still the foundation of classical French cuisine. The trompe-l'oeil disguises that had been previously fashionable were increasingly seen as distractions or even falsifications of a dish's authenticity. Minimalism put a premium on superior skills at the stove since mistakes were now impossible to hide. Menon, in his cookbook aimed at women, La cuisiniere bourgeoise, and Marin, in Les Dons de Cornus, which launched the nouvelle cuisine, stressed that rigorous technique and attention to detail were the keys to producing excellent food consistently. Although Davis cites both works, she overlooks this crucial point. Interestingly, Takats has demonstrated that female cooks who commanded superior technical skills competed effectively with men at the higher levels of domestic service.

The idea that cooks were medical practitioners was as ancient as Hippocratic medicine. For two millennia balancing the humours through diet was the primary method of warding off and curing illnesses. Thanks to their knowledge of ingredients and skill in combining them, cooks of both sexes functioned as caregivers more frequently than physicians. As the Hippocratic consensus frayed, alternative theories based on chemical or mechanical principles appeared, although the old language of the humours persisted. One wants to know whether appeals to chemistry or mechanics in culinary literature reflected a serious reevaluation of the relationship between cooking and health or merely put a contemporary gloss on established practices. Deeper and more systematic probing of this issue would have been welcome.

One highlight of the book is Davis's discussion of the application of industrial technology to food preservation, the production of bouillon and the extraction of gelatin in the early nineteenth century. These developments really did bring together advances in chemistry, new insights about nutrition, and the craft skills of men such as Nicolas Appert (the inventor of canning), who had been an apprentice cook in his youth. Through such endeavors the ancien regime traditions of the food trades found a future in post-revolutionary France.

Susan Pinkard

Georgetown University
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Author:Pinkard, Susan
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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