The Gift of French Cuisine

Winter BW 2
Winter, a time to indulge in French cuisine! (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The French peasant cuisine is at the basis of the culinary art. By this I mean it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes.
-Alexandre Dumaine

I don’t remember exactly when it happened. One day I resisted even opening my then-pristine copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and the next day, or so it seemed, I couldn’t get enough of it. And still can’t. I now own dozens of French cookbooks, both in English and in French. And my biggest coup lately has been to snag an interlibrary loan of Edouard Nignon’s Éloges de la cuisine française (1933).

Why might this be? It’s not like there isn’t a lot of pressure to once again reject French food and everything it supposedly stands for. Snobbery. Elitism. Etc.

Culinary luminaries – Bee Wilson for one – ponder just why the myth of French cuisine still crowds out all other cuisines.  Academics of Donald Morrison’s ilk predict the demise of French hegemony, in the kitchen as well as elsewhere.  Still others dismiss French cuisine as being too snobbish and too much associated with the ruling classes.

The truth is that French cuisine sank deep roots globally, reaching as far away as Pondicherry in India and Tahiti, a speck of an island in the Pacific, and as close as Martinique and Guadaloupe.* The cuisine influenced that of the British who settled in America, as did the French Huguenots and other settlers in the American South. In many ways, French food – and I don’t mean the haute side of things –  is comfort food. And that, dear readers, is why it’s hard to give it up, I think.

All I know is that I come back again and again to the books that allow me to approximate the food of France in my own kitchen and to taste flavors born of peasant ingenuity, embroidered upon by elite households, as Alexandre Dumaine so succinctly said.

Some might rebel against the strict rules and rigid demands of the cuisine. Why not add a pinch of this and a dollop of that to pot? To be sure, cooks do just that – how else do you suppose the so-called classic dishes began, chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1836 – 1935) not withstanding? He’s said to have invented 10,000 new dishes!

In the face of that question, of rules and rigidity, I must paraphrase a comment made by Julie Powell in the film, “Julie & Julia”: “After a day where absolutely nothing goes right, it’s wonderful to come home and cook chocolate mousse, knowing that it will always turn out.” Well, maybe, but you get the point: cooking gives me a feeling that at least I can control what goes into my mouth. To be sure, if I were to buy chocolate mousse ready-made in a restaurant or frozen food section of my local grocery store, I am controlling part of what I am eating – I am eating mousse and not paté. But I can’t be 100% certain that the cooks didn’t drop a crucial ingredient on the floor, wipe it off, and proceed with the recipe, can I?

But it’s not all about control or because following rules more or less guarantees an irrefutable outcome.

For me, it’s about joy, too. Cooking the food of rural France imparts a sense of geography, of that often abused word terroir, not that I am using food actually from this or that terroir. Cooking the food of rural France imparts a sense of history, too: I am cooking dishes that began in a time and place far away from where I am today. I can look at that statement in two ways: 1) my dinner is the product of a vast movement of people and products geographically over the centuries and 2) by cooking the dishes that I do, I am continuing traditions that link me to a historical past that I can experience fairly closely.

There’s something rather marvelous about it all, isn’t there?

I gave this post the title, “The Gift of French Food,” and I mean that. It IS a gift, for all these reasons, and others which I have not yet begun to appreciate.

*See French Colonial Cookery: A Cook’s Tour of the French-Speaking World, by David Burton (2000)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen