à la carte, à la mode
17th century French cuisine discussed at Carnegie
by Bradley Hartsell
Think of all those great scenes of the modern dinner party, both sophisticated and delicate. Think of the cookbooks on your shelf or the china set on your wedding registry. These are ingrained in us from our own food culture.
We don’t know where it all came from, though. It’s just the way it’s always been.
On Monday, Auburn University history professor Dr. Donna Bohanan came to the Carnegie Library, in a series being presented throughout the coming weeks featuring different Auburn professors, to give a lecture on the rise of 17th century French cuisine and table presentation. According to Bohanan, pre-17th century culinary was mired in medieval tastelessness. Cooking in medieval times was still aimed at the idea of the four humors, a physiological principle of balancing blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.
Most every dish in those days tasted the same and only differed in appearance. Spices were heavily used to mask the blandness of boiled meat, giving everything a bitter taste. Salt and sugar was often interchangeable and they would even sew the feathers back onto the bird to replicate its natural form.
It wasn’t until “La Varenne,” published in 1651, that cooking began to revolutionize. The influential cookbook spread throughout France, making culinary more artful, systematic and based on certain, simple building blocks like stock, bouillon and rue.
Herbs began to replace spices, vegetables became more prominently involved and there was, thankfully, a “salient separation of salt and sugar,” according to Dr. Bohanan. Ingredients started to enhance natural flavors instead of masking them.
The La Varenne cookbook was notable because it brought cohesion to an entire country, one traditionally noteworthy for its provincial pride and distinctiveness, by making the technology and terminology widespread and nearly uniform, even to the working class.
Silver, gold and copper cookware replaced iron pots. and soon it became commonplace to have a well stocked kitchen. Linens and dishware became extremely decorative in this period, giving rise to table etiquette and table placement that Bohanan explains was “absolutely symmetrical. Geometric precision.”
The prominence of French cuisine and table culture spread throughout Europe. Many British aristocrats struggled with reconciling their national sensibilities with their need for nobility. Having a palette for French cuisine became a status symbol, but many elites in Britain were dismissive or perplexed by the French culture. The revolution won out, though, forcing cultural changes throughout Europe.
According to Bohanan, this period saw the emergence of the modern dinner party. As dinner moved from the inclusiveness of the medieval days to exclusive, intimate nature in the early modern era, the dinner party became the setting to discuss literature and philosophy.
Though Bohanan focused on the 17th century she hardly needed to progress through the timeline to make the connection to today’s culture. She closed by calling this period her “early modern foodies.”
Today, people celebrate their food by Instagramming it (something the “Times-Herald” features intermittently in Thursday’s Food and Dining feature), or by finding the best- kept-secret dish in town.
Food isn’t a chore but a cultural touchstone. We still book reservations for French restaurants and watch “Food Network.” It means something for one’s status when ordering a filet mignon. All this is part of our culture so much that we don’t even think about it. But to hear Dr. Bohanan, we owe a lot of thanks to “La Varenne” daring to experiment way back in 1651.
Vive la France!