A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment

by Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell

Clock Icon 6 minute read

If there is one thing that shines through the never-ending story of France, it is the easy coexistence of the sublime and the preposterous. For much of its history, France has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most alluring and enlightened countries in the world, while also bewildering visitors with its sometimes bizarre customs, politics, and gastronomic habits. We hope that by the end of this book, you will agree that this combination of the majestic and the mercurial, the glorious and the infernal, is what gives France such a compelling (if sometimes confounding) character.

The deepest roots of this book lie not in France but in its eternal bête noire, England. It was in South London that I, Stéphane, a dilettante French cheesemonger, met Jen, a newly arrived American graduate student. This meeting led to a love story; a wedding with a very impressive cheese board; our son, Jules; and, eventually, after we moved to France, to the creation of this book.

Ensconced once again in my hometown of Nantes, an artsy city in the western Loire Valley, I often brought home cheeses that my wife had never heard of. Occasionally they were . . . well, let’s just say they were sometimes overly pungent for the unsuspecting American. To try and soften the olfactory blow, I would tell my wife the stories of these cheeses. I would explain where they came from, from which animal and producer and region—and how this region, which was obviously charming, and this cheese, which was not stinky but full of the flavors and smells of its home soil, were intimately linked. I would also tell her legends and anecdotes surrounding the cheeses, accidentally conveying a sense of the rich history of France’s various locales. Every such recital would end with my inevitable supplication: “No, darling, honestly, you cannot reject such a great cheese!” Soon, Jen thought I was an expert in French food and its history, when all I really wanted to do was convince her of the greatness of its cheeses so that I could bring them home without fear of rejection. She began to ask me questions about the origins not only of cheeses but of different French wines and dishes. Well, when you have been anointed an expert by the person you love, the last thing you want to do is disappoint them. So I tried to learn what I did not know. I read books, asked questions of colleagues and friends, started to collect anecdotes, and in the end learned a great deal about the history of some of France’s best-known foods and wines.

Soon, Jen started thinking that if we could put these stories together, in their historical and social context, it would be possible to not only share interesting food anecdotes but also slowly wander through the history and landscape of France. Perhaps this way people might better understand why the French spend an enormous proportion of their waking hours and income on food, and why in France we do not only eat food, we savor it, we talk and sing about it, we philosophize about its meaning in life. When we want to say something is sad, for example, we say it is sad comme un jour sans pain (like a day without bread). When Charles de Gaulle wanted to convey the immense challenges of rebuilding postwar France, he chose a metaphor everyone was sure to understand: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 varieties of cheese?”

Our foods and wines—and, more broadly, all of our customs around eating and drinking, farming and vine growing—are a central pillar of French society. They evolve through the ages, just as the French nation does—through war and revolution, plague and invasion, invention and enlightenment. In the process, for better or worse, they help define what it means to be French.

The pivotal role of food in French identity—and the political role of food in French society—is evident today more than ever. If you see French newspaper headlines about escargot, they are unlikely to be referring to the luscious dish of snails dripping in garlic butter, but rather to a style of protest—going at a snail’s pace—frequently used by French farmers. Among their grievances is the imposition of common European standards on French agriculture, which they see as destroying their traditional way of life. As we will show, in many parts of rural France, the production of food and wine remains true to methods crafted in centuries past.

You are probably also familiar with French protests against McDonald’s. But despite the disdain for the American behemoth so frequently expressed among the French cultural elite, France is the second biggest overseas market for McDo, as it is affectionately known here. As we will see, this gulf between the elites and the common people is nothing new in France.

Unfortunately, the use of food to define French identity has become a favored tactic of the French far right since the 1990s, and it has increasingly seeped into mainstream politics in the past decade as well. In the 2012 presidential election, for example, both Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy framed halal meat as a threat to French cultural values and agricultural tradition. A number of towns run by right-wing councils have removed pork-free options from school menus. Nationalist rallies feature tables laden with pork dishes and wine, both of which have become totemic within right-wing narratives that posit a France under threat from its Muslim communities and immigrants. The subtext is rarely subtle: to be French, one should eat and drink as French people have always done. And yet one of the clearest messages to emerge from French history is that French gastronomy is an amalgam of tastes and customs from all around the globe: its vineyards bequeathed by the Romans, its most famous pastry a gift from Austria, and the birth of the café unthinkable without that fabulous Turkish import, coffee. Chocolate? From Mexico. Provençal cuisine? Imagine it without tomatoes, another American import. In short, our narrative will show how ludicrous it actually is to claim there is a “pure” and unchanging French cuisine.

Food and society and politics are interlinked here in France in ways that are constantly evolving and yet surprisingly consistent in their basic dynamics. The ways in which politics, economics, and culture intersect with food have become known as “foodways,” and they can reveal a great deal about a country and its people. By exploring the foodways of France from its earliest days, we hope to reveal some of the enduring patterns that explain its rise upon the world stage as well as its lowest depths of suffering, its terrible conflicts and its marvelous innovations.

The history of France is intimately entwined with its gastronomic pursuits, whether one considers the food scarcities that begat revolutions, the wars and conquests that introduced new culinary elements, or the radical changes in religious and philosophical thought that remade the diets of millions. Some of the most transformative innovations in human history have their roots in French food, as we shall see when we consider giants such as Pasteur and Appert, and some of the most inspiring political philosophies of the modern era were nurtured in the French café. European imperialism transformed the global order and caused immense suffering around the world, a tragic history whose depths may be plumbed by considering the patterns of exploitation that emerged in food and agriculture. From the gastronomic legacies of the Gauls to the forgotten vegetables of World War II, we will share a compelling and often surprising story of France from the Roman era to modern times.

Food is also an essential ingredient in the evolving and overlapping identities of the peoples of France, as revealed in everything from the interrogations of the Inquisition to the Cold War crusade against Coca-Cola. It has been successfully deployed as a marker of social status and wealth across the centuries, and the enduring gulf between the eating habits of the rich and the poor reveals much about the society they reside within. In the end, we will see that however distinctive French cuisine may be, it also reveals some fundamental commonalities between Americans and the French that belie the antagonism that sometimes erupts between our two countries.

Each chapter is short—a series of bite-sized stories best told over a nice meal. Our hope is that you are already starting to feel a tad hungry, and a bit curious about the French foods and wines you may not be familiar with. We will be pleased if this book makes you want to travel to France and wander through its markets, towns, and countryside. But if at the end of this book all you do is go out and buy a bottle of French wine, some fresh bread, and a French cheese of your liking, and enjoy them with a new appreciation that you are not just eating food but also enjoying a part of France’s rich history, then we will consider our mission accomplished.

Copyright © 2018 by Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell. This excerpt originally appeared in A Bite-Sized History of France, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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