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

In This Review

A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment
By Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell
New Press, 2018
352 pp.

This engaging book recounts the history of France through its food. For the French, their cuisine is a prime source of national pride, but as Hénaut and Mitchell’s lively vignettes show, few French delicacies are indigenous. The Romans converted uncouth beer-drinking Gauls to wine. The Frank Charlemagne standardized French farms, decreeing that every estate should grow garlic, produce honey, and much else. Returning crusaders brought plums and other exotic fruits. Schismatic popes from Italy established eggplants and Syrah wine. An Italian noblewoman turned French queen, Catherine de Medicis, brought artichokes, spinach, broccoli, sorbet, and the fork. The Turks added coffee; the Austrians the croissant. Brutal slave plantations in imperial domains satisfied sugar cravings. One day, Louis XIV’s troops in Spain substituted olive oil for butter, and—voilà!—mayonnaise was born. In the nineteenth century, farmers had to graft American vines onto French grape plants to save them from disease. Today, couscous and pho are ubiquitous in Paris. Aside from a few cases, such as champagne, which was perfected by Dom Pierre Pérignon, a French Benedictine monk, French cuisine is largely the fruit of globalization and appropriation.

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