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Alimentary, my dear
One of the most delightful books I have read recently is Jean-Robert Pitte's 'French Gastronomy' published in French in 1991 and in English in 2002. Pitte teaches geography at the Sorbonne but puts his expertise to excellent use in discussing the French passion for food - for eating it, talking about it and thinking about it. He makes three points, among many others, that are relevant to my purpose. France, he writes, 'has some six hundred regions, or microclimates, that allow different agricultures - Mediterranean, Atlantic and Alpine - to flourish and fully navigable river systems - the Seine from east to west, the Rhone from north to south - leading from peripheral farmlands directly to the great gastronomic centres of Paris and Lyon. Other culinary capitals like Bordeaux and Marseilles became such as maritime harbours. '
In the second place, argues Pitte, the all-powerful Catholic Church in France, unlike various branches of Protestantism, promoted a good-natured conception of the sins of sensuality. The French did observe the restrictions imposed by the Church about frugality, fasts and abstinences. At the same time, however, they also managed, as Rabelais writings attest, to indulge in unrestrained drunken feasts. The Church fathers themselves were typical in this regard. Cardinal de Bernis, for instance, celebrated Mass with a fine Mersault 'so as not to make the Lord grimace at communion time. ' He is also the one who declared that you can be on a diet but still look at the menu.
Thirdly, Pitte, marshalling much historical evidence, makes the point that from King Louis XIV - who ate at a lavish banquet alone but in presence of his courtiers - to Louis XVI - who was a glutton too - from the post-1789 Revolution to the present day, the French have always held their excellence in the culinary arts to be a part of national identity. Regardless of who the rulers were, France made sure that its gastronomic achievements would be leveraged to flatter both the elite at home and the elite in the outside world. They put their culinary excellence to good use to advance their political and diplomatic interests.
As far as literature as such is concerned, you can begin on ground zero of modern French letters - with Francois Rabelais whose many references to food include the following passage: "Sadness and good food are incompatible. The old sages knew that wine lets the tongue loose, but one can grow melancholic with the best bottle, especially as one grows older. The appearance of food, however, brings instant happiness. A paella, a choucroute garnie, a pot of tripes a la mode de Caen, and so many dishes of peasant origin guarantee merriment. The best talk is around the table. Poetry and wisdom are its company. The true Muses are cooks. Cats and dogs do not stray far away from the busy kitchen. Heaven is a pot of chilli simmering on the stove. If I were to write about the happiest days of my life, many of them would have to do with food and wine and a table full of friends. "
In the works of novelists and essayists like Hugo, Zola, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, Jean de la Fontaine, Moliere, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, Colette, Celine and, in recent decades, of Marguerite Duras, Georges Perec and thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, not to mention the writers of detective fiction San Antonio and Simenon, you can trace the intimate bonds between food and literature, between food and social relations, between food and national identity.
A word about Roland
Barthes whom I had the privilege to interview for The Times of India. His 'Mythologies' is a book I turn to again and again to marvel at his analyses of the myths that hold sway over daily life in France and to relish his exquisite prose. His essay 'Steak and Chips' is a prized jewel. Consider the following passage:
"Like wine, steak in France is a basic element, nationalized even more than socialized. It figures in all the surroundings of alimentary life: flat, edged with yellow, like the sole of a shoe, in cheap restaurants;thick and juicy in bistrots which specialize in it;cubic, with the core all moist throughout beneath a charred light crust, in haute cuisine. It is part of all the rhythms, that of the comfortable bourgeois meal and that of the bohemian snack. It is food at once expeditious and dense, it effects the best possible ratio between economy and efficacy, between mythology and its multifarious ways of being consumed. . . Commonly associated with chips, steak communicates its national glamour to the French: chips are nostalgic and patriotic like steak. " In other words, they are the alimentary signs of French-ness.
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