If a single menu item were key to understanding the history of Parisian gastronomy, it would be the French fry. This delicious morsel is so inextricably associated with the Hexagon that when a group of Americans needed an anti-French gesture to express political resentment, not too long ago, they didn’t burn the tricolor, but rather renamed French fries “freedom fries.” (Boycotting them was out of the question; they are too damn delicious.) But, as with so many reactionary gestures, vilifying the fry was misguided. French fries, it turns out, are not really French. Potatoes had been chopped, fried, and gobbled in plenty of other countries before the French started doing so, in the late 1700s. Not only that, “the French were about the last nation to embrace the pomme de terre,” writes David Downie, in his brilliant, page-turning book A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food. It took years of clever marketing and lobbying for the South American “pig root,” as the French often called them, to become the iconic side dish that it is today. In fact, only after 20th century Americans and British perfected the fry-up and raved about its booze-absorbing qualities did French fries really take off.
Downie tells the story with passion and panache, which makes the deep history and academic hair-splitting digestible in A Taste of Paris. The French fry, you see, is just one of many soi-disant French foods with a misunderstood provenance. Blanquette de veau may or may not have originally included cream or flour. Foie gras was probably introduced by Jewish immigrants. As for escargot and frogs’ legs, most of them served in Paris today are imported form other countries.
A Taste of Paris isn’t just about the dishes we inextricably associate with the City of Light. Is is about how restaurant service, with an assortment of choices that are ordered and then served sequentially on individual plates, improved upon its forebear, the one-platter free-for-alls at auberges. The book also illustrates how eating habits changed from scavenging scraps to society soupers. The advent of the butter knife, the steam oven and the continual-service restaurant changed fundamental ways of self-nourishment, while other aspects of dining are proved to be less modern than we may think. “The term ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was coined in 1734, by the way, not 1970…” writes Downie, who consulted centuries-old manuscripts, some of which were accessorized with unintentional splatters of their subject matter. Celebrity chefs were a thing going back centuries, and gastronomes who penned restaurant reviews in newspapers cadged freebies from restaurants then as so many bloggers do today. No one can say definitively where and when the croissant was born, but we do know that the chain restaurant was born in 18th century Paris. (One of the first served bouillon and beef at some 55 locations!)
Like a nutella and banana crepe, this book should be ordered without a second thought. Tune in tomorrow when The Paris Blog sits down with author David Downie for an interview on Parisian cuisine and dining then and now.