Hangchow Retrouvé

Emma Rothschild writes about the high culture of food

The city of Hangchow, in the 13th century, was transfixed by food. Its restaurants went in and out of fashion, and were commemorated in elaborate and scholarly guidebooks. There were restaurants specialising in regional food, fish restaurants, fast-food bars, restaurants which served iced food or vegetarian dishes. Its markets were ‘innumerable’, according to Marco Polo, selling game, varieties of apricot, early aubergines, live baby fish carried inland in baskets. The capital of Southern Sung China was the largest city in the world and ‘without doubt the finest and most splendid’.[1]

The most exalted intellectuals were entranced with the culture of food. Philosophers described the principles of cooking and diet. Eminent officials toured the surrounding countryside looking for ‘natural’ cooking, for dishes which preserved ‘the food’s basic nature’. The past was interpreted through food, in the memoirs of poets and historians; as a modern scholar of Sung writes, ‘time and, thus, memory were suffused with impressions of food.’[2]

The civilisation of Hangchow was doomed. In 1276, the city fell to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The Chinese empire of cuisine had existed long before the Sung, and it persists still. It transcended more or less effortlessly the sour milk and dried mutton of the Mongol dynasty. Marco Polo, who worked for Kublai Khan, saw the pavilions and lakes where the prosperous people of Hangchow held banquets served by professional caterers. But the Sung emperors’ groves and gardens were in ruins. The popular food culture of Hangchow was never again as intense as in the years before the conquest.

The spirit of An-Chou Alley is not, however, lost. For in late 20th-century Paris, Hangchow has been reborn. Once again, an immense city is under the spell of food. French cuisine has become a spectacle of mass consumption: guidebooks and gastronomic magazines, restaurateurs and critics, a galaxy of crowns and stars and toques; on television, ‘la cuisine légère’ and how to cook a rabbit tart; in Le Monde, how to conceive a boy by eating smoked ham and Vichy water but no crabs or waffles. Food sells: reviews of archaeology (prehistoric food), science magazines (man and his food), journals consecrated to the transdisciplinary study of sociology, anthropology and semiology (‘towards a biocultural anthropology of food’). There are the entrepreneurs of popular high food, Gault and Millau, who tell how to throw a banquet for 500 in the Bois de Boulogne, how to win a gastronomic cruise by guessing the combined weight of G. and M., how to evaluate 26 kinds of snack crackers (Rico Tico, made in Costa Rica, ‘inattendu et joli, mais assez coeurant …’).

In Paris, as in Hangchow, food is serious. The most elevated pursuits are mediated through eating. France is, for example, the home of the scholarly study of food. The analogies of Lévi-Strauss, from the dyadic structure of English and French meals to honey, ashes and cannibalism. One hundred and forty-two pages on the history of food in Fernand Braudel’s magnificent new Les Structures du Quotidien.[3] ‘Food is a sort of grill,’ wrote the late Roland Barthes, ‘through which all the sciences which we now call social and human may successfully be exercised.’[4] Eating was one of Barthes’s own best topics: bleeding steak, sugar, photographs of food in Elle, the psychosociology of crispy food, Fourier’s fruit compotes.

Un Festin en Paroles is a product of this profoundly Chinese atmosphere.[5] Jean-François Revel, avenging fury in pursuit of international communism, author of books on liberalism and philosophy, reveals himself to be an amateur of arcane cookbooks. His history of ‘gastronomic sensibility’, as recounted in books of recipes and apothegms, proceeds from Archestratus (floruit 350 BC) to the newest heroes of a three-star return to nature. Revel distinguishes popular cuisine – the food of the people and of the countryside – from la cuisine savante. It is with the latter that he concerns himself, and with its location in ‘the rich classes of all epochs’.

Revel’s theme is the progress of gastronomy towards perfection, in the form of a philosophical, a thought-out cuisine. The food of the rich is ever more intellectual, more refined, more conscious. The cook becomes a ‘cuisinier pensant’ and the chef a ‘maître à penser’. There are early successes. A cook book of the Enlightenment expresses ideas ‘d’une étonnante profondeur’. Revel looks back to a golden age of eating in the 1780s. But the history of cuisine is illuminated by a vision of the Paris of the future, of the perfection that lies ahead in the new and nuanced French cuisine of the 1970s. A pâté of trout with truffles in the 1730s is ‘evocative’ of late 20th-century cuisine. The use of spices in the Middle Ages is to be transcended in the ‘modern conception’ of using natural products to flavour each other (‘the idea of using a purée of dried fungi to impregnate a chicken wing …’).

Such culinary evolutionism has a distinguished history. Its locus classicus is Auguste Escoffier’s preface to the Larousse Gastronomique: ‘To show the changes in the order and serving of meals from century to century, to describe and comment on the progress of the French cuisine, is to paint a picture of the many stages through which a nation has evolved since the distant times when, as a weak tribe, man lived in dark caves, eating wild roots, raw fish and the still pulsating flesh of animals killed with the spear.’[6] We pass over the details of such a schema: the passion in Paris now for raw scallops and uncooked salmon; the fact that Gault and Millau praise a many-toqued restaurant for its slices of raw beef, no doubt pulsating still. These stages of growth are the spirit of Revel’s teleology, of his trajectory towards grilled, poached and marinated thoughts.

The scholarly successes of Paris-Hangchow are paraded in dizzying sequence. Haute cuisine, according to Revel, uses art, but also ‘biology and ethnology’. The history of cooking, as revealed in books of recipes, resembles the history of mathematics or medicine: there is a pre-scientific cuisine and, by implication, changes in the paradigms of kitchen science, the structure of culinary revolutions. The theory is interspersed with recitation of recipes, and with hymns, which rival multikilo Gault-Millau, to the ‘sombre red of the puréed tomatoes’ in turbot à la parisienne.

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[1] Marco Polo: The Travels, pp.213-215. Penguin (1958).

[2] Michael Freeman: ‘Sung’ in Food in Chinese Culture edited by K.C. Chang, pp.143-176. Yale University Press (1977).

[3] Fernand Braudel: Les Structures du Quotidien. Armand Colin (Paris, 1979).

[4] Roland Barthes: Introduction, p.32, to Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût. Herman (Paris, 1975).

[5] Jean-François Revel: Un Festin en Paroles. Pauvert (Paris, 1979).

[6] Auguste Escoffier: Preface, p.5. to the Larousse Gastronomique. Paul Hamlyn (1961).

[7] Musée de l’Art Culinire, Foundation Auguste Escoffier, 06170 Villeneuve-Loubet Village, France.

[8] F.T. Marinetti & Fillia: La Cucina Futurista, p.70. Sonzogno (Milan, 1932).

[9] Michel Guérard: La Grande Cuisine Minceur. Laffont (Paris, 1976). Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur translated and adapted by Caroline Conran. Pan (1978).

[10] Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, pp.401-402. Bigelow. Brown (New York, 1845).

[11] H. Baudrillart: Histoire du Luxe, Vol. 3. p.462 Hachette (Paris, 1880).

[12] Jean-Paul Aron: Le Mangeur du XIXe Siècle. Denoël Gonthier (Paris, 1973).

[13] H. de Balzac: ‘Brillat-Savarin’, p.238, in Oeuvres Complètes. Vol. 22. Calmann Lévy (Paris, 1879).

[14] Jean-Paul Aron: ‘Essai sur la Sensibilité Alimentaire à Paris au 19e Siècle’, p.29. Cahiers des ‘Annales’ 25. Armand Colin (Paris, 1967).

[15] Jacques Gernet: Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, pp.60-61. Stanford University Press (Stanford, California, 1970).

[16] Michael Freeman: ‘Sung’, op.cit.

[17] H. de Balzac: ‘Nouvelle Théorie du Déjeuner’, p.460, in Oeuvres Complètes, Vol. 20. Calmann Lévy (Paris, 1879).

[18] Emile Zola: Le Ventre de Paris, pp.31-57 and Introduction, p. 12. Gallimard (Paris, 1979).

[19] Delicacies as listed by the gourmet Grimod de la Reynière. Quoted in Aron: Le Mengeur du XIXe Siècle, op.cit., p.l55.

[20] Jonathan Spence: ‘Ch’ing’, p.280, in Food in Chinese Culture, op.cit.

[21] Gaston Roupnel: Histoire de la Campagne Française, p.166. Plon (Paris, 1974).

[22] Etienne Balazs: La Bureaucratie Céleste, p.297. NRF/Gallimard (Paris, 1968).

[23] Karl Marx: Theories of Surplus Value, Part 1. pp. 184-185. Progress Publishers (Moscow, 1963). ‘A Frenchman cannot forget his ponts et chaussées …’

[24] Etienne Balazs: Chinese Civilisation and Bureaucracy, p.22. Yale University Press (1964).

[25] Walter Benjamin: ‘Paris – Capital of the 19th Century’. New Left Review, March/April 1968.

[26] Quoted in Aron: Le Mangeur du XIXe Siècle, op. cit., p.166.

[27] Musée de l’Art Culinaire, Villeneuve-Loubet.