Twenty-Two Different Ways of Cooking Veal

Margaret Visser

  • The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture by Rebecca Spang
    Harvard, 325 pp, £21.95, April 2000, ISBN 0 674 00064 1
  • Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession by Amy Trubek
    Pennsylvania, 171 pp, £18.50, June 2000, ISBN 0 8122 3553 3

Rebecca Spang explodes a culinary myth that has lasted nearly two hundred years. The story goes more or less like this. Restaurants as we know them were a product of the French Revolution and came into being in order to ensure that pleasurable eating would not remain the privilege of the wealthy. Kitchenless provincial Revolutionaries crowded into Paris, and at the same time the highly skilled chefs of beheaded or émigré aristocrats found themselves out of work. The cooks saw their chance to become entrepreneurs.

Before the Revolution, restaurant meant a kind of soup: a distillation of meat essences, served by restaurateurs in luxurious establishments, to an aristocratic clientele who came to restore their languid energies by drinking small cups of bouillon. These restaurateurs aroused the envy of the traiteurs or cook-caterers of Paris. In 1765, a man called Boulanger began to serve, in addition to his soups, sheep’s feet in white sauce. The traiteurs took him to court for infringing their rights. The magistrates of the Paris Parlement listened to the arguments on both sides, and declared that Boulanger was allowed to serve only restaurants in his shop – sheep’s feet in white sauce was a ragout. Under the Ancien Régime, traiteurs alone were allowed to sell ragouts.

According to the myth, these hair-splitting habits (in some accounts the court had demanded to know whether the feet were cooked in the sauce or had the sauce poured over them just before they were served), the gastronomic hegemony, the denial of customers’ rights, tastes and desires – were all swept away at a stroke by the Revolution. At last, the urban populace’s hunger for food and pleasure in food could be assuaged.

Spang has looked at the sources, however, and found no evidence of a case involving a Monsieur Boulanger and sheep’s feet in white sauce. (The originator of the tale, apparently, was LeGrand d’Aussy in 1782.) It is true that under the guild system exclusive rights to practise specific cooking skills had been variously granted to traiteurs, and also to gingerbread makers, charcutiers, vinegar producers, pastry makers, and so on. But scholars have long questioned whether the guilds were irrational, unyielding impediments to creativity. Guild masterships were very often multiple: a meat pie, for example, wasn’t made by members of two different guilds – one a meat cook and one a pastry cook. The rules were in fact pretty flexible.

We owe the myth of ‘the chefs’ return’ – their brilliant idea of placing their skills at the service of the people by creating restaurants – to the Goncourt brothers, though the Revolution certainly made use of food-related imagery. The Fat had stolen the birthright of the Lean: the rich must be prevented from devouring the bounty of nature, leaving the poor to starve. Restaurants were excoriated. Little cups of concentrated bouillon were the essence of both effeteness and aristocratic gluttony – whole joints of meat liquefied and reduced, simply to please the jaded palates of the rich. The citizens should do things differently. Fraternal meals – everybody sitting down together at long tables set out on the streets – were enacted, then described.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in