Today, more than ever, talking about food improves the eating of it. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson argues that conversation can even trump consumption. Where many works look at the production, preparation, and consumption of food, Word of Mouth captures the language that explains culinary practices. Explanation is more than an elaboration here: how we talk about food says a great deal about the world around us and our place in it.
What does it mean, Ferguson asks, to cook and consume in a globalized culinary world subject to vertiginous change? Answers to this question demand a mastery of food talk in all its forms and applications. To prove its case, Word of Mouth draws on a broad range of cultural documents from interviews, cookbooks, and novels to comic strips, essays, and films.
Although the United States supplies the primary focus of Ferguson's explorations, the French connection remains vital. American food culture comes of age in dialogue with French cuisine even as it strikes out on its own. In the twenty-first century, culinary modernity sets haute food against haute cuisine, creativity against convention, and the individual dish over the communal meal. Ferguson finds a new level of sophistication in what we thought that we already knew: the real pleasure in eating comes through knowing how to talk about it.
Word of Mouth What We Talk About When We Talk About Food
- by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (Author)
- July 2014
- First Edition
$29.95, £25.00 eBook
CoursesFood & Culture Food History
SeriesCalifornia Studies in Food and Culture
EndowmentsAhmanson Foundation Endowment Fund in Humanities
Rights: Available worldwide
Trim Size: 6 x 8
Illustrations: 8 illustrations, 4 tables
Thinking About Food
Thirty or forty years ago, doomsayers predicted that in a more or less distant future, we would all be eating the same food in the same kinds of places. The culprit was globalization-or, in food terms, fast food. All the more invasive because it markets a highly standardized and controlled system of preparation, fast food works its magic-or its devastation-across the board. From hamburgers to croissants to fried chicken to pizza, no food is off limits. For many people, fast food means lots of food available inexpensively. During a football trip to Europe, one of my students, who loved French and Italian food, couldn't afford to eat much of it on his budget. So, it was off to McDonald's to stave off his hunger.
Contrary to predictions, fast food has not done away with difference. Food, especially in the elaborated form of cuisine, speaks of place and particularly of country. In these days, when people and products cross borders with ease, culinary nationalism insists on identity, on the idiosyncratic ways a country "does" food. Although he resorted to the familiar, my football player student recognized, and appreciated, the difference in the foreign foods that he encountered.
Today, the questions raised by globalization tend to be more nuanced. Some of the most interesting discussions turn on the ways that moving across cultures changes the foods themselves, as well as what they mean. With McSushi in Japan, vegetarian fare in India, and a host of other "non-American" innovations elsewhere, even the hyperrationalized McDonald's adapts to local customs and food preferences-so successfully that younger Asians may not think of this quintessentially American food as American at all. Someone invariably brings up the perfectly plausible (if apocryphal) anecdote of the teenage Japanese visitor who marvels that Chicago-the home of Hamburger University, after all-boasts a McDonald's just like back home!
Connections, then, are not a one-way street. They are part of an exchange, a conversation between cultures. Consider sushi. Americans have scarcely been known for their fondness for raw fish. Yet, over the past fifteen years or so, sushi turns up just about everywhere, from corner delis to food outlets of every sort, few of which make any claim to be Japanese. My immediate Manhattan neighborhood offers sushi in at least three general markets and an Italian deli, in addition to a "pan-Asian" restaurant, not forgetting the university dining halls and snack bars. Far from the metropolis, local supermarkets satisfy the craving for sushi in places where the very term was unknown only a few years ago. Of course, Americans have their say in this conversation. Early on, the avocado-stuffed California roll became a sushi classic in the United States (substitute mango for avocado in Peru). Sushi purists might object to the cream cheese in the Philadelphia roll, but few of us are purists, not even the Japanese. There is, after all, a restaurant in Tokyo that specializes in "New York sushi."
While many elements prepared the way for sushi's popularity in the United States, including the growing sophistication of American tastes, the ease with which sushi became "naturalized" still astonishes. Though, upon reflection, it should not. After all, what is sushi but "fast fish"? It fits surprisingly well with American consumption habits that emphasize snacks, food eaten with one's hands and on the go, and informality of consumption. Sushi started out in nineteenth-century Japan as street food, and that is exactly how many Americans treat it, making them, perhaps, more "authentic" consumers than the connoisseurs in high-end sushi restaurants.
For an even more striking instance of assimilation I propose Spam. Yes, Spam: the handy, inexpensive can of processed pork shoulder, gelatin, and lots of salt that hit the market in the 1930s. Older Americans likely associate Spam with soldiers' rations, meals during the Great Depression, or the "mystery meat" of institutional dining halls. In the age of the computer, virtual "spam" epitomizes the unknown and the unwanted. Yet this indelibly American processed food product turns up in a number of Asian cuisines. It has become a dish of choice for Asian Americans longing for a taste of home. Brought to Asia by American GIs during World War II, Spam was a cheap source of protein. Unexpectedly, it also became a favorite, most likely because it lent itself well to Asian seasonings, such as soy sauce.
Today, demand for Spam is so great-with South Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii the leading consumers-that it has spawned Chinese knockoffs. One owner of a Chinese restaurant in New York recalls that when she set out for the United States at the age of seventeen, some twenty-five years earlier, her mother carefully packed a can of Spam to give her a taste of home to take with her. Today, in her Manhattan restaurant, this woman from Hong Kong serves Spam-sautéed with greens and soy sauce-to other Spam nostalgics. Like every food that travels, Spam acquires different uses, and different meanings, in different settings.
It is precisely because food travels so easily that distinctions matter. The UNESCO cultural heritage program assumes as much. In November 2010, the international agency recognized "the French gastronomic meal" (not French cuisine) as an "intangible cultural good" worthy of notice and protection. Along with Spanish flamenco dance, traditional Mexican cuisine, and the Mediterranean diet, the archetypal French meal-with its regulated conviviality and rules of order-joined the roster of worldwide cultural heritage manifestations. The bid for international recognition can be seen as the latest in a long string of assertions of superiority. On the other hand, the very fact that the French applied for international endorsement also signals that they no longer take that authority for granted.
For centuries, France has considered food and cuisine central to what it means to be French. What's more-and it is no mean achievement-France has managed to convince others that French cuisine and culture are central to what it means to be civilized. Since the seventeenth century, French chefs have spread French practices abroad. Culinary nationalism surfaces in a manifest sense of superiority: in recipes that tout French connections and French savoir faire; in governmental policies protecting French products and consumers; and, finally, in the cooking competitions that promote French cuisine. More generally, a sense of manifest destiny enables the French to imagine themselves as a community-that is, as a country.
France is not alone in creating an imagined national community around food, though the French are and have been notoriously vocal about the "Frenchness" of French cuisine and the superiority of French food. America has as much at stake, though the stakes are different. In many important ways, food and cooking in America are indelibly American. One of the most striking developments over the past half century is the growing awareness among Americans of these connections and their importance. In the past half century, America and its foods have come into their own-the United States is not simply a purveyor of fast food-through conversation and occasionally conflict with culinary France. For America, as for many other countries, France is not just another country; the prestige of France's culture, cuisine included, has long made it a model-to be emulated or rejected, as the case may be. From the spectacular banquets of the seventeenth century to the show of cooking contests in the twenty-first century, French cuisine is a model to be reckoned with.
Animals fills themselves; people eat; intelligent people alone know how to eat.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1826)
Culinary distinctiveness is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not for the French. For the past three and a half centuries, the French have aggressively defined France in terms of culinary excellence. Equating distinction with superiority, early modern France exercised a virtual monopoly on the European imagination. The first cookbook published in France for more than a century, Le cuisinier françois (The French chef, 1651), proclaimed its Frenchness loud and clear. Later chefs followed suit, never losing an opportunity to trumpet the achievement that made French culture the very model of civilized society. Only in Europe, wrote one chef at the end of the seventeenth century, is there good taste; only in Europe are foods properly cooked; and only there, "and especially in France, can one take pride in our excelling over all other nations in these matters, as we do in manners and in a thousand other ways." By the early nineteenth century, the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême was even more unqualified: "France is the only country for good food; foreigners are convinced of these truths."
French cuisine is all the greater, the story runs, for reaching far and wide. It takes ingredients and dishes from all over and transforms them into an unquestionably French product. So even though sauce espagnole, the basic brown sauce of French cuisine, came to France to celebrate Louis XIV's bestowal of the Spanish throne on his son, "we have perfected it so much since then," writes Carême 150 years later, that it no longer has anything much to do with whatever concoction the Spanish sent to France in the mid-seventeenth century. French chefs have similarly transformed sauce allemande, the basic white sauce that originated in Germany, making it "as unctuous and as smooth as it is perfect." "These foreign sauces," Carême concludes grandly, are so altered that they "have long since been entirely French." In short, French savoir faire Frenchifies the exotic-and a good thing too, since "no foreign sauce can be compared to those of our great modern cuisine." The emphasis falls on our. Whether at home or abroad, everyone agreed that French cuisine was at once universal and very French. It is only to be expected that Paris came to celebrate itself as the culinary capital of the world.
Later on, notably in the dark days after the enormous losses of World War I, tributes to French traditions came fast and furious. Cuisine figured right up there with literature and the arts. "Grand, noble cuisine is a tradition of this country," wrote Marcel Rouff in the introduction to his novel La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant-Gourmet (The life and passion of Dodin-Bouffant-Gourmet,  1994), "a time-honored and noteworthy element of its charm, a reflection of its soul." In Rouff's outsize conception, the hero, Dodin-Bouffant, is "a gourmet as Claude Lorrain is a painter, as Berlioz is a musician," both quintessentially French artists.
The dishes themselves carry this inimitable excellence: "A quiche lorraine . . . or a Marseillaise bouillabaisse . . . or a potato gratin from Savoy has all the refined richness of France, all its spirit and wit, its gaiety . . . , the seriousness hidden beneath its charm, . . . its malice and its gravity, . . . the full soul of its fertile, cultivated rich earth." And, as both a cause and a consequence of this heightened culinary consciousness, in a takeoff and homage to Brillat-Savarin, Rouff decrees: "Everywhere else, people eat; in France alone, people know how to eat."
Nor were men alone in waving the flag, though they dominated gastronomic discussions (as they still do). Marthe Allard Daudet, to name one prominent woman, was a prolific journalist whose "incomparable recipes" and "delicious books" earned the praise of Marcel Proust. Writing under the pen name Pampille, in Les bons plats de France (The good dishes of France, 1913), Mme. Daudet, patriot that she was, looked to history and literature for cultural legitimacy for her recipes. Good game can be found only in France because the animals themselves possess an uncommon sense of duty to the meal. The hare, partridges, quail, and pheasants all eagerly participate in the meal of which they will be part. They "seem to know," she tells us in the section on game, that they appear in traditional French fables and chronicles. "You might even say," the author speculates, "that they are trying hard to justify their reputation for excellence."
Over the top? Tongue in cheek? Of course. Yet Pampille is dead serious about the indissoluble link between history and cuisine-that is, French history and French cuisine. You may well say, so what? Why should we care about the permutations of French cuisine? Let French chefs boast all they want. Why should it make any difference to us? To which I would respond, because it does make a difference. Convinced of their authority, the French have convinced a many others as well. That talk about excellence and quality is more than vain boasting because it can count on the support received from both everyday practices and governmental policies. In the first place, French chefs have been carrying French cuisine around the rest of Europe since the seventeenth century. Vincent La Chapelle, then chef to the Earl of Rochester, wrote The Modern Chef in English in 1733; only two years later did it appear in French. Carême himself, the "king of chefs and chef of kings," traveled to England at the behest of George IV, but he pined for Paris and stayed just long enough to brag that the king had no attacks of gout when he was running the kitchen!
The exodus continued through the nineteenth century. Elite cuisine in England was French, thanks to chefs such as Alexis Soyer, the longtime chef to the Reform Club, who was a fixture in mid-nineteenth-century London. Later in the century, again in London, Auguste Escoffier worked in tandem with the hotel owner César Ritz. His kitchen at the Savoy and then the Ritz Hotel in London offered superlative training grounds for the thousands of French chefs that Escoffier proudly dispatched across the globe-emissaries of French culture to the hinterlands and purveyors of French products. His highly influential Guide culinaire (1903) came out in English as A Guide to Modern Cookery six years later. To this day, Escoffier remains a basic reference point for culinary trainees in the United States as elsewhere.
Where, we may ask, was everybody else? The Italians? The Germans? The English? Why didn't Italian chefs do for Italian cooking what the French did for French cuisine? Germany has wonderful food, as does England-what happened? Or, perhaps more importantly, what did not happen?
The short answer is that France had the decided advantages of a centralized government and concentrated cultural life that long took the court as its model for sophisticated behavior and practices. English government, from the sixteenth century on, to the contrary, centered in the country seats of the aristocracy. Queen Elizabeth took the court with her on regular "progresses" to the countryside; a century later, Louis XIV required the attendance of the aristocracy in Versailles. French culture carried so much clout that it was identified with the civilizing process itself. The Europe that counted looked to France. "Everyone" spoke French. They also, even more assiduously, ate French.
Such cultural ascendancy simply did not obtain elsewhere. Italy and Germany did not exist as nation-states until the late nineteenth century. Their cuisines were perforce regional, as, to a remarkable degree, they still are. Given that the Italian monarchy dates only from 1861, it should surprise no one that the first cookbook considered Italian did not appear until 1891. Pellegrino Artusi's La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well) was the work of a retired silk merchant, not a chef. The recipes that Artusi included from all regions of Italy justifies the position of La scienza as the founding text of Italian cuisine. Yet it is surely worth noting that the title says nothing about Italy at all-in pointed contrast to Le cuisinier françois almost two and a half centuries earlier, with its unequivocal commitment to France and Frenchness.
A brief look outside Europe confirms the primacy of regional cuisines in countries that lack political, social, religious, or cultural unity. India, for one example, covers a vast territory and did not come into existence as a state until 1947. In many respects, the country is a legacy of the British colonial regime. Think of the regional cuisines of the subcontinent-from Bengali and Gujarati to Pakistani, Punjabi, Nepalese, and Tamil. There was, as in France, a complex aristocratic cuisine, although the dishes elaborated in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal empire necessarily came up against the different practices and principles of largely Hindu India.
The centralizing influence came not from any court, but from the British colonial administration. The dish that most people outside India firmly associate with Indian cuisine-curry-is not a dish at all. Nor is it the generic ingredient that the ubiquitous little bottles of ground spices on supermarket shelves would have us believe. In India, each region, each family, and each cook draws on a mixture of spices, not a prepackaged "curry." From afar-from New York, Paris, and especially London and Liverpool-"curry" was, and remains, the ultimate sign of an "Indian" cuisine constructed from the outside. Patterns of continuing immigration ensured the Englishness of curry. So English was curry that the historian Tony Judt, growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s and overcoming his definitely non-English Eastern European Jewish roots, could claim that eating Indian food made him feel more English!
A prime ingredient in the dominance of French cuisine was its conspicuously secular orientation. The discourse of gastronomy makes food its own end. Sensual pleasure needs no justification. For most Indians and Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, or Confucianists, on the other hand, food cannot be separated from philosophical or medicinal directives. Similar orders dominated Western thinking about food through the seventeenth century. The notion inherited from Greco-Roman medicine of the four humors-black bile (melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), phlegm (phlegmatic), and blood (sanguine)-held that these temperaments required foods that would counter the excess of one or another humor. If the separation of cooking and philosophical or medical concerns is always imperfect, for cuisines such as Indian or Chinese, it hardly exists. Systems that subordinate the sensual pleasures of taste to philosophical or ideological principles endow food with a purpose beyond itself. Food becomes a means, not the end in which a secular gastronomy delights.
Every state looks to its national interests. What has set France apart are the many ways in which the government has associated those interests with food, with the excellence of preparation and elegance of presentation. In the modernizing economy of the nineteenth century, the French government naturally looked to export French products. Escoffier's chef-ambassadors carried those products all over the world, and carried, too, a model of culinary excellence. Similarly, Louis Pasteur's work on wine (Études sur le vin, 1866) endeared him to Emperor Napoleon III. French wines were spoiling, and exports were falling. Pasteur's discovery that gentle heating eliminated the noxious bacteria without compromising the wine turned the beleaguered French wine industry around. The celebrated (and influential) 1855 order of Bordeaux wines is one manifestation of the drive to classify quality.
In the twentieth century, pride became a matter of policy. The French government instituted a number of measures to ensure quality of produce and of personnel. Beginning in the 1920s, the AOC (appellations d'origine contrôlées), or regulated names of origin for wines and foods, identified ingredients and their sources, geographical origins, and mode of preparation. Roquefort was the first cheese to receive an AOC, and since 1925, no cheese can call itself Roquefort unless it meets all the official specifications (milk from one of three breeds of sheep, injected with the fungus Penicillium roqueforti, and ripened in the caves of Mont Combalou in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon). Product is technique, and it is place.
France pushes hard to defend these products. Battles in the European Community (EC) can be fierce. A few years ago France lost the great chocolate war when the EC decided that "pure" chocolate did not require 100 percent cocoa butter. The news was bad for Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Germany, Greece, and Italy, and good for Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, Finland, and Sweden, which could continue using vegetable substitutes as they always had. Their "pure" chocolate was still chocolate-for the EC if not for connoisseurs.
People, too, are vetted. Again in the 1920s, the competitions for Meilleur Ouvrier de France (highly skilled French worker), or MOF, were set up to promote crafts, from carpentry to landscaping . . . to food. Chefs figured prominently among the closely monitored artisans. Competitive cooking came to the fore, realizing a dream of Carême's from over a century before. Cooking contests, he thought, would be good for French cuisine. No doubt he had in mind the guilds or corporations of artisans (corps de métier) that regulated artisanal production from medieval times on. To rise from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman demanded rigorous training and demonstration of competence as judged by the masters of the trade. Despite abolition of the guilds in 1791 and the consequent restructuring of workers' lives, this ideal and practice of artisanal excellence retained substantial cultural currency. The MOF continues the tradition today.
Because French chefs have been cooking competitively for a long time, when competition went international, the French had a big advantage. For the general public the best known of these international contests is probably the Bocuse d'Or, a biennial mega cook-off held in Lyon, France, that was founded in 1987 by celebrated French chef-entrepreneur Paul Bocuse.Hosted by the Salon international de la restauration, de l'hôtellerie et de l'alimentation (SIRHA), with sponsors ranging from Perrier and San Pellegrino to All-Clad cookware and the City of Lyon, the Bocuse d'Or brings together chefs from Singapore to Sweden, South Africa to South Korea, survivors of preliminary trials in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. (Canada and the United States enter in the individual category.)
The competition proceeds according to strict guidelines, with the base ingredients specified only at the moment of competition. The slick videos and hype, the sports-type arena where the competitions are held, and especially the teams that represent their countries are so many reminders of the Olympics. Each national team enters the stadium with its coach, pumping fists. The audience in the stadium waves flags, brandishes placards of support, and cheers frenetically. Beyond the Olympics, the Oscars and similar film ceremonies loom large in the media-hyped presentations, right down to the gold, silver, and bronze statuettes of Paul Bocuse brandished by the winners. Beyond the three main prizes, additional prizes go to Best Commis (assistant), Best Fish, Best Meat, Best Poster, and Best Publicity.
As with the more artistic Olympic events, such as figure skating or ice dancing, questions arise as to the standards by which to judge these culinary productions-performances, really. Despite the formidable organizational work and the ever-widening reach of the Bocuse d'Or into Asia, Australia, and the Americas, the competition retains a noticeable French inflection. Only two candidates from outside Europe have placed (Singapore and Japan, who took home bronze medals in 1989 and 2013, respectively). Beyond the actual prizes won by French competitors, French cuisine itself figures importantly in the training and work of many of the competitors and, most importantly, the winners. The 2009 Swedish silver medalist spent a numbers of years training at two Michelin three-star restaurants. The coach for the 2013 Japanese bronze medalist (and for the two preceding competitions) holds the title of MOF and currently runs a Michelin one-star restaurant.
There is little reason to expect otherwise. French techniques and base preparations continue to play a big role in the training of chefs around the world. Training competitive cooks takes vast amounts of time. Many of the French contenders and coaches have already won the MOF. The competing chefs and judges proudly sport the blue, white, and red MOF ribbons and medals when they bound on stage. As New York-based French chef Daniel Boulud has noted, it takes a good year of honing competitive skills to make a viable candidate. In contrast to most of the Europeans, who had been preparing for years, the American team competing in 2009 had only a few months to prepare after winning the trials the previous October. Sixth place wasn't so bad, in view of the Americans' subsequent tenth place in 2011 and seventh in 2013, and this despite the increasingly intense period of training and preparation.
The United States wants to do better, and Paul Bocuse, his eye on the American market, wants it to do better. Training competitive cooks takes time and money, and lots of it. The prize monies (€20,000 or $27,000 for the gold, €15,000 or $20,000 for the silver, and €10,000 or $13,500 for the bronze) do not come close to recouping the investment needed to ready a team for competition. Making the United States' ambition a reality is the goal of the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation, founded in 2009. In the summer of 2010-in time to drum up support for the competition in 2011-the foundation launched Bocuse d'Or USA, a glossy magazine that aims to "inspir[e] culinary excellence." The foundation also sponsors a series of fund-raising dinners across the country to give the final candidate a series of trial runs.
We may well ask why-and how-French cuisine maintains its edge when both judges and judged come from all over the world. The French origins and organization of the contest, along with the long-standing prestige of French cuisine, are not unimportant. They are also not decisive. The larger context of competition weighs heavily in favor of the French, for whom culinary competition is a way of life that extends beyond any given competition-beyond the MOF or the Bocuse d'Or. In 2013, before, during, and after the Bocuse d'Or, eighteen French competitions were held over several days, ranging from World Pastry Cup, with its Carême-worthy sculptures, to the Golden Shell contest, with its tests of speed and dexterity at opening oysters. Many are ambitiously international (World Latte Art Championship, World Barista Cup, International Catering Cup); a couple are European (European Sugar Championships, European Trophies for Butchering display); and still others are French either explicitly (French Bread Cup, National Cheese Contest) or implicitly (Best Wine Chef). For a French contestant, the path to the Bocuse d'Or may well start with the grand prize for the Lycées of the Rhône-Alpes region (around Lyon). Competitors who start at this high a level this early in their careers can only have an edge in competitions down the line.
Another factor is the character of French cuisine itself. More emphatically than for many-probably most-other cuisines, the governing principles and practices of French cuisine structure a system. Unlike foods tied to place, this system travels easily. It is, to use the language of economics, highly portable. A French restaurateur in New York a number of years ago invoked the importance of solfège-the rules of harmony-in any understanding of French cuisine. Once you learn the basic rules and understand the whole system, then-and only then-you can start cooking wherever and with whatever. Codes define French cuisine-not place, not products, and not people. The roster of winners of the Bocuse d'Or confirms that you do not need to cook in France or use French products or, for that matter, beFrench to cook French. Even so, as more than one French restaurateur in New York City observed, it certainly helps to know the French scene from the inside. A stint in France remains essential for ambitious chefs today.
Just think of all the French culinary terms that have become standard English. The 1943 edition of Irma Rombauer's classic and thoroughly American Joy of Cooking finds no explanations necessary for French techniques (à la mode, sauté, blanch), soups (consommé, bouillon, vichyssoise), sauces (béarnaise, béchamel, hollandaise, mayonnaise, poulette, velouté, vinaigrette), or desserts (compote, crêpes, mousse, soufflé), not to mention omelettes and pâtés. And this list does not count the organization of the professional kitchen. Cuisine, like ballet (another contribution of seventeenth-century France), speaks French in every language.
For a vivid illustration of just how much culinary identity matters in France, I propose the 2012 French film, Haute Cuisine (Les saveurs du palais, "The flavors of the palace"). This food story translates French exceptionalism into everyday life. It dramatizes culinary France, a community imagined through its foods, cuisine, cooks, and consumers. It shows food talk connecting cuisine and country.
The palace to which the French title of the film refers is not just any palace. It is the Élysée Palace, located just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in the center of Paris, which serves as the official residence of the president of France. The central personage, however, is not the palace's official occupant but the cook-a special cook-and her sometimes close but more often distant relationship to her even more special patron. The French president has asked this relatively unknown woman from the Périgord region in southwest France (known for its truffles), Hortense Laborie, to be his private cook-to cook for him, his family, and his close acquaintances. All the official, public meals are the province of the head chef and his staff.
Hortense Laborie is the only woman in these kitchens, and her regular run-ins with the male staff and especially the ill-tempered, defensive head chef say a lot about the tensions of the professional kitchen, where women, even today, are not always welcome. Jealous guardians of their prerogatives, the men do not take kindly to the interloper in a skirt and high heels who insists on being called by her first name." She refuses the hierarchy that sets chefs apart. Hortense is adamantly not a chef.
Sexual innuendos are rife. The men can come up with only one reason why this woman should be muscling in on their domain-sex. They nickname her "du Barry" after the influential, extravagant, and pushy last official mistress of Louis XV in the decadent waning years of the ancien régime. One put-down leads to another. A final instance of sabotage pushes Hortense to the edge: "du Barry," she yells at one point, "says 'up yours.' "
The title in French, Les saveurs du palais, has a second sense, and it is ultimately the more important because it takes us to the heart of French culinary exceptionalism. Palais is French for "palate" as well as "palace." This film does not just bring to light the many cuisines (French slang for undercover machinations as well as "kitchen" and "cooking") in the palaces of the high and mighty, though these revelations are all part of the fun for the spectator. Hortense in effect creates a palace for the palate, and it is very much to the point that it is a French palate as well as a French palace.
The names of the dishes themselves are magic-filet de boeuf en croûte de sel (beef filet with salt crust), brouillade de ceps au cerfeuil (scrambled eggs with cèpe mushrooms and chervil), tarte pâtissière aux fruits rouges (red fruit pastry tart) . . . The list rolls off the tongue as Hortense announces the dishes that she prepares and whose preparation the film follows in sensuous detail. We never see the diners at table. Hortense has to ask whether the president liked the dish or not. The kitchen, not the dining room, cooking, not consumption, centers this culinary world. As in so many of the best food films, which focus on the process of preparation-the splendid Babette's Feast (1987) is a wonderful example-the camera of Haute Cuisine lingers lovingly on the food as it is transformed into a proper culinary creation. The drama opens with the painstaking layering of salmon and cabbage and moves on to the poaching of the reconstituted whole cabbage, followed in due course by the cutting of individual portions and the final plating.
The iconic truffle plays an even bigger part. At what seems to be a secret rendezvous on a street in Paris, Hortense picks up a box of enormous black truffles, delivered by hand from her farm in the south. That evening, drawn by the news and perhaps the pungent aroma, the president unexpectedly appears in the kitchen. Hortense serves him a slice of country bread with more and bigger slices of truffles than most of us see in half a lifetime. Given the traditional association of truffles with France and French cuisine, the president in effect incorporates the country that he presides.
The stories told by this kitchen tell of a country, its culture, and its traditions. Culinary nationalism comes to the fore in the loving presentation of this cuisine that restores body and soul. "I need to rediscover the taste of things," the president explains to Hortense early on. His taste for life itself is in question. Moreover, he knows where to find that taste: "Give me," he pleads, "the best of France." To recreate a menu for a special family gathering, Hortense spends hours on the phone and more at the stove, coming up with the most authentic recipe, which is also the best.
That best lies in the land-Hortense uses only products straight from farmers whom she trusts-and the women who guard its traditions. Her ideal, as she tells everyone who will listen (and even those who do not), is her grandmother's cooking. Why so many dishes named "Julia"? "If anyone asks who Julia is, tell them that she was my grandmother," Hortense proclaims. She can give her assistant no higher praise than that he flawlessly executed "Granny's custard sauce": nothing exotic, nothing fancy-just eggs, milk, sugar, flour, and a vanilla bean-but rendered to perfection.
That a film so infused with culinary nostalgia should spend so much time talking about food and showing its preparation should surprise no one. Hortense takes visible pleasure in reciting the dishes as she proposes them to the officials who must approve the menu. She talks her way through her recipes as she prepares them. The president, too, loves to talk about food and takes particular delight in quoting-from memory-cookbooks that he read as a child. Appropriately enough, his favorite cookbook was Édouard Nignon's Éloges de la cuisine française (In praise of French cuisine, 1933). Nignon's evocations of the countryside by France's great writers allow the president to indulge his twin passions for good food and great literature-both, of course, French.
The president sends a copy of Nignon's book to Hortense, who, predictably, finds the text as delicious to read aloud as he did. It makes perfect sense that he wonders if he might not do better to spend his time on cuisine instead of politics. In this vision of perfect communion between cook and consumer, French cuisine reaches to a perduring vision of a better world. The film resurrects a childhood world of nurturing women, grandmothers' cooking, "real" food, and the tastes rooted in place that the French call terroir. It also reminds us that, in France, the meal comes first.
Haute Cuisine pledges its allegiance to the culinary rear guard. There is no place here for today's disconcertingly mobile food world of restaurants that range over many cultures, of exciting taste experiments that call on innovative techniques and unexpected products. Anything vaguely reminiscent of "modernism" or the avant-garde remains totally off screen.
The enemy on screen is an old one-haute cuisine, here equated with gratuitous spectacle. The president goes on at great length about the sugar roses that his chefs kept foisting on him: "I cannot abide sugar roses." Still, so tenacious is the hold of haute cuisine that eliminating the superfluous sugar roses from the presidential menu takes an executive order. Too much time spent on appearance, not enough on taste. There is no personality. The dessert exceptionally prepared by the chef for a family meal disappoints. Hortense and her young assistant agree: it's a generic dessert, whereas every dish that Hortense makes is unquestionably hers. It is hers because it tells the story of country that she wants it to tell. By contrast, the chef's dessert "has no author," no context, no ties to the land that the president and Hortense seek. All the food talk in the film puts us on the side of her "real" French cuisine-that is, home cooking-with a difference. If few French actually cook these dishes at home, most recognize them as part of a distinct-and distinctly French-tradition.
It is instructive of differing conceptions of culinary excellence that this film, with its adamant stand against haute cuisine, turns up outside Franceunder the title of . . . Haute Cuisine. For Americans, the skirmishes between Hortense and the sugar-rose chefs come down to the confrontation between chefing (male and macho) and cooking (female and nurturing). For the French, the film pits haute cuisine against cuisine bourgeoise-not exactly home cooking but, in France, most certainly connected to home and hearth. For others, this cuisine and its traditions are foreign, even more unlike what most of us cook at home than they are for most French.
This cuisine-the idealized version conveyed by the film-has its place in a very personal relationship. Although the president appears in few scenes, he-or rather, his taste-is a constant presence. To please this guest, Hortense needs to know his likes and dislikes. She wants to know his favorite dishes. The two form the ideal culinary couple: the cook and the patron who make great food their common cause. The cook is also a sophisticated version of the mother who feeds him, and him alone. But the dream ends, as it must. After two years, Hortense quits, leaving the Élysée Palace to return to its old ways.
The dishes whose preparation is followed here in such detail are neither simple nor cheap. Quite as much as any creation of haute cuisine, these recipes take a great deal of time and require very particular ingredients, from the best butter to the biggest truffles. Like the greatest of chefs, Hortense patronizes farmers who spare little expense to resurrect heirloom produce. Her own expenses eventually land her in hot water with the budget-conscious bureaucrat in charge of the kitchen account. How can she cut back and still please the president? Do justice to the recipes? Create a meal worthy of France ? The answer is that she cannot.
Even so, the two culinary worlds are closer than the film would have us believe. Indeed, the power of French cuisine lies in these connections. This cook is not nearly the outsider that the professional chefs assume. She makes a point of setting the kitchen staff straight. Far from coming from nowhere, Hortense has worked with chefs from around the world to introduce them to French cuisine. She comes to the Élysée Palace on the recommendation of Joël Robuchon, a fabled three-star chef in Paris, the epitome of the professional chef, and a bona fide star of haute cuisine.
Haute Cuisine puts culinary France on stage. It dramatizes the profound connection between cuisine and country. The film talks about food-French food-and what it means for France. It is, in short, ideology in action, in the etymological sense of a story-logos-about an idea-the idea of French cuisine. But we would do well to remember that logos also means "interpretation." Just as sociology-socio + logos-tells the stories of society and offers interpretations of that same society, Haute Cuisine tells a tale about the food world today that reveals its dynamics, lays bare its tensions, and momentarily resolves some of its conflicts.
And America? What kind of a culinary country are we? There is no American culinary code, no systematic construct that distinguishes American cuisine. That said, Americans recognize and prize a distinctive style of cooking and eating. Despite the many dishes routinely cited as quintessentially American (fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburger, steak, apple pie, corn . . . ), attitude and style, not food, define culinary America.
First off, America is the land of plenty. "America the Beautiful," sung by generations of schoolchildren, pays tribute to the "amber waves of grain" and the "fruited plain." This American doxology conceives the abundance of the land as a token of divine blessing. The belief in the never-ending bounty of the earth is essential to any understanding of the distinctive ways Americans think about food. It helps explain, to name one striking characteristic of American ways of eating, the preoccupation with volume of food and size of servings. Foreign travelers early on noticed the American fixation with size. Every country has beef in one form or another, but compare the archetypal American steak with, say, the steak frites typical of French cuisine. Size is not an issue.
Americans, on the other hand, typically make much of the quantity of food served. Diners are urged to do justice to the food provided. Restaurants promote their full sixteen-ounce steak and advertise "all you can eat." One roadside restaurant in upstate New York proudly proclaimed its buffet as a "Belly Buster," and McDonald's promotes its quarter-pounder hamburger, double quarter-pounder, and Big Mac. Remember my student who hightailed it to McDonald's in Rome just to fill up. No wonder that Julia Child and her coauthors had to adjust the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) to accommodate the American appetite. As they specify in the foreword, the amounts in the recipes are double what would be usual for a French meal.
Size is key to an American style of production and consumption. Thus, Thanksgiving is a meal rich in rituals that center on food. Unlike any other country I can think of, Americans share a national meal. As practiced in the twenty-first century, Thanksgiving harks back to the now-legendary meal that the Pilgrims shared with Native Americans in 1621 to give thanks for the abundant harvest and amity that allowed the settlers to survive a very harsh winter. Linking America's present to its past, Thanksgiving reminds us of our heritage. It acknowledges diversity as it honors abundance. It is, in every way, a foundational meal.
The turkey that the president has pardoned every November since 1989 reminds us that the turkey centers the meal-alive, in the oven, on the table, and adorning any number of decorations and greeting cards. For weeks ahead of time, newspapers, magazines, television programs, and blogs testify to the national obsession. Thanksgiving preoccupies the nation. Cooks weigh the merits of fresh over frozen turkey and consult any number of recipes for endless variations on the obligatory stuffing. Bread? Cornbread? Oysters? Chestnuts? Sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping or without? Turnip or rutabaga? What about pies-mince, apple, or must you have pumpkin? Families mediate Thanksgiving traditions-your mother's mashed potatoes or my grandmother's sweet potatoes?
As impressive as the meal may be, the actual food at Thanksgiving dinner is notably plain: roast turkey and stuffing with gravy (no fancy sauce), potatoes, cranberry, and pie. Perhaps even more important, this dinner is not simply abundant; it is a cornucopia. Americans want plain food, and they want lots of it. In the standoff between mashed and sweet potatoes, the logical "American" solution-the only way to do justice to the banquet-is to do both. Thanksgiving does not follow the restaurant model that gives the individual consumer the right to choose. The conviviality of the communal table, laden with celebratory bounty typically prepared by many hands, creates an obligation to consume. We are enjoined to sample the white meat of the turkey and the dark meat as well, the sweet potatoes and also the mashed, the cranberry sauce along with the jelly. Mince pie without pumpkin just wouldn't be a proper Thanksgiving. Eating to excess on this special occasion has nothing to do with fear of famine and everything to do with proclaiming one's allegiance to the country that set the table. The citizen-consumer's every mouthful makes the connection between cuisine and country.
The American competitive-eating contests that have become increasingly prominent in the past decade turn patriotic consumption into a full-fledged spectacle. The best known and oldest of these competitions, sponsored since 1916 by the hot dog company Nathan's Famous, started as a patriotic promotion of a local food on Independence Day. That first year, four recent immigrants determined to demonstrate their allegiance to their new country by consuming this all-American food, which was already a Coney Island specialty. If eating American makes you American, it follows that the more you eat, the more American you become. You are as American as you eat, and America depends on its eaters. Which is why the 2008 contest made competitive-eating history: that year, the coveted Mustard Belt awarded to the winner finally "came home" to the United States. After a string of six victories by Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut showed American mettle. He has continued his victories ever since, thereby assuring that consumption remains proof of patriotism.
Japan and America chow down for the Mustard Belt. Since 1916, every Fourth of July the hot dog-eating contest on Coney Island sets up consumption as patriotic duty. In 2009 it was vital that the championship remain in America to solidify the connection between food and nation.
In crucial respects, such excessive eating is anachronistic, harking back as it does to a time when food supply was uncertain, dependent on the vagaries of the weather, the vicissitudes of harvests, and the depredations of war. Eating beyond hunger makes sense when you do not know when you will be eating next, what you will eat, or whether there will be enough. Competitive eating has little to do with the food itself. Taste is not a factor. Quantity alone counts.
Ritual overeating exists in many cultures. Like the "cook-offs" that award prizes to the best pie or chili or whatever, "eat-offs" have long been part of local farm festivals in the United States and elsewhere, often tied to consumption of a local specialty. It is easy to dismiss these displays as so much gluttony, and the amateur contests do nothing to discourage the association. But the highly organized and regulated overeating of competitive eating is not gluttony. The loss of control that led the Catholic Church to classify gluttony as one of the seven so-called deadly sins simply does not obtain. It is not how much one eats that defines gluttony but how much attention is paid to food-how much one is ruled by appetite.
Competitive eaters are not gluttons, no matter how much food they consume, because their goal is to control the body, not yield to its urges. Consumption is divorced from appetite, from desire. For competitive eaters, food is neither fuel nor pleasure. It is the enemy to be vanquished by forcing the body to extreme consumption.
Following the lead of the Japanese, Americans have worked diligently to transform amateur eat-offs into the competitive eating of the twenty-first century, organized and promoted as a sport. Consumption becomes a spectator sport with a vast audience. This contest is now in the big time, both in terms of the number of hot dogs (with buns) consumed during the allotted ten minutes-sixty-nine is the record set in 2013-and in terms the number of spectators-an estimated forty thousand at Coney Island and over a million and a half behind their television screens. The abundance of which Americans are so proud justifies these feats of consumption. As in every sport, whatever the rules, the numbers speak for themselves-the fastest, the furthest, the heaviest wins the game, the race, the match, the contest. Most is best.
Competitive eating belongs in culinary America, just as competitive cooking fits culinary France. It is only a slight exaggeration to classify both as glorified food fights. Certainly both are far removed from the cooking and consumption of everyday life, behavior that has little in common with what most of us do in the kitchen or dining room. Divorced from everyday life, they are both at the extreme forms of cooking and of production. Where one empowers the chef, the other promotes the consumer.
The model of competitive cooking that prevails in French culture sets competitors less against one another than all of them against a standard of excellence, their accomplishments judged by acknowledged authorities. Unlike in sports events, in these sorts of competitions, it is entirely possible that there will be no winners-that is, no one deemed worthy of designation as, say, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF). Of course, this model imperfectly accounts for actual practice. In the absence of winners, the Bocuse d'Or would most certainly lose the commercial sponsors that finance the contest. If no candidate qualified as MOF, the whole enterprise would be jeopardized. This elite, like every other, depends on new recruits.
For a sense of the personal investment in competitive eating, I turn to the recent novel POW!, by the Chinese author Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. POW! is a book about meat and about a Chinese boy who cannot get enough of it, who is irresistibly drawn to it. Yet his gluttony is of a different order. It is extraordinary, even epic. Mo Yan's protagonist, Luo Xiaotong, takes his place in the line of overeaters headed in Western literature by Rabelais's Gargantua.
A series of competitive-eating contests structures chapter thirty-six of the novel, building up from an unremarkable chili pepper contest and a heroic fritter battle won by the narrator's father years before the narrator's own marathon encounter with meat. The power dynamics are clear, as are the stakes. Winning this contest will set the twelve-year-old Luo Xiaotong up as a person to be reckoned with: "What I really wanted was to establish my authority at the plant [the meat-processing plant where he works] and make a name for myself in the world." The contest, then, is not a simple case of consumption. It is a display of prowess of every sort. "[I wanted] the opportunity of displaying my special skill . . . -not just my skill but my artistry." It was "not only a test of strength or stomach capacity, it was also a test of will." That skill, that artistry, and especially that will make a case for gluttony outdone, and hence redefined.
This novel parts company with the usual practice of competitive eating in the special relationship between the contestant and the food that he is to consume. It is very much to the point that this contest involves meat. From birth, Luo Xiaotong has had an intimate, visceral identification with meat. He can never get enough. He loves meat with a passion-and what's more, the meat knows it. In an encounter heavy with sexual innuendoes, the meat actually calls out to him to be consumed: "I used . . . my hands-I knew the meat preferred the feel of my skin. When I gently picked up the first piece, it gave out a joyful moan and trembled in my hand. . . . As I brought the piece to my mouth, glistening tears gushed from a pair of bright eyes staring passionately at me. I know it loved me because I loved it." This outsize competitive eater transforms the food into an eager sexual partner. Not only does the meat to be consumed by his competitors wail in distress, but their messy, disorderly eating contrasts with his deliberate and refined mode of consumption. Luo Xiaotong transcends the animal even as he identifies with the meat. Sloppy eaters with no method, the ordinary gluttons who are his competition deserve to lose, and of course they do.
Competitive eating is not for the weak or the undiscerning. POW! makes the case for true competitive eating as gluttony without the glutton. Fiction makes the impossible possible. As practiced on Coney Island, competitive eating works hard to be a sport like any other-"the fastest-growing sport worldwide," according to the television announcement in 2013. Still, for all that competitive eating fancies itself a sport, and for all that the competitors work to control their bodies, gluttony hovers over the crowd. As the 2013 Mustard Belt champion acknowledged, the spectacle "is not pretty."
Concern for culinary identity is hardly limited to the French, nor is pride in indigenous foods confined to Americans. The Japanese are every bit as concerned about authenticity and defining "our food." The status of imported rice is worrisome; it may not be Japanese enough. Echoing the French conception of learning cuisine through the rules of its harmonies, the successful chef-restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa comes down squarely in favor of savoir faire: "So long as you keep your feet planted in the techniques of Japanese cookery, new Japanese dishes can be created anywhere in the world."
Le Grand Chef
Nationalism works through produce and dishes, through images and text-in a word, through the talk that ties us to place and, beyond, to nation. To see culinary nationalism in action, I propose a film, Le Grand Chef (Shik Gaek), from South Korea (2007). Based on a popular television series, itself based on an equally popular graphic novel, Le Grand Chef tells the story of the contest for a legendary knife that had belonged to the last imperial chef. So intense was his devotion to the emperor that, rather than practice his art for the Japanese occupiers, the chef chopped off his hand. The Japanese conquerors confiscated the knife.
The film has melodrama and comedy, good guys and bad guys, a love story, filial devotion, great shots of food preparation, and lyric landscapes-all in the service of connecting cuisine and country. With a media frenzy that echoes the Bocuse d'Or, a series of trials (best fish, poultry, game, and beef dishes; even the best charcoal, which imparts incomparable flavor to meat; and best butchering of a cow) pits the top chefs of Korea against one another. Not until the final trial do the high stakes of this competition become apparent-the task is nothing less than recreating the soup that made the last emperor weep, just before his death as the Japanese advanced to destroy the royal dynasty.
In a complicated twist, the two finalists, the Hero (Sung-chun) and the Rival (Bong-ju), are grandsons of apprentices of the last chef and have been adversaries since their own early days as apprentices. The Rival's grandfather, who had cooked for the Japanese, became chef-owner of an immensely successful high-end restaurant, while the Hero's grandfather, staunchly Korean, retired to the countryside and gave up cooking. The Rival prepares an exquisite soup-from a recipe left by his grandfather that had been approved by the Japanese. But with soy sauce as an ingredient, the soup tastes Japanese.
The winning soup is ordinary-a peasant soup prepared lovingly following the recipe bequeathed to the Hero by his grandfather. This is the soup that made the emperor cry. The Korean judges offended by the presentation of such an ordinary dish in competition cannot appreciate what is so evident to the Japanese businessman who is returning the legendary knife to Korea (son of the official who had tasted the exemplary soup)-namely, that this humble soup contains the very essence of Korea. As he explains in detail, each ingredient is tied to the land, to this people, and to their history. Only an exceptional chef can put it all together.
Le Grand Chef dramatizes the dynamics of culinary nationalism. Notwithstanding the unremitting focus on all things Korean, the international context defines national identity. Only the Japanese outsider recognizes the Koreanness of the dish, and the film articulates this identity to the outside world-where it must compete with other cuisines and with other films. This competition-the gentle Hero's ambition to be the best, the rapacious Rival's skullduggery, the media that promote the contest, the journalist angling for a scoop-drives the film.
Korean cuisine is the sum of ingredients that are themselves part of a landscape that envelops the viewer. The camera lingers on the lush countryside, on the abundance of country markets, and on the generosity of the people. The nation, like the film, subsumes produce, inhabitants, and landscapes. (A key shot zooms in on Korea's national flower, the rose of Sharon.) Le Grand Chef casts viewers as "consumers" of a nation imagined through its food and what its great chefs and humble cooks alike do with that food. Almost every frame of the film impresses upon us the notion that cuisine, indeed, is country.
Who disagrees? Certainly not the members of the United States Congress who in 2003 demanded (and got) "freedom fries" to replace "French fries" on the menu at the cafeteria of the House of Representatives in retaliation for France's failure to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Nor those who boycotted foie gras. And French cheese and wine. And Perrier (until they discovered that PepsiCo owned the company). Nor again, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons deemed to caricature Muhammad, the Iranians who renamed Danish pastries quite wonderfully as the "Roses of the Prophet Muhammad."
No disagreement either from those of us who delight in American deep-dish pies and French tartes and prize the difference, who long for "authentic" foods, however vague we may be on what we mean by "authenticity." In the perceptive words of a great French chef, we eat more myths than calories. We eat, in sum, with our imagination.