Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review of the Day: The Food of France




The Food of France, Waverley Root's encyclopedic tome, deserves its status as a culinary classic. First published in 1958, updated by the author in 1966, and still in print, the book remains the definitive treatise in English on French cuisine.

The book is best known for its structure. Root famously organized the book based on the type of fat predominantly used in the cooking of certain sections of France. The "Domain of Butter" is the largest area, covering a big swath across the middle of the country and points beyond, including Paris, Normandy, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the western mountains. The "Domain of Fat" includes Alsace-Lorraine, Languedoc, and other regions that use lard (primarily pork and goose fat). Olive oil dominates the cooking in Provence and the rest if the "Domain of Oil." The only section of the country that does not fit Root's general scheme is the Pyrenees region, including Gascony and the Basque country, where people cook with butter, lard, and olive oil – sometimes combining two or even all three in the same dish.

Within each general category, Root breaks down the cuisine by region. Each chapter follows the same format, with Root describing the geography and climate of the area; its history, including its earliest settlers, rulers, architecture, and incorporation into France; its agriculture production; its culinary specialties; and, finally, its wine or other beverages.

The most absorbing parts of the book are about the history of each region. Root goes back sometimes to the earliest history, providing interesting tidbits such as where the Greeks planted wine grapes, or how Brittany shares a common language with Wales because they both have a Celtic background, or where to find the dividing line between Gothic and Romanesque architecture. He also enjoys linguistic history, offering useful explanations for how certain words evolved that clear up confusion about several place names and culinary terms.

When it comes to describing the food of each region, Root focuses on regional cuisine bourgeoise, or "home cooking," rather than heute cuisine, which he derides as "international hotel and restaurant cooking [that] appears all over the world on menus whose French is usually as bad an imitation of the real thing as the cooking is likely to be." He works from the angle that all cooking, like politics, is local, and focuses mostly on rustic dishes made from what can be grown, grazed, hunted, or fished from the immediate area.

Compared to the lively historical and linguistic anecdotes, the descriptions of the food grow a little stale by the end of this long book. The value of the book is its thoroughness. Unfortunately, this means reading about many regional "specialties" that are very similar to the "specialties" of neighboring regions. After the first 300 pages or so (or even earlier for the less patient reader), whether a region serves its cabbage and mutton stew in one dish, or serves the meat separately, is not an enthralling distinction.

Another minor letdown – and one that runs contrary to complaints about the length of the book – is that Root often gives no description of the foods he lists. He may state that such-and-such region makes a very good cheese, or is known for its sausages, or makes a particular type of wine, but says nothing about the characteristics of these products. For readers used over-the-top, mouthwatering descriptions of yummy delicacies, such scanty descriptions are not satisfying.

Despite these small disappointments, food lovers will still love The Food of France. It is a landmark in culinary writing and worthy of the reverence it inspires.


OTHER REVIEWS

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NOTES

This is on my French Connections list and is the first book I am reading for the Foodie's Reading Challenge. It will also count as one of my Chunkster Challenge books, coming in at exactly 450 pages, plus an introduction.


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