Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine
By: Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
Format/Source: eBook; free download from the University of Chicago Press
French cuisine is such a staple in our understanding of fine food that we forget the accidents of history that led to its creation. Accounting for Taste brings these “accidents” to the surface, illuminating the magic of French cuisine and the mystery behind its historical development. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson explains how the food of France became French cuisine.
This momentous culinary journey begins with Ancien Régime cookbooks and ends with twenty-first-century cooking programs. It takes us from Carême, the “inventor” of modern French cuisine in the early nineteenth century, to top chefs today, such as Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pépin. Not a history of French cuisine, Accounting for Taste focuses on the people, places, and institutions that have made this cuisine what it is today: a privileged vehicle for national identity, a model of cultural ascendancy, and a pivotal site where practice and performance intersect. With sources as various as the novels of Balzac and Proust, interviews with contemporary chefs such as David Bouley and Charlie Trotter, and the film Babette’s Feast, Ferguson maps the cultural field that structures culinary affairs in France and then exports its crucial ingredients. What’s more, well beyond food, the intricate connections between cuisine and country, between local practice and national identity, illuminate the concept of culture itself.
I learned that the University of Chicago Press was issuing a free download of this book for the month through a blogger so I decided to check it out. The focus is especially interesting, that of cuisine and its reflection on national identity, culture, and sense of history (very much hitting all of the notes of academic interest on my part 😉 ). In a more general sense, it focuses on food in a social context: who we are, how we associate ourselves with our cuisines. It’s always great to see scholars look at food in a historical and social context; I remember in my undergrad there were a few historians at the department who had written books about food in different cultures.
As the title indicates, this book focuses on French cuisine, but a lot of the analysis I think can be applied to other cultures as well. Something that struck me as I was reading this book was how eating was seen as an intellectual activity as well, which is something I would have never considered; I wish I had saved the page where the narrative was talking about this in particular, it was rather fascinating. The author uses a variety of sources to discuss the development and impact of French cuisine over the last few centuries, from primary sources of pamphlets and newspapers and other sources from the time to French literature, in which foods come up quite frequently (something I never realised when I was reading some of the classics last year). By the last chapter, the narrative turns to the present and the current challenges that French society faces in terms of their cuisine and the advent of globalisation.
I honestly wish I had more time to read this novel more carefully and analyse it in an academic sense. But suffice to say, Accounting for Taste is a well-researched book and overall a fascinating read. I wish I had read this book as a physical copy of this book; it’s overall very interesting and I would have taken a lot of notes in this 😉 Readers of French history, books about cuisine, and books about national identity and society will want to check out this title.
Learn more about the book from University of Chicago Books website