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Gluttony, Gastronomy, and the Origins of ‘French’ Food

As French President, François Mitterrand enjoyed his fair share of sumptuous feasts in the haute cuisine tradition. His enduring esteem reflects a wider French anxiety, in an era of Globalisation, expressed by Pascal Ory, as to whether French cuisine will be ‘all that remains when everything else has been forgotten?’[i] Thus, in 1996, for his final supper, the dying statesman made an unusual request – alongside requests for the familiar capons and oysters – for a small, yellow-throated songbird, the ortolan, supposedly representing the French soul, to appear on the menu. As is customary, Mitterrand consumed the plucked bird whole in a sauce of Armagnac, crunching the little bones with his face behind a napkin – ‘so that God himself could not witness the barbarity.’[ii]

Even committed carnivores might baulk at devouring a morsel of flesh from a rare creature that fills the air with song, and, apparently, the mouth with blood – providing another use for the napkin. There was, nonetheless, a brutal honesty to Mitterrand’s act, acknowledging the wantonness of a food culture that permits the sacrifice of a songbird for the sake of a fleeting corporeal pleasure.

French authorities prohibited the hunting of ortolans in 1999. Nonetheless, 30,000 birds are still trapped every year, and are said to fetch up to €150 apiece on the black market. Tragically, ortolan numbers have dropped by 84% between 1980 and 2012.[iii]

For most of us, however, the sins of the table are indirect and unacknowledged, as where virgin habitat makes way for grazing the animals we raise for meat, or to grow the crops used to feed them – rather than ourselves. A blindfold of distance prevents us from witnessing the nesting grounds of birds going up in smoke on hillsides; or hedgerows being eviscerated; let alone the pesticides bringing Insectageddon,[iv] which are wiping out the primary foodstuff of many birds.

Nonetheless, since the French Revolution, there has been a clear distinction between a gluttony associated with the vice of excess, and the virtue of gastronomy – ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, underpinning French cuisine in particular. Yet this gastronomy often acts as a blindfold to the gluttonous excesses of a food culture that has attained global dominance. French cuisine has much to recommend it, especially in terms of the value ascribed to unique environmental contexts or terroir, but it remains excessively dependent on animal agriculture.

It might be helpful to chart the emergence of the Sin of Gluttony, originally encompassing both excess and delicacy. In Roman times Seneca (d. 65 CE) was appalled by his decadent contemporaries who would ‘vomit in order to eat, and eat in order to vomit’, bemoaning the wastefulness of ‘banquets for which they ransack the whole world.’[v] Later, St. Paul writes of enemies of the cross whose end is ‘destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.’[vi] This reflects Adam succumbing to the temptation of an apple, the Original Sin of greed, but distinguishing between greed and necessary – and invariably enjoyable – consumption of food is not straightforward.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 CE) provides an archetypal insight into the moral confusion wrought by appetite in the autobiographical Confessions. He acknowledges he must eat for the sake of his health, but is wary of the ‘dangerous pleasure’ he draws from it: ‘it is difficult to discern whether the needed care of my body is asking for sustenance or whether a deceitful voluptuousness of greed is trying to seduce me.’[vii] For St. Augustine, all bodily appetites are indicative of the fallen state of Man, a form of cupiditas: ‘Ardent desire, inordinate longing or lust; covetousness.’

It fell to Pope Gregory I (d. c. 604 CE) to develop the most lasting definition of gluttony, when he laid out the seven ‘deadly’ or ‘cardinal’ sins. Building on St. Paul’s condemnation of those who treat their bellies as ‘God’, he defined that Sin as being more than merely eating too much. For Gregory, the contagion resided in the eater’s thoughts, as much as his actions:

the glutton eats before he is hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry; he craves costly and gratuitously sophisticated dishes; he eats too much and with excessive eagerness; he seeks not sustenance, but pleasure; he becomes the slave of his stomach and his palate.[viii]

Breaking any taboo, however, tends to exert a fascination, and wealth and prestige are often expressed in conspicuous consumption. Thus, while gluttony was considered the ‘mother of all sins’, the medieval European nobility revelled in excess, enjoying stupendous, Bacchanalian banquets, memorably evoked by the sixteenth-century French writer François Rabelais in his tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel (c. 1532-64). Folk ambivalence towards orthodox theology is revealed in the popularity of a fictional land of fantastical abundance called ‘the Land of Cockaigne’. Herman Pleij reveals:

Everyone living at the end of the Middle Ages had heard of Cockaigne at one time or another. It was a country, tucked away in some remote corner of the globe, where ideal living conditions prevailed … food and drink appeared spontaneously in the form of grilled fish, roast geese and rivers of wine … One could even reside in meat, fish, game, fowl, or pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture.[ix]

The reach of the myth of Cockaigne attests to a yearning for a sensuality in food consumption which the deadening moral schema prohibited: the reach of the mortal Sin of Gluttony failed to accommodate what is simultaneously a pleasurable and necessary activity. The early modern period witnessed an ideological shift that continues to govern our understanding.

Mainly due to improvements in agriculture and the discovery of New World crops, by the late eighteenth century a rising bourgeoisie could enjoy the privilege of plenty, with wealth diffused more widely across society. Previously the nobility’s social superiority could be expressed in gargantuan banquets, but, for that style of eating to impress, hungry onlookers are required. How could consumption remain conspicuous? The answer lay in increasing the demands made upon chefs to innovate. New dishes became increasingly complex, a process accelerated by accumulated culinary knowledge in recipe books. The emphasis turned to quality, mainly dependent on human ingenuity, rather than largesse. The introduction to one French recipe book from 1674 signals the shift in fashion:

Nowadays it is not the prodigious overflowing of dishes, the abundance of ragoûts and gallimaufries, the extraordinary piles of meat … in which it seems that nature and artifice have been entirely exhausted in the satisfaction of the senses, which is the most palpable object of our delicacy of taste. It is rather the exquisite choice of meats, the finesse with which they are seasoned, the courtesy and neatness with which they are served, their proportionate relationship to the number of people, and finally the general order of things which essentially contribute to the goodness and elegance of a meal.[x]

According to Stephen Mennell this newly discovered sense of delicacy implies ‘a degree of restraint too, in so far as it involves discrimination and selection, the rejection as well as the acceptance of certain foods or combinations of foods, guided at least as much by social proprieties as by individual fancies.’[xi] The trend for more varied and delicate ragoûts predictably spread from elite circles to the burgeoning bourgeoisie. What was crucial, however, to upending the private banquets of the ancien regime was the French Revolution, which established the public restaurant as the location for fine dining, par excellence.

The word ‘gastronomy’ seems to have first appeared in 1801 as the title of a poem b Joseph Berchoux.[xii] It was rapidly adopted in both France and Britain to designate ‘the art and science of delicate eating.’ The meaning of ‘gastronome’ overlaps with the older terms ‘epicure,’ and ‘gourmand,’ as well as the newer one ‘gourmet.’ Both ‘epicure’ and ‘gourmand’ had formerly pejorative meanings close to ‘glutton’ – applied to those who ate greedily and to excess. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, ‘epicure’ had acquired a more positive meaning in English as ‘one who cultivates a refined taste for the pleasure of the table; one who is choice and dainty in eating and drinking.’[xiii]

In France, the word ‘gourmand’ had the same favourable sense and was used by the first ever restaurant critic Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière as the title for his series of restaurant reviews: Almanachs des Gourmands (1803-12). In contrast, today English writers commonly draw a distinction between a ‘gourmand’, which has the same negative connotation as ‘glutton’, and a ‘gourmet’, who is considered a person with a refined palate. But as Mennell notes, ‘gastronome’ differs from all the other terms in one key respect: a gastronome is generally understood as a person who not only cultivates his own ‘refined tastes for the pleasure of the table’ but also, ‘helps to cultivate other people’s too.’[xiv]

The first restaurant critic, Grimod – a dispossessed noble who held democracy in contempt – was alive to the possibility that he could be attacked for being a glutton, asserting: ‘Let it be said that of all the Deadly Sins that mankind may commit the fifth appears to be the one that least troubles his conscience and causes him the least remorse.’[xv] He grapples with the challenge of altering the understanding of the term:

If the Dictionary of the Academy is to be believed, gourmand is a synonym for glutton or greedy, as gourmandise is for gluttony. In our opinion this definition is inexact; the words gluttony and greed should be reserved for the characterisation of intemperance and insatiability, while the word gourmand has, in polite society, a much more favourable interpretation, one might say a nobler one altogether.[xvi]

It was, however, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (d. 1826), a bachelor lawyer of a more democratic persuasion than Grimod, who most clearly distinguished gastronomy from the medieval concept of gluttony. In the opinion of Balzac, Brillat-Savarin’s La Physiologie du gout was a work of literature beside which that of Grimod’s was ‘too much of a pot-pourri.’[xvii] Even Grimod, upon reading his contemporary’s work, magnanimously observed: ‘Beside him I am no more than a kitchen skivvy.’[xviii] Brillat-Savarin’s Gourmandism was ‘an impassioned, reasoned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organs of taste.’ Importantly, he distinguished this from excessive eating and drinking, arguing that gourmandism is ‘the enemy of excess; indigestion and drunkenness are offences which render the offender liable to be struck off the rolls.’[xix] Brillat-Savarin embraced the sensual pleasure of food, beyond sufficiency, arguing it ‘is one of the privileges of mankind to eat without being hungry and drink without being thirsty.’[xx]

This appears to be a refutation of Gregory’s definition of the mortal sin, where ‘the glutton eats before he is hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry’, repudiating Gregory’s conviction that drawing ‘pleasure’ as opposed to ‘sustenance’ from food is gluttonous. This, Brillat-Savarin contended, showed ‘implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator, who, when He ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encouragement of savour, and the reward of pleasure.’[xxi]

Brillat-Savarin’s book has been in print every year since publication in 1826 and his bon mots remain staples in gastronomic literature. He can be credited with altering our understanding of gluttony and liberating sensual appreciation of food from the grip of the dualistic philosophy of the medieval Church. But Brillat-Savarin left an inaccurate picture of French food, which became a global hit.

The meat-heavy diet promoted by the early gastronomes is still equated, misleadingly, with traditional French rustic fare. In fact, Fernand Braudel writes: ‘the diet of peasants, that is the vast majority of the population, had nothing in common with the cookery books written for the rich.’ Peasants, the great bulk of the French population (and beyond) until the mid-twentieth century, might eat meat in the form of salted pork just once a week [xxii]: traditional French fare is basically soup and bread.

Nevertheless, aristocratic ‘French’ food went viral as the ultimate expression of privilege far beyond France. The great chef Auguste Escoffier (d. 1935) boasted: ‘I have ‘sown’ two thousand chefs all around the world … Think of them as so many seeds planted in virgin soils.’[xxiii] It became the dominant idiom in Western elite cooking over the course of the nineteenth century and France remains the pre-eminent gastronomic destination. An implicit appeal of that cuisine, expressed in restaurant dining, is the impression of aristocratic sophistication, an aura maintained to the present day, where otherwise plebeian patrons are addressed as ‘sir’ and ‘madame’ by besuited waiters.

The extensive use of French words in English-language gastronomic discourse (notably cuisine, chef, and even bon appetit!) accentuates divisions between the diets of rich (many of them with a command of the French language) and poor. Working class communities often lack a vocabulary to talk about ‘posh’ food. One’s upbringing generally exerts an influence throughout life, as Pierre Bourdieu remarks: ‘[I]t is probably in tastes in food that one would find the strongest and most indelible mark of infant learning, the lessons which longest withstand the distancing or collapse of the native world and most durably maintain nostalgia for it.’[xxiv] Thus, altering patterns of consumption, as Jamie Oliver discovered, is no simple matter, but the prevailing appetite, especially for meat, is causing untold damage to the planet.

A diet based on plants – whether undertaken for ethical, health or environmental reasons – is still viewed as the poor gastronomic relation, and as even involving a drudgery that campaigns like ‘Meat-free Mondays’ may actually compound. Moreover, high-profile gastronomes – especially celebrity chefs – maintain a food tradition that is mistakenly viewed as timeless.

Leaving aside the burning issue of climate change, explosive growth in human population from just 1.5 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today is exacting a terrible price on many wild animals, which are rapidly losing habitats. A recent comparison of global populations of domesticated animals and wild animals reveals that humans and their livestock now account for an astonishing 96% of the total mammal biomass on planet Earth.[xxv] Animal agriculture, including the expansion of monoculture agriculture for feedstuffs is the leading culprit: close to 70 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used for animal pasture alone,[xxvi] while barely half of the world’s cropland is to devoted to food for direct human consumption.[xxvii]

Most people would hesitate before eating an endangered species, such as a rare songbird like the ortolan, but recognition that the lifecycles of livestock are largely responsible for these extinctions is less commonly acknowledged. To bring about what The Lancet describes as the ‘Great Food Transformation,’[xxviii] involving a substantial reduction in meat consumption, a new generation of gastronomes must instil new tastes. A vast array of edible plants, both wild and domesticated, are available at a far lower environmental price. These can form the basis of a new gastronomy that will not demand blindfolds to avoid the shame.

[i] Pascal Ory, ‘Gastronomy’ in Nora Pierre (editor) Realms of Memory: The

Construction of the French Past, Volume II, Traditions. Translated by Arthur

Goldhammer. New York, Columbia University Press, 1997, p.444

[ii] Michael Paterniti, ‘The Last Meal, June 27th, 2008, Esquire, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a4642/the-last-meal-0598/, accessed 8/4/19.

[iii] Dale Berning Sawa, ‘Deadly appetite: 10 animals we are eating into extinction’, April 3rd, 2019, The Guardian,  https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/03/deadly-appetite-10-animals-we-are-eating-into-extinction?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco&fbclid=IwAR3xEteCZyEb-qgIoeAG7S3LcPn-4qnzeWrK-lEOftEzq9Cpx520U4vYTQk, accessed 11/4/19.

[iv] George Monbiot, ‘Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown’, October, 20th, 2017, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations, accessed 11/4/19.

[v] Aviad Kleinberg, Deadly Sins – A Very Partial List, translated from Hebrew by

Susan Emanuel in collaboration with the author, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008,  p.81.

[vi] Phil. 3.18-19, New International Version.

[vii] John K. Ryan, The Confessions of St. Augustine, New York Doubleday: New York, 1960, p.83.

[viii] Kleinberg, 2008, p.6.

[ix] Hermann Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life.

Translated by Diane Webb, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997, p.3.

[x] L’art de bien Traiter, L.S.R., 1674 quoted in Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985, pp.73-74.

[xi] Mennell, 1985, p.274.

[xii] Ibid, p.266.

[xiii] Ibid, p.268.

[xiv] Ibid, p.268.

[xv] Giles MacDonogh, A Palate in Revolution: Grimod de la Reyniere and the

Almanach des Gourmands. London, Robin Clarke, 1987, p.186.

[xvi] Ibid, p.187.

[xvii] Ibid, p.108.

[xviii] Ibid, p.166.

[xix] Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste. Translated from French

by Tome Jaine. London, Folio Society, 2008, p112.

[xx] Ibid, p.183.

[xxi] Ibid, p.112.

[xxii] Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible: Civilisation and Capitalism 15th-18th Century: Volume 1, Translated from French by Sian Reynolds, London Phoenix Press, p.187.

[xxiii] Ory, 1997 p.444.

[xxiv] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. Translated from French by Richard Nice. London, Routledge Press, 2010, p.71.

[xxv] Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, ‘The biomass distribution on Earth’, PNAS June 19, 2018 115 (25) 6506-6511, https://www.pnas.org/content/115/25/6506, accessed 8/4/19.

[xxvi] Gaelle Gourmellon, ‘Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources’ Worldwatch Institute, August 26th, 2014, http://www.worldwatch.org/peak-meat-production-strains-land-and-water-resources-1 accessed 6/5/19.

[xxvii] Brad Plumer, ‘How much of the world’s cropland is actually used to grow food?’ Vox, December 16th, 2014. https://www.vox.com/2014/8/21/6053187/cropland-map-food-fuel-animal-feed, accessed 6/5/19.

[xxviii] Prof Walter Willett et al, Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, January, 2019. The Lancet.https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext?utm_campaign=tleat19&utm_source=HPfeature’, accessed 8/4/19.

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