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Book Review


Flandrin, Jean-Louis, Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France, trans. Julie E. Johnson, Sylvie Roder, and Antonio Roder; foreword to the English-language edition by Beatrice Fink (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). 209 pp, $34.95.

     The culinary historian Jean-Louis Flandrin died in 2001, with a stature in his native France as lustrous as his rich prose. At the Université de Paris VIII (Vincennes) and l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Flandrin was a founding father to the current generation of French food scholars, embodying the interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences begun with the Annales school of historians. Arranging the Meal, first published in France as l'Ordre des Mets, was his final contribution to the discipline, and now appears in the University of California's excellent Studies in Food and Culture series.

     Flandrin begins with the uncontroversial notion that table service "is a cultural rather than natural ritual that has evolved over centuries in most countries, including France." (xix) Flandrin then looks at the change in French dining during the mid-nineteenth century from the classic service à la française—elaborately clustered courses, centered on a bewildering diversity of dishes—to the more familiar service à la russe— with courses carefully circumscribed according to the function of each dish, and centered on each diner's place at table. Granted the long durée of French history, this change is examined in the light of changing fashions in such areas as dietetics, religion, and growing cultural exchange with other parts of Europe. A history of French table service may seem a recondite pursuit, but Flandrin is an excellent missionary for the job. He is bolstered both by his fascinating source material—cookbooks, culinary treatises and menus from the medieval era to the nineteenth century— as well as his idiosyncratic prose, well-captured in translation.

     As Beatrice Fink points out in her introduction, Flandrin's scholarship is a fine balance of "les mets, les mots, et les moeurs"— dishes, words, and mores. (4) Attention to the intersections of language, culture, and cuisine give weight to his methodology. Such seemingly innocuous terms as the "roast" are shown to have had multiple meanings, defined as much by the dish's "function" in the meal as its method of preparation. While a "roast" typically denoted a spitted joint of meat, simply prepared, the addition of ragoût or stuffing could transform a dish from a roast into an "entrée." The distinction between meat roasts and meatless roasts was also crucial to the Roman Catholic culture of France, where fish replaced flesh and fowl at Lent. A fish "roast" was not in fact roasted but boiled au bleu, in court bouillon, and served on a napkin. As Flandrin notes, however, while poaching in boiling water and roasting in hot air are natural antitheses, both fish roasts and fowl are "cooked in their natural element" according to early modern protocol. (39)

     While this book may titillate both mind and stomach, some caveats should be noted. According to Georges Carantino, Flandrin had completed three-quarters of the manuscript at the time of his death, but the book's incompleteness is glaring. Eleven chapters in varying states of completion make up the main body of the text at 125 pages; the remainder comprises an index, notes, bibliography and appendices. The appendices, in particular, contain fantastic material: witness a seventeenth century royal luncheon from Spain, with such delicacies as "empanadas of young pigeons with mutton testicles and marrow." (134) Yet from a world perspective, Flandrin's book would have benefited from more of the cultural comparisons outlined in the published text. A brief discussion of dietetic principles in medieval Arab, Chinese, and Indian cuisines is the only foray made beyond European shores. (136-37) Yet Flandrin's book works best when French cuisine is described through the writings of foreign travelers, or when French observers critique foreign culinary mores. Chapter eleven—"Polish Banquets in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries"— offers the most sustained comparative reflection on food cultures. Predictably, the French looked down upon Polish cuisine, with its predilection for poppy seeds and certain wild mushrooms, both of which were considered poisonous at home. (120-21) Polish custards and thick puddings were in stark contrast to French coulis and sorbet desserts. (122) The Polish attitude towards soup was also considered suspect. While soup was de rigeur at the start of any French table service, Poles consumed it only infrequently, typically as a breakfast dish. Poles evinced little regard to the proper ordering of soup at table, whereas the French began each course with it, according to dietetic principles unconsciously reflected to this day. (119) Flandrin's concentration on Polish cuisine seems arbitrary, although the hybridities of table service in that country make it a good case study. While seventeenth century Polish courses might comprise upwards of twenty dishes, the key element of service à la russe— the carving steward—was already in place. This was certainly an advance over the scrimmage of valets jostling for food and wine at the best-appointed French tables. (124)

     From the outset, Flandrin focuses on elite culture. While he writes in a similar vein to the legendary Fernand Braudel, his approach lacks the latter historian's universal sweep. The source material itself determines what is discussed, since the notion of "cuisine" obtained only to a thin sliver of literate society. Early modern cookbooks inevitably reflect the class prejudices of the time. Dessert recipes, for example, were omitted from early modern culinary treatises, as these dishes were prepared and served exclusively by humble pantry staff. (5)

     While the term "modernity" is studiously avoided in the text, this concept is clearly a central plank of Flandrin's thesis. A Parisian menu of 1894 describes an "intimate dinner" for 160 guests, including such French classics as chaud-froid of ortolans and ducklings in blood sauce. (100) The "intimacy" of this feast is clearly a triumph of the lonely crowd; the riotous assembly of the old French banquet replaced by the discrete anonymity of the modern table. As a case study in culture, table service is a fascinating subject. Flandrin's book vividly illustrates how modern mores communicate among the elite, but begs the question as to how these learned behaviors trickle down or are mimicked by the lower classes.

     Aspects of this book could easily be used in a World History or Western Civ course to structure debate on material culture. The menus are fascinating sources in themselves and could be presented wholesale to students. While the foreign policy of Felipe II transformed the New World, it is nice to know what his court ate for dinner. (132-33) On the whole, however, this is a book primarily aimed at a gastronomic or professionally academic readership. Flandrin was structuralist in his approach to the meal and at times his depth of detail verges on the esoteric. While this book may be read quickly, the quality of the writing makes it more of a midnight feast than an appetizer. It is only a pity Flandrin did not live long enough to complete the manuscript.


Matthew Smith
Miami University


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