When it comes to food, the French don’t mess around. As inventors of the concept terroir — the set of very specific environmental factors relating to food, including what region it’s made in and how it’s made — they take their food very seriously.
The new book by Frenchman Stéphane Hénaut and his American wife Jeni Mitchell, A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment, explains the importance of terroir in France, as well as the origin of ingredients and dishes we typically associate with France. In Hénaut’s own words, “It’s a history of France, as told through their food and wine.”
The inspiration to write this book stems from Hénaut’s effort to get his wife to try pungent, exotic cheeses by telling her enticing stories about their origins. “I just started asking questions about everything else we ate,” says Mitchell. “And what became clear, and what’s most interesting about French cuisine, is that everything you eat and drink are cultural artifacts.”
One chapter at a time, the authors delve into a different dish or ingredient, offering surprising facts about historical figures and the food they ate. For example, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” And the brie you’ve been eating? It’s probably not authentic brie, even if it says “French brie,” due to America’s strict importation laws.
After a hefty amount of research, “it becomes clear that French food didn’t grow up in a vacuum. It comes from other countries, from other people. The cuisine is constantly evolving and constantly accepting new influences from around the globe,” explains Hénaut. So, your delicious café from le bistro actually originated in Turkey. And the warm, gooey chocolate in your pain au chocolat? It’s from Mexico.
While giving credit where its due, the authors counter the notion that to be French, one should eat and drink as French people have always done. This “purist” ideology has been expressed by politicians like Marine Le Pen, who has claimed halal food to be a threat to French cultural values and agricultural procedure.
“In our book, we talk about how customary it is to demonize the ‘other’ because of the food that they eat or don’t eat, so it’s inevitable that politicians, especially on the far-right, would do this,” states Hénaut.
Through 52 bite-sized chapters, the message of the book becomes clear: it’s ludicrous to claim that there is a “pure” French cuisine.
While shedding light on modern social and political issues, the authors take us through through various time periods of France, offering gastronomic tales of revolution, war, and enlightenment. This isn’t your typical history lesson; through their witty and fascinating anecdotes, A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment will leave you hungry for more.