Did Marie-Antoinette really say, “Let them eat cake?” Probably not those words, exactly. Did Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk who lived in the Champagne region of France in the late 1600s, invent the sparkling wine we often toast with? According to Maryann Tebben, professor of French at Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, there was such a monk, making such wine. But, he probably wasn’t the first.
“Champagne had wine before that; they were red wines, but they still existed,” Tebben said. “But [Pérignon] made it famous and [the French] created a myth around him. You need that story — you can use it to promote the wine and the region. Everybody knows about that origin story when telling the story of French food. You find that story everywhere.”
Tebben does a deep literary, and culinary, dive into the history of French cuisine and how it shaped the country’s culture and global standard for refined, high-end cuisine in her new book ”Savoir-Faire: A History of Food in France.” Tebben, who is also the head of the Center for Food Studies at Simon’s Rock, will read from her book and provide a brief presentation with a Q&A for a virtual audience via Zoom 5 to 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2.
The French professor has also written two other books — including a 2014 tome “Sauces: A Global History.” Her comprehensive culinary investigation into the history of sauces led her publishing house, Reaktion Books, to suggest she use her literary-minded approach of connecting cultural identity with food to French cuisine, specifically.
“This book is essentially the history of French food from the time of the Roman Gaul to roughly present day; it’s a huge topic,” she said. “Of course, one person in one book can’t do it all.”
Tebben, who specializes in Renaissance and 17th-century French literature and culture, looked beyond the most obvious place to start — cookbooks — and focused much of her research on French literature, paintings and films and how food was depicted in these mediums.
“There aren’t a lot of books in English about French food,” she said. “So, my starting point was the history of these stories, thinking about stories of food and how they represent the culture. It’s not just about cookbooks — they only tell you one part of the story. Anything published in the 17th century was elite food because you would have to know how to write, read, or be interested in that food, to use a cookbook.”
What Tebben found in her research was how adept the French were — and still are — at cultivating and promoting a specific worldview of their culture, and their food. Stories, such as the treasured tale of Pérignon, are peppered throughout French literature and artwork, repeated so many times they become part of the country’s identity. Another example of a popular, yet-not-so-true French culinary tale, according to the food historian, is Vatel.
The story of French chef Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671), has long been used to illustrate the honorable, fussy and crazy French chef persona. It was said (and often portrayed, even in movies) that while preparing for a large royal banquet, Vatel realized he hadn’t ordered enough fish to serve everyone in attendance. Unable to take the humiliation and dishonor he brought upon his own skills as a master chef, Vatel killed himself.
But, Tebben found in her research, the story isn’t quite true. He was a steward, not a chef.
“French food is so honorable that he can’t go through with the meal; you hear that story all over the place,” she said. “Somewhere along history, he gets turned into a chef, but he’s not a chef. It’s surprising how much this story is repeated, like a historical fact — the idea of the crazy French chef.”
While the French are excellent at promoting their culture through food, their language and the arts, it’s with good reason, Tebben said, that the promotion has worked so well throughout history: “They have a reputation for making refined food for the elite that is excellent — it’s easy to like and learn about.”
There are a few recipes in the book, but more for historical value rather than helpful how-to’s. The recipes, such as one for a frog-leg torte, aren’t necessarily ones you’d make in your kitchen, but help illustrate the history of the country’s relationship with haute cuisine.
Tebben, who lives in the Pioneer Valley with her husband, said she isn’t much of a cook herself — she has a few favorite signature dishes and a subscription to “Cooks Illustrated” — but has been interested in food since she was a kid, watching Julia Child on television. Child, who is one of Tebben’s “heroes,” has a place in the book. She comes in during a chapter about literary touchstones, images of French food that people return to again and again. This includes braised beef, which Child had a great recipe for, Tebben said.
“I tie [Child] in by illustrating how she helped promote iconic French food,” she said. “She doesn’t dumb it down; she tries to represent faithfully what food is in France. She lived it, she was there. She tries to be more classic than the French, sometimes.”
Another iconic French chef who appears in the book is Jacques Pépin. But the celebrated chef has a special spot: on the dust jacket. After receiving a review copy of the book, he wrote that the book was “a superbly researched and extremely comprehensive history of the complex food of France.”
Asked what it was like to have Pépin praise her book, Tebben replied: “So amazing. ... Talk about an authority on French food. That was coup.”