Journal Issue Review: Food and France

Special Issue: Food and France: What Food Studies Can Teach Us About History. Bertram M. Gordon & Erica J. Peters (eds). French Historical Studies 38, 2 (April 2015): 185-362.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

French historical studies centered on food can teach anthropologists a lot about gender, food habits, and class-based notions of a “proper meal”.  This special issue of French Historical Studies offers some delicious readings of particular interest for food and gender courses or lectures.  For appetizers, the introduction by the editors contains a good working bibliography on food-history and food-studies source materials in this amplifying field.  For a main course, food anthropologists can choose from a menu of five historical articles (four in English, one in French; with excellent abstracts in both languages).  The first is a cultural history of coffee.  The second (in French), on seventeenth through early nineteenth century notions of gourmet food product “terroir” and associated political-geographic connections with gourmet markets and tastes is very well crafted, and provides a good historical reference point from which to compare later conceptual and historical writings on this topic.  The third, on Parisian workers’ lunch away from home during the 19th and early 20th century, and the fourth, on female garment workers’ “Midinette” (lunch) behavior, describe in great detail the eating establishments that served workers, with their menus and prices.  Together, they communicate from nutritional and sociocultural perspectives the plight of the undernourished working girls, who were often hungry for small luxuries (a fashionable accessory) that competed directly with food.  Particularly the literary evidence suggests that these slender and allegedly “coquettish” maidens, who were probably very hungry, sometimes put moral reputations on the line in order to grab a bit more mid-day sustenance offered by enticing male companions. These articles provide excellent discussions and supporting evidence regarding what constituted “proper meals” and what substitutions were made (or which foods were eliminated) under conditions of financial duress.

Continuing this theme of expected multi-course meal structures and comparative duress, the final article documents the menus, food-sourcing regulations and circumventions, clientele, and politics of Black Market Restaurants during World War II.  It documents how the politically connected and influential French elites, as well as German officers, dined extremely well, despite food shortages, official rationing, and horrendous hunger among the French masses.  It adds to a growing literature on food and war.

Returning to the initial case study as a beverage course, anthropologists can use this history of coffee and its associated class and cultural entailments in France as illustrative of a holistic approach, which uses a wide range of primary political, economic, medical and nutritional, periodical, and literary sources.  Anthropologists might be frustrated, however, that the evidence-filled article does not get around to discussing coffee’s (medical) humoral value(s) until near the end.

As a set these papers effectively demonstrate the ways studies of food are contributing to new historical and anthropological understandings.  In the words of the editors’ introduction: “People’s hunger for any kind of food under conditions of deprivation or for more appetizing dishes when times are better provides a new angle from which to view questions of nationalism, global networks, gender, race, ethnicity and class.”  A 16 page compilation of recent writings on French food history completes the volume.

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Filed under food history, France

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