By Rosa Runhardt
It’s become a platitude that the French live to eat, whereas the English eat to live. Visitors to both regions certainly remark on the French cuisine’s joie de vivre and the English’s plain fare. A look at the history of food, particularly of the aesthetic matters of taste and preference, shows that this impression has existed since the end of the Middle Ages. But why did the French nobleman by the 18th century enjoy a nouvelle cuisine supper menu consisting of countless hors d’oeuvres and delicate sauces, whilst an Englishman of similar standing still preferred to dine on simple roasts from his country grounds? This essay will review Stephen Mennell’s All Manners of Food (1985), which sheds light on the divergences in how gentlemen of these regions preferred, and still prefer, their dinner.
Pursuing the history of food can be beneficial not just for its own sake, but also for cultural history of science. Emma Spray has shown how knowledge of food can be intimately linked to the science and medicine in a period. For instance, Spray has demonstrated how in the Enlightenment the culinary exploits of the French were reflected in the way they thought about nutrition, including the principles behind digestion and the properties of alcohol (Spray, 2012). Mennell’s All Manners of Food, a classic volume on the topic of English and French cuisine, can provide a basis for such further study; it is recommended by Spray for its extensive bibliography. In what follows, I will present Mennell’s argument, focusing particularly on the divergences in the English and French cuisine in the 18th century.
Set-up of ‘All Manners of Food’
“People very generally have strong feelings not just about what foods should be eaten, but also about how the foods they choose should be prepared for eating. Ways of cooking become woven into the mythology and sense the identity of nations, social classes and religious groups.” (Mennell, 1985: 3) The central motivation for Mennell’s book is his interest in how social groups develop standards of taste. Following the theories of social historian Norbert Elias, Mennell investigates this question by looking at how the dynamics of social interdependence and balances of power were reflected in the cultural domain of food.
All Manners of Food is a historical, comparative analysis of two regions, France and England, which until the end of the Middle Ages had very similar patterns of food consumption. Mennell focuses on England only, ignoring the history of food in Wales and Scotland, as there are far more sources on England. The book starts in the Middle Ages, and goes up to the twentieth century. It is no wonder then that, as one critic of Mennell’s book has eloquently said, the work covers a great number of arguments. It is like “the last meal of a slightly schizophrenic gourmet (…); so rich, dense and pungent that digesting it can become a heroic act.” (Fine, 1986: 503)
The main argument: effects of cultural change on English and French cuisine
Mennell’s discussion of the first breaking point between English and French cuisine is arguably one of the most essential elements of All Manners of Food. This episode took place as a result of the cultural changes during the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century. According to Mennell, during this period the French developed a ‘cuisine of impregnation’, replacing their antique ‘cuisine of mixtures’ by delicate little dishes, more frequently using fonds and sauces than their English contemporaries did. (Mennell, 1985: 102). In England, on the other hand, the meal still centered on pies and joints of meat, as it had done there in medieval times. English cooking did not change much over the ages, whereas French food did.
Traditionally, sociologists argued that these differences were due to English Puritanism. This casual argument links feelings of guilt about appetite and enjoyment of sophisticated dishes to Puritanism. Mennell however quickly rejects this argument and instead gives two new reasons for the divergences in English and French cuisine. First of all, French court-society was compelled towards “conspicuous consumption and the display of increasingly ‘refined’ tastes” (Mennell, 1985: 108) which were then imitated by lower social circles. In England, on the other hand, “the blurred boundaries and closely packed layers of society permitted fashions to penetrate more deeply but they were not so dominated by the tastes and preoccupations of exclusively courtly circles.” (ibid.) The second reason for the differences between English and French cuisine was the higher valuation of country life in England than in France. English gentlemen spent far more time on their estates in the countryside, and thus were happy to eat what their land had to offer. The French, on the other hand, stayed in the city despite owning land in the countryside.
These differences were further enhanced after the French Revolution by the development of a French restaurant culture. When the English aristocracy finally got on the band wagon and opened restaurants of their own, they adopted French tastes. This Mennell calls the ‘decapitation’ of English cuisine, since middle and lower classes no longer had a cuisine to emulate and thus developed a ‘plain’, ‘utilitarian’ diet, which has continued to exist until well into the twentieth century.
Issues with analyses like these are plenty, of course: though Mennell’s work is praised for its extensive bibliography, there are historians, like Jean-Louis Flandrin, who wonder whether his conclusions apply to the actual cuisine, or to the ideas that people had about them (Flandrin, 1988). It must be noted however that this is an extremely difficult challenge to overcome: food by definition only exists for a fleeting moment and so any knowledge of the cuisine of ages past can only be found indirectly, through the representations of people of the time in books, paintings, and so on.
Sources and further reading
• Mennell, Stephen (1985) All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford / New York: Basil Blackwell.
• Fine, Gary Alan (1986) Review. American Journal of Sociology 92(2): 503-515.
• Flandrin, Jean-Louis (1988) Review. The Journal of Modern History 60(1): 128-129.
• Hogarth, William. The Roast Beef of Old England, also called The Gate of Calais. 1748. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London.
• Spray, Emma (2012) Eating the Enlightenment: Food and Knowledge in Paris, 1670–1760. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
There are plenty of sources that will get you started in the history of food literature. I can recommend the Cambridge University study guide by Emma Spray, accessible at http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/research/ftrhn.html. For a more popular introduction into the subject, which gives the reader a chance to taste a slice of history, try William Sitwell’s excellent A History of Food in 100 Recipes, published by HarperCollins in 2012.
Rosa Runhardt has been a research student at the London School of Economics’ Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method since 2011. Her areas of interest include philosophy of social science, measurement and causality. She has a background in mathematics, philosophy and history of science. See also her LinkedIn profile at uk.linkedin.com/in/rosarunhardt and her website at http://www.rosarunhardt.com. You can contact her via email@example.com.