Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (Scribner, 1983)

I'll frankly admit that most culinary histories make me about as excited as eating steak tartare for breakfast. (Though my cat Balor would find that a very tasty morning repast.) But this book is a definite winner in the telling of food history sweepstakes. Food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton in the utterly charming book takes the reader on a food centered trip in France that covers the crucial period from the medieval ages up to the pre-Revolutionary era. Relying strongly on primary documentation such as newspaper stories, personal correspondence, and journal entries, she creates a lively, fast-paced story that will appeal to both those of a culinary bent and those who are interested in French history.

She tells the tale(s) in more or less chronological order moving from the gaudy feats of the fifteenth century where looks were more important than taste to a small private dinners of the eighteenth century where a delicate touch was desired and finally to the bombastic excesses of Louis XIVth are detailed. Please note that eating habits of the peasants are not detailed. I can only speculate the author either found insufficient documentation to discuss this class, or she didn't find them interesting. (John Bergers trilogy Into Their Labours will give you a good feel for the food of French peasants if you're interested. For thirty years he has been living in a peasant farming community in the French Jura, where he wrote these books.)

You will find a feast of recipes here. My favorite tales are those of Catherine de Medici's possible contributions to the creation of what is now called haute cuisine, and Nostradomus's interest in perfecting recipes for jellies and preserved fruits.

It's doesn't matter if you're looking for interesting recipes, or find culinary history something to feast on, or are just looking for a unique approach to French history: Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 will be a tasty addition to your library. And a useful addition to your kitchen!

[Jack B. Merry]