Early visitors to Paris, unless they were guests of the aristocracy, reported no outstanding culinary experiences. Before the storming of the Bastille, there was only one good restaurant in Paris – the Beauvillier’s, founded in 1782. This changed when the unemployed chefs of the beheaded nobles launched themselves into the hospitality industry. The upper middle class got a taste of sumptuous food and as early as1820, the number of restaurants mushroomed to three thousand. During the Second Empire, Paris boasted twenty thousands cafés and restaurants. By the middle of the 19th century France achieved its status as the paradise for gastronomers.
What made France, and notably Paris, the cradle of haute cuisine? The main reason was that unlike the males of other nations, the Frenchman did not consider matters of food unmanly. Approached with the same seriousness men devote to science, cooking and eating were–and still are–one of the main topics around the table. Dedicated gourmets and culinary critics discussed the matter at length. The cooks themselves became theorists and many put their pens to paper.
“Because of the art we practice,” a famous chef wrote, “we have the right to respect and consideration because cooking can and must march hand in hand with the liberal arts.”
The illustrious chef Carême claimed that cooks were in fact doctors, with far more influence on their employers’ well-being than the charlatans that posed as doctors.
Dining became worshipping at the altar of food and as such required a set of rituals.
“One should never talk of politics at table,” admonishes Le Gourmet magazine in the 1830’s. “The conversation should always be light, so as not to distract from the main interest, which is the food. In a dinner of knowledgeable people, the arrival of soup is followed by a silence. Until the third course, there should be no talk about anything except what one was eating, what one has eaten, and what one will eat. But after one has eaten well, one has a duty to make witty conversation.”
In fact, the acquisition of a good recipe became a noteworthy event even among the top artists of the era and could make and break the reputation of such a giant of literature as Alexander Dumas.
Judging by the proportion of advertisements for indigestion and constipation pills of the era, the culinary excesses, both at home and in restaurants, took their toll on the digestive system. To remain true to themselves, the French cannot equate food with vulgar indigestion. The correct term is “la crise de foie”, although a foreigner cannot imagine why only liver should be mentioned in a process in which all parts of the digestive system rebel with equal force.