fair dining


Dine Like Rabelais

(Till the Bill Comes)
by E. Rothstein

  • Review of

    and the Modern Gastronomic Culture.

    By Rebecca L. Spang . Harvard University Press.

    Review originally pub-lished in "NYTimes Shelf Life," Oct. 7, 2000.
  • B efore sitting down at an inn to eat a meal he couldn't pay for and setting off on a journey to Paris he couldn't afford, the destitute Rabelais ostentatiously put aside a few packages that were sure to attract attention. they were labeled "poison for the king and "poison for the dauphin."

    When the innkeeper found them after the meal, he immediately had Rabelais arrested and transported to Paris , where he was welcomed by the king with hearty laughter at the free trip and the bill-avoiding scheme.
    Since then, we are told by Rebecca L. Spang in this pleasingly spiced history of the restaurant, any occasion when the bringing of a check has led to surprise or embarrassment has been called "le quart d'heure de Rabelais," Rabelais's quarter-hour. For him it ended in triumph, but for others the 15 minutes have brought far more discomfort.

    After the French Revolution, for example, in June 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette tried to flee France in disguise and stopped to eat at Varennes, where they were royally served by a restaurateur appropriately named Sauce. Varying degrees of gluttony have been ascribed to that last supper, but some accounts imagine the king's arrest as a classic Rabelaisian quarter-hour: as the check is presented, the portrait on the money is seen to bear a close resemblance to the corpulent diner.

    But the settlement of accounts is always a bit awkward, and these anecdotes, with their elements of duplicity and disguise, only emphasize how much of the restaurant experience -- the fresh linen, the genuflecting servants, the artfully prepared dishes -- really is a masquerade . The restaurant is a space that is neither private nor public; everything costs money, but the pretense is that nothing does; the food is freshly prepared, but there is no sign of cooking.

    The arrival of the check pulls the masks away: all of this is illusion, a staged drama. Your servants have moved onto other customers, your stained tablecloth is hastily hidden. Louis was seen to be the king he was trying not to be; the rest of us are seen not to be the kings we were trying to be.

    But how has this restaurant ritual come to be? And why does it have this form? Such questions are now familiar in works of cultural and social history. Western institutions and customs are treated as anthropological artifacts packed with unexplored meanings.

    Ms. Spang, who teaches modern European history at University College, London, adds to the genre without falling prey to its jargon. The ingredients are a bit unsystematically combined, but they are there in all their strangeness: the birth of the French "gastronomer" (the first of whom, in the early decades of the 19th century, thought it was far more rewarding to concentrate on " the stupidest goose than the sweetest woman"); the impenetrable menus (what, Ms. Spang wonders, is pigeon g la crapaudine" given that "crapaud" is a toad and "rapaudine" a disease of sheep?; the private "cabinets" in 19th century Parisian restaurants (in which fairs and assignations were consummated before or after the consommé).

    Most histories until now, she writes, have argued that the restaurant had its origins in the years after the French Revolution when the unemployed cooks of the aristocracy set up shop in a new bourgeois universe.

    But, she points out, the restaurant s origins developed out of a "cult of sensibility in the middle of 18th century . Unlike an inn or a tavern with community tables, scheduled mealtimes and an atmosphere of raucous and perhaps unsavory company, the restaurant was specifically a place on went not to eat . It was a place where customers who suffered from delicate dispositions and weak chests would literally be restored.

    A restaurant was not originally a place to eat but the dish being eaten: a broth with purported medicinal properties , cooked in a sealed pot in which the essences of meats and vegetables were turned into a concentrated, restorative liquid. A restaurant served restaurants while offering its discerning clientele: small tables, private rooms and flexible mealtimes.

    These establishments, in Ms. Spang's telling, had a difficult time after the French Revolution, when a revolution in gustatory habits included populist potluck community dinners eaten in the streets. In contrast the restaurant could seem aristocratic, even corrupt . So its precious atmosphere began to change.

    Menus expanded and were codified. In the sybaritic years of the late 18th century the restaurant became a refuge from the demands of public life . In its mirrored rooms, where diners could contemplate one another along with their food, a new art form, gastronomy, took root. The doctrine of art for its own sake was supplemented by food for its own sake.

    But Ms. Spang asks, "Was it really the food that attracted people to restaurants?" She suggests instead that restaurants offered "a prime arena for the anxious interplay of hierarchy and democratization characteristic of modern social life."

    A young American woman novelty of restaurants in 18th-century Paris, wondering how to act and feast her eyes, wrote, "It really requires some practice." The restaurant hid from view the swill and sweat of cookery, lustful eagerness of human appetite, the snobbery and envy of social life , and cloaked it all in finery and manners. At least until that final Rabelesian quarter-hour.
    Dine Like Rabelais (Till the Bill Comes)
    by E Rothstein
    Pub. "NY Times, Shelf Life, Oct. 7, 2000."
    Paris and the Modern Gastronomic Culture
    By Rebecca L. Spang. Harvard University Press. 325 pages. $35

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