French Feast

Introduction for French Feast

The book you are holding is a smorgasbord of flavors and situations, from the mouth-watering smell of frying onions to the sweet temptation of caramelized sugar and almonds, set in often surprising circumstances. But none of the thirty-one stories in French Feast is really about food; they’re about people. The writers in this collection are framing, through food and our connections with it, some of the most fundamental questions of human existence: who are we, where have we come from, where are we going?

Food can both connect people and estrange them. The tradition of breaking bread is a ritual that cements friendship and builds solidarity. But sharing meals can just as easily put people in unequal, even hostile relationships.

Nadine Ribault’s story “Tears of Laughter” illustrates this perfectly. A large extended family gathers in a country house for a festive meal, but the tensions between them lie just beneath the surface. A man snacks on chocolate after lunch, covertly criticizing his sister for serving too-small portions. Her quirky decision to replace a traditional cake with her favorite tart is seen as the inconsiderate act of a spoiled daughter. The smallest acts cast prickly shadows.
There is a long tradition of writing about food and its associations in French literature. Rabelais’s two sixteenth-century omnivorous giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are among its most memorable characters. Fast-forward three hundred years and the French are still sitting at the table.

Characters eat a great deal in French nineteenth-century novels, and it’s easy to understand why. As Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson writes in her book Accounting for Taste: “To the novelist intent on analyzing the relationship between group dynamics and individual psychology, commensality offers a wonderfully exploitable situation. Meals put groups on display, set the scene for dramatic interactions, and foster unexpected relationships across class, gender, and generations.” Balzac, a glutton in both eating and writing, focused on a recent innovation, the restaurant. Writes Ferguson: “He fixed on dining as shorthand to chart his characters’ relations as they sometimes diligently, often desperately, try to make their way in the world.”

But it was Marcel Proust who most memorably put his finger on the emotional subtext associated with, in his case, a little cake and a cup of herbal tea. When young Marcel took that bite of madeleine, he single-handedly launched the recovered memory industry. Whether or not you have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu, you know about Proust’s use of taste to reconnect with the past as an iconic experience. “Reinvoked everywhere by cultural commentary from literary criticism to cookie advertisements,” writes Ferguson, “the madeleine is surely the most celebrated literary cookie ever baked.”

(In her book, Ferguson reprints a 1989 New Yorker cartoon that shows Proust getting disappointing news. The writer is lying in bed as a vendor with a coffee cart says, “I’m out of madeleines, Jack. How about a prune Danish?”)

In French Feast, people are still making their way in the world, but these are now our people and our world. In collecting contemporary stories for the book, we searched the last fifty years or so for literary glimpses of people as they wake, work, love, fight, and, only incidentally, eat. Loosely grouped under menu headings — appetizers, main courses, and so on — these tales show how widely we cast the net.

In the stories “Bresse,” “The Taste of New Wine,” and “Acacia Flowers,” three authors revisit the past in very different ways. The narrator of “Bresse” kills frogs and chickens as a girl and grows up to become a writer. The compassionate doctor in “New Wine” stands midway between kitchen and living room, but also between his patient’s life and death. In “Acacia” a man joins his mother in a golden haze of memory, but when he describes feeling a sudden stab of longing, we realize she is dead.

Some of the book’s stories are ostensibly about food, but actually about violence. In “Brasserie,” a cozy restaurant is the scene of abuse witnessed and remembered. “Come and Get It” invites an errant lover to a delicious dinner and wild sex — followed by just desserts. In other stories, the cutting edge is subtler, more psychological. “Even Me” and “Cafeteria Wine” are basted with bitterness. “Spinach Should Be Cooked with Cream” and “Here They Are How Nice” lacerate ostensibly happy marriages.

A few of the stories are simply off the wall. In “Beef Steak,” the women of an entire town sleep with a teenage butcher in hopes of getting a special cut of meat. If you’ve ever considered eating your furniture, you’ll get some tips from “The Armoire.” And you may look at cheese differently after reading “Roll On, Camembert.”

Finally, a group of the stories focuses not on what the characters eat, but how. “The Plate Raider” and “Belle du Seigneur” are about manners, good, bad, and excruciating. That’s fitting, since they come from a country that values doing the right thing but also looking good as you do it, that prizes both savoir-vivre and savoir-faire. As Professor Higgins says in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Jean Anderson, Wellington, New Zealand

William Rodarmor, Berkeley, California

Posted on 22 July 2011

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