Monday, January 28, 2013

Eighteenth-Century French Kitchens

Kitchen Maid Peeling Turnips by Chardin, 1740
I'm reading A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine by Susan Pinkard. Among many interesting ideas in the book, I was interested to learn of the genre paintings of kitchen scenes by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, which I found here. I love the way that Chardin depicts humble women and their workspace. Chardin's art, writes Pinkard, "came to be admired not only for its verisimiltude but also for its authenticity, that is, the trueness of the subject to itself." (p. 183)

Another Kitchen Maid by Chardin
Woman Drawing Water from an Urn by Chardin
The revolution in taste that the book describes appears cyclical. Cuisine in France became more and more elaborate for a while, and then cooks and discerning eaters would rediscover the taste of fresh seasonal produce, more basic ingredients, and simpler dishes. Sometimes of course these dishes were deceptively simple, requiring hours in the kitchen to produce what seemed to be a plain slice of meat with a glaze on it.

The characteristics of cooking that was modern in the 17th century at times seem to have been discovered anew in the 20th century. "A skillful modern cook achieved variety not through fanciful invention, exotic seasonings, or complex combinations -- paths that had been well trodden by his medieval predecessors -- but by subtly highlighting the elemental properties of raw materials," writes Pinkard. "By the 1650s, proponents of delicate cooking  had evolved a series of techniques and novel recipes -- including a new class of silky sauces that were emulsified with butter, cream, or egg yolk or thickened with roux -- that were intended to highlight the goût naturel of carefully chosen principal ingredients." (p. 64)

Health and taste were both motives in the development of 17th and 18th century cuisine in France; some of the prescriptions also sound as if they were reinvented in the 20th century. One practitioner suggested reducing consumption of meats and alcohol while increasing "vegetables, grains, dairy products, and mineral water." If that didn't make one feel healthy, he suggested "lowering" diets "that sequentially eliminated meats and fish, and then eggs, fruits, and vegetables." Eventually one might end up eating only milk and "seeds such as oatmeal, rice, and sago." (p. 167)

I've also been reading The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France by Sean Takats. The book covers the same era, but concentrates on the responsibilities, the life, the environment, and the reputation of cooks. Most of the cooks worked in private kitchens, as public dining was in its earliest stages at the time. Their pay could be very high -- the cook was often the best-paid employee of the house. They not only cooked but they were responsible for elaborate purchasing of all the food and material for the kitchen. They had to be expert at account-keeping to inform their masters where the large sums of money were going. Many cooks had to be aware of new trends in cooking and theories of health and cleanliness.

The chapter on kitchens was especially interesting. One debate about kitchens at the time was where they should be located. Kitchens were feared; fumes from charcoal stoves and noxious smells from foods that had gone off were clearly dangerous. However, even if a large home or chateau had space, if the kitchen was too far from the dining room the food would arrive cold and extra servants would be required for carrying and serving it.

The Salad Maker by Etienne Jeaurat 1752
The author mentioned the painter Jeaurat's depiction of a salad maker -- L'Eplucheuse de Salade, above -- as showing some of the furnishings and equipment in an 18th century kitchen. Cooking equipment involved a large number of tin-lined copper pots, as well as various strainers, ladles, and equipment for cooking on the kitchen hearth as well as on the charcoal-burning stove that was typical. However, cooks in private homes didn't own any of the elaborate and expensive equipment that they needed to prepare the wide variety of foods that were expected. "A single copper cooking vessel could cost the equivalent of several days of a cook's wages." (p. 70)

On the death of the head of a household, cooks and other staff lost their jobs and the kitchen tools were often sold at an estate sale. Obviously, the records of these sales are now valuable as primary sources, as are the newspaper ads and other notices in which cooks sought new employers.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Fascinating post -- love the art used to capture this important part of life. And interesting that even in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were looking at less meat and more veggies. Fascinating post; bet the book is wonderful!