Friday, November 20, 2009

An Old Guide to Paris

"Liberty, Equality, Gastronomy: Paris via a 19th-Century Guide" by Tony Perrottet describes a walk through Paris in search of restaurants and food shops of 200 years ago. His subject, Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, wrote a series of guides called the Almanachs des Gourmands during the Napoleanic era. Grimod wrote of "delicatessens, pâtissiers and chocolatiers — including the first reviews of an alluring new institution called le restaurant." A slide show features an image (right) that has a chance of depicting Grimod along with several mouth-watering images of Perrottet's dining experiences.

Perrottet's article describes his recent week-long stay in Paris. He visited the Palais Royale -- back then, a gourmet hangout, now, not so much. He ate some meals in historic restaurants, and he searched for the former locations of no-longer existing food establishments.

Who was Grimod? His guidebooks, which appeared in 1805 and 1810, have never been translated into English, so he's little known to American foodies -- Perrottet explains:
Grimod wrote his guides at a pivotal culinary moment, when Paris was flush with money from Napoleon’s imperial conquests and establishing itself as the gourmet capital of Europe. Filled with celebrity chefs like Marie-Antoine Carême, who served in the royal kitchens of Alexander I of Russia and the future George IV of England and other notables while also writing several classic cookbooks, it was also incubating the new culture of the restaurant, named for the soups called “restaurants” (restoratives) that were initially the new dining places’ staple. Unlike the old inns and taverns where food of variable quality was laid out in a family-style buffet, restaurants offered patrons private tables and the chance to choose fine meals individually prepared. They became tourist attractions in themselves, vying with one another in their opulent décor and presenting Parisians with dozens of fresh and exciting dishes printed on menus the size of newspapers.
I was captivated by this article, which combines historic detail with enjoyable details of a modern visit to Paris. I haven't been there recently -- this makes me want to get back there. And while Grimod, as noted, doesn't figure in much popular food and travel writing, I've definitely heard of his books in reading more serious histories.

The article, available online, will be in next Sunday's New York Times travel section.

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