Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre"

1922 edition:
Still available from
Edouard de Pomiane's first food book was Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre: Essai de Gastronomie Théorique (eat well to live well: an essay in theoretic gastronomy) published in 1922. It's never been translated into English and was reissued only once in 1948 to my knowledge. Pomiane's other books have been more influential and better liked: his French Cooking in 10 Minutes has been in print in English for over 50 years and is cited frequently in popular articles about cooking.

I found to my surprise, when I received my copy of Bien Manger, that it is not in fact a cookbook, but a book about gastronomy and gastrotechnie (Pomiane's word for food science), about French and international foodways, about nutrition, and about a number of other subjects. Pomiane expanded on many of these topics in his later cookbooks and in his radio broadcasts, which he began in 1923.

Most impressive about Pomiane's works is his ability to see his subject matter from several points of view at once. When he eats, he is a gastronome, a lover of food, a French gourmet. When he cooks he is an excellent amateur in the tradition of French home cooking and hosting dinners for friends. He never forgets that he is also a physician and a scientific researcher -- as the then-famous food writer Ali-Bab (Henri Babinski) says in the preface to Bien Manger: Pomiane is before all else "un savant biologiste" -- an expert biological scientist. But he is also a doctor, and in a general way, says Ali-Bab doctors fear no one in the area of gourmandise. He praises Pomiane for not proposing the traditional scientific solution to the general question of food: for Pomiane, there's no joy in thinking of a pill to replace all nutrients efficiently. For Pomiane, in my view, there's joy in food, cooking, eating, and understanding the processes.

Most of Pomiane's topics are still of interest to readers, though we now, of course, want to read about the state of the art today, not 90 years ago. The science Pomiane called gastrotechnie has in the last 25 years or so become identified with the modern area called molecular gastronomy, which combines science and cuisine, and whose practitioners include both laboratory scientists and famous chefs. In many of their works, Pomiane is acknowledged as a precursor of their activity. When reading Bien Manger, it's interesting to contemplate how he compares to this recent intellectual trend.

The first third of the book treats the science of cooking and choosing food. Pomiane describes his area of research, that is, the processes of digestion. He treats the chemistry of cooking, the composition of nutritional elements in food (remember, vitamins were a pretty recent discovery at that time), the idea of a balanced diet, and the choices of foods in the order that they appear in a traditional French meal. He gives a charming treatment of what people in various places drink with food (red wine? white wine? beer? water?...).

To contrast with his French-centered discussion, he then offers a chapter about food traditions outside France: a little anthropology to balance all the hard science, I guess. He greatly admired the food of  his own ancestors in Poland and Russia, as well as the foods of Italy and a few other countries. In later works he covers North and South American foodways in addition to those of Europe -- but not here.

The remainder of the book is about cooking. First, "Les Grands Principes Culinaires" (major culinary principles) -- twelve cooking methods, or principles, including boiling, grilling, roasting, braising, frying, and more, ending with pastry-making. A few years later, in La Cuisine en six leçons (cooking in six lessons) Pomiane used some of these principles as the basis for an elementary cookbook. Here, he explains them in detail.

I found the discussion of the chemistry of mayonnaise, an example of the principle of using emulsions in cooking, especially interesting. Pomiane tried to present some very new physical chemistry discoveries about emulsions at the molecular level. He tried to explain exactly, scientifically, what happens when you beat egg yolk and oil together -- a daunting undertaking. I find it ironic that some molecular cuisine writers of the current era are critical of Pomiane because he didn't get this science right by today's standards -- I'm pretty unwilling to accept criticism of someone who didn't know about things that hadn't yet been discovered. (Herve This, I'm looking at  you). In a footnote Pomiane acknowledged a collaborator on this chapter, Marcel Houdard, a young and promising chemist who had died as a result of experiments with radium!

The last three chapters of Bien Manger cover basic foodstuffs (like milk, butter, eggs, meats...), fermented foods (including a discussion of microbial actions), and conserving food by various methods including sterilization, freezing, preserving in alcohol or acid, smoking, and more.

At the beginning of the book, Pomiane asks: Is gastronomy an art or a science? As an art, Pomiane says, gastronomy allows us to find joy in eating. As a science, he implies, we find joy in understanding the processes of cooking and even digesting. I think these appealing ideas permeate the book.

Pomiane's contemporary Curnonsky identified four types of French cookery: "La Haute Cuisine, la cuisine Bourgeoise, la cuisine Régionale, et la cuisine Improvisée" -- quoted in Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking, p.15. I doubt if you need a translation as these terms have been adopted into English. Pomiane's numerous books, beginning with Bien Manger, covered all of these and more.


Debra Eliotseats said...

It is so interesting to peruse old food publications. We can sometimes learn so much from the past.

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
I don't recall off hand if it was Catherine Beecher or another contemporary of her time but I remember one of the early authors making reference to Pomiane. The example of you share about the chemistry of Mayonnaise may even be the same example used earlier.

Whatever the case, I must agree with Debra, there is much to learn from the past in the culiary world. It is sometimes frustrating when it is claimed a "new" discovery has been made in the kitchen when in fact, it was probably first "hashed" out in the lab.

Thank you so much for sharing your "new" book with us Mae...

Mae Travels said...

Catherine Beecher (1800-1878) died around the time Pomiane (b.1875) was born, so I suspect the remark you are thinking of was by another author. Elizabeth David mentioned Pomiane often, and wrote a review of one of his books, so maybe you are thinking of her.