Wednesday, July 25, 2018

French Food Idioms and Origin Tales

If you like to read about the history of France and of its many wonderful foods, I think you will love this book: A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment by Stéphane Hénault and Jeni Mitchell (just published July, 2018). Each brief chapter advances one's familiarity with French kings, queens, courtesans, wars, religious struggles and many more events and personalities, and tells how specific foods originated in each era. Beginning with the ancient Gauls and Romans and how wine came to France, these are delightful tales.

I can't begin to summarize the very rich and varied vignettes about French food and how it is embedded in history. In particular, the authors are fascinated by the way that food gives rise to French "idioms of everyday life." These linguistic echoes of foodways are very amusing, and I've selected some quotations to illustrate this:
  • If you want to come to a compromise over something, you must “cut the pear in two” (couper la poire en deux). 
  • Picking one’s brain might be expressed as “squeezing one’s lemon” (presser le citron). 
  • If you want to convey a sense of “eh” or “so-so” when asked for an opinion on something, you might say it’s “half fig, half grape” (mi-figue, mi-raisin).
  • One particular idiom, say the authors, seems to make no sense at all: ça compte pour des prunes (“it was worth plums”). This expression, they explain, harks back a bit tenuously to the Crusades, the Templars, the loss of Jerusalem, and the conquest of Damascus -- from which plum trees were imported to France. "So this is what the Templars ultimately fought for: plums." (Previous quotes are from page 49, explanation of plums p. 54).
  • Artichokes were thought to have aphrodisiac qualities, which no doubt also enhanced their appeal. There is still an expression today, in fact, avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have a heart like an artichoke), which is applied to people who fall in love very quickly and indiscriminately. (p. 121)
  • The French, they point out, remain greatly enamored of potatoes. In fact, if a French person is feeling in great form, he or she might say “J’ai la patate!” (“I’ve got the potato!”). It’s not clear where this expression comes from, but it’s another indication of how positively French people now feel about a food they once demonized. (p. 179)
Then there's a food-related story about the hat of Pope John XII, who lived in the French city of Avignon -- 
"His longevity was often attributed to one of his strange eating habits: he preferred to eat mainly white food products, such as milk, egg whites, white fish, chicken, and cheese. A gastronomic specialty of Avignon known as papeton d’aubergines, a sort of flan made with the (white) flesh of eggplants and originally shaped like the papal hat, is sometimes said to have originated during his reign." (p. 69)
Also from the same Pope, this food-related expression:
"Another enduring legacy from this era is the French phrase Il se prend pour le moutardier du pape, meaning 'He behaves like the pope’s mustard maker.' It is an expression used to describe someone who, although rather stupid, thinks very highly of himself. Alexandre Dumas tells us that John XXII had a nephew too dim-witted for any responsible position, and so the pope appointed him as his grand mustard maker (John was very fond of mustard)." (p. 70)
The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, as we saw it from the famous bridge.
I also enjoyed some of the origin myths for other famous foods of France, from the croissant to mayonnaise and many more. For just one of the many examples, consider cassoulet, the stew of white beans (which actually are a new-world product) and various meats. Here's the very unproven legend of the origin of cassoulet:
"The most persistent legend regarding the creation of cassoulet takes place in Castelnaudary. According to this story, cassoulet was invented when the infamous Black Prince of England laid siege to the town in 1355, during the Hundred Years’ War. The inhabitants of Castelnaudary decided to put all their remaining food, mainly beans and meat, in a common pot and cook it. Thanks to the magical properties of this dish, born of necessity and solidarity, the French defenders became so powerful that they chased their attackers all the way back to the English Channel." (p. 79)
And how it gets its name:
"Visitors to the town are greeted by a large statue of a woman holding a cassole, the traditional local cooking pot from which the name cassoulet is derived." (p. 79)
Our friend Michelle in her kitchen in Cotignac in the Var region of France, 1994.
Finally, one of my favorite stories from the book is an origin tale rooted in a very small and obscure town where we have often visited a friend:
"Cotignac d’Orléans, a sweet jam made of quince (a hard pearlike fruit, much less commonly eaten today). Originally created by a pastry chef from the southern town of Cotignac who moved to Orléans, it was a medieval delicacy traditionally given to noble visitors to the great Loire city— including Joan of Arc, when she liberated it from the English. For this reason, the bloodred jam is sold in small round wooden boxes that are emblazoned with Joan’s likeness." (p. 104)
One key word: gastronomie (in English, gastronomy).  From the Bite-Sized History (p. 166), we learn that the term was coined in 1801 by a lawyer-poet named Joseph Berchoux (1760-1839). This master word for subsequent food writers appeared for the very first time in his poem titled "Gastronomie ou l'homme des champs à table." (source)

So many good words! Today is Wednesday, so I offer you these French words, expressions, and food idioms for Wordy Wednesday.

UPDATE, October 17, 2018: This is the October selection for my culinary reading group tonight.


Jeanie said...

This is really cool! I think I'd like this one. (Talking about the "white food" reminded me of our potlucks at Ele's Place when I was working there. All the facilitators would bring food for the families and on rare occasions, it would all end up mostly "white." Potatoes, potato chips, cheese and crackers, chicken tenders... not exactly healthy!

Jeanie said...

This is really cool! I think I'd like this one. (Talking about the "white food" reminded me of our potlucks at Ele's Place when I was working there. All the facilitators would bring food for the families and on rare occasions, it would all end up mostly "white." Potatoes, potato chips, cheese and crackers, chicken tenders... not exactly healthy!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating and so much fun. Just the kind of history I like.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Fascinating stuff -- really enjoy seeing the fruits of your reading. Or should I say plums? :-)

Rob said...

Really enjoyed this post! Sounds like a fascinating book.

Abbe@This is How I Cook said...

Love origins of words and sayings. Sounds like a fun book!

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

Sounds like a fun read that would arm us with all kinds of fun trivia to spout about.

Tamara said...

Thanks for reviewing this one for us. It sounds fascinating. I've been studying french for many years (slowly) and our professor does like us to know about some of the idioms like these. I must look this up in one of my semester breaks. PS I like white foods alot too - potatoe, eggs, cheese, chips... comfort food.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds great! That is a riot about "I've got the potato"!!!

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

I could use a brush up on French history and the added food element will keep my attention. Wonderful review . Thanks.

Jackie McGuinness said...

Having grown up in Montreal, my French is quite good. But these idioms are so Parisian!

Beth F said...

I still haven't gotten around to reading this -- so glad it's as good as I hoped it would be.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I have seen this book mentioned in a few places and wondered how it was. It sounds just up my alley, so I am stacking it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! ;-)

Carole said...

Off to check if the library has it! Thanks

Marg said...

This sounds like a fun and fascinating read!! Thanks for posting about it.

*scuttles off to see if my library has a copy*