Monday, July 01, 2019

Pretentious, Precious, Patronizing, Predictable

It's now the moment for Paris in July, a delightful blogging event centered at Tamara's blog Thyme for Tea. I have been assembling a reading list of books about Paris that appeal to me. Alas, the first one didn't meet my expectations, but there are more coming that I'll review much more enthusiastically.

A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love
Affair with Food
by David Downie (2017)
A Taste of Paris by David Downie was my first selection for this reading project. I wanted to like this book. Reviews suggested that it covered several topics that interest me deeply -- French food, historic and current restaurants, Paris food ways, food writing, and more.

Unfortunately, the author's writing style is unbearable: his ego is enormous and constantly in view. His research is pretty limited, and sometimes he makes rookie errors of fact. Worse yet: he relies on a lot of clichés, often-cited anecdotes, and tired jargon.

About research: there's no bibliography, but he often credits Paris à Table: 1846, by Eugène Briffault and a few other sources, which I think he relied on a bit excessively. A Taste of Paris, in fact, contains many reproductions of the illustrations from Briffault's book, and Downie wrote an introduction to a recent translation of it. I'm a bit suspicious. (See my blog post from last July here.)

About the style: it's very self-conscious and self-congratulating in a superior kind of way: lots of sarcasm and supercilious comments. As I say in the title of this post: Pretentious, Precious, Patronizing, Predictable.

The following passage demonstrates what I mean. Downie was discussing the French use of the names of patrons of restaurants for whom famous dishes were named in the past:
"Chef-speak was incomprehensible back then too. Only the maestros and maître d's could master the vocabulary. Was that done on purpose? Probably. Knowledge is power, poetry is more appetizing than explanation, and proprietary nomenclature is flattering to the highborn, rich, or famous. People loved and still love to have dishes named for them." (p. 147)
Downie is a compulsive name-dropper, and often boasts about the high-priced and notable restaurants where he's eaten on his expense account. He loves to use French words when there's no particular reason to do so other than showing off. Check this list of famous restaurants where he's dined:
"I have savored sublime pommes de terre ... at Le Grand Véfour, Spring, Le Fumoir, and other places nearby. I've had excellent oxtails Parmentier at Café des Musées, a great corner bistro in the Marais. But the most remarkable tubers that ever slipped down my gullet were prepared by super chef Joël Robuchon at his first three-star hostelry, Jamin, in the toney 16th arrondissement, a district where potatoes still make Gallic noses rise in disdain. Jamin is no longer, and Robuchon is an industry spread across continents, but his mashed fingerling rattes live on in cookbooks, on the internet and countless Parisian tables, and in the memories of former fans.... As I savored them in the intimate, relaxed dining room of that simple little restaurant in those golden, all-expenses-paid days a quarter-century ago, I spared a thankful thought for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier." (p. 176)
The superior attitude that permeates the book includes the author's contempt for a wide range of people. For example, Downie constantly refers to Bobos: bourgeois-bohemians. That's a term that was current a few years ago (as in the title of a book by David Brooks published in 2000) and now, I think, is way past its sell-by date. Maybe it's still used in France, but this book is in English for an American audience. Here's an example:
"Where the bobos and beautiful people now hang, the displaced peasants, provincials-become-factory workers, street sweepers, hucksters, conmen, muggers, and burglars of old Paris once roamed.... Until the bobos took over in the 1990s, bistros remained bastions of the poor on the pink side of the spectrum." (p. 245-246)
My list of egregious quotes goes on. And on. I hope, however, that this is enough. I regret that I bought this book, and I can't explain why I kept reading it.

This photo for Paris in July is from a wonderful
but unpretentious restaurant where I ate last fall.
Paris in July posts are by Mae at Maefood dot
If you are reading this post elsewhere, it's been stolen.


Debra Eliotseats said...

Very thorough review. I will stay away from this one. Looking forward to seeing what else is on the Paris list.

Iris Flavia said...

Oh, that happened to me also. You still think there must be something good coming when you keep reading, but, nooo, a waste of time!
The last book I brought back was about a donkey, a fictional story, no plan, nothing.... and a fat book, too!

Jackie McGuinness said...

Supercilious! Those rambling sentences!

Jeanie said...

I've read another Paris book by David Downie and I agree with you about his style. It's a pity because it sounds like a great title!

kwarkito said...

bobo has even become in use a rather pejorative term, which precisely refers to these superficial and self-righteous bourgeois and pseudo artists

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

What a disappointment. And it could have been so wonderful. Sometimes I think I've probably read all the good books about Paris and France, and everything else will be a disappointment.

Louise said...

I've not read any of David Downie's books, but have seen a few about the place, and I was most curious about this one. I'd still give it a go, as the topic is really interesting to me.

Tamara said...

Love your honesty Mae! Sad when you pin your hopes on a sense of pleasure and enlightenment to be so thoroughly annoyed. May the next obemon the pile be rewarding.