Writing about food and how it is prepared is by no means the province of the twentieth-century author. Surviving clay tablets from Mesopotamia ca. 1700 BCE reveal the foods eaten by the people of the land between the two rivers; these works were transcribed by Jean Bottéro for his Plus vieille cuisine du monde, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan from the original French into English as The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Bottéro presents the various dishes in a way that allows an ambitious cook to attempt to re-create the cuisine. Bottéro's volume also presents evidence for a brigade culinaire—i.e., hierarchical arrangement of kitchen staff—that was in place long before French kitchens entered the picture. Another often-cited early cookery text is De re coquinaria (often called Apicius), which was compiled for use by cooks in Roman kitchens and yields a rich picture of Roman cookery and literature. Often misattributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, De re coquinaria is likely a conglomeration of earlier texts that may have been collected, in the form that is known today, by one Caelius Apicius.
Later historical periods yield a number of important cookery texts, including Le viandier, which has been dated to around 1300 and first appeared in print ca. 1486. The original author is unknown, but a later edition by Taillevent (pseudonym of Guillaume Tirel), one of the earliest recognized French master chefs, was in circulation in manuscript form in the mid- to late-fourteenth century. As with De re coquinaria, Taillevent’s book may be a compilation of earlier works. Taillevent’s style of cooking and writing influenced cookery and cookery texts for many centuries after his death in 1395.
Writing about food, cookery, and recipes is a venerable tradition. Food writing and criticism came into full flower in France in the period immediately after the French Revolution and continued to thrive in the Napoleonic period as chefs, no longer employed by the aristocracy, brought their cooking to ever more elaborate restaurants in Paris and other large cities in Europe. Whereas both Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière and Alexandre Dumas were highly influential as gastronomes in this period, the classic volume on gastronomy from the period is Physiologie du goût by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The Physiology of Taste (as it is known in English) is a discourse on the pleasures of the table. Brillat-Savarin was a scholar of law and chemistry as well as of food; it was he who said “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Brillat-Savarin examines food with a scientific eye and the culture of dining with a heightened awareness. The English translation by M. F. K. Fisher is a special delight as she weighs in with incisive and amusing commentary in the text. Physiologie has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1826. In 1833, Antoine Carême published L’art de la cuisine française au XIXe siècle. Though he completed only the first three (of five planned) volumes, Carême still managed to squeeze in table settings, menus, hundreds of recipes, the history of French cookery, and even suggestions on how to organize a kitchen. The Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner, edited by John Porter (1834), derived from Carême's French original, is available in reproduction. Carême was known primarily for his work in sugar confections, but served as chef to Talleyrand and, briefly, Napoleon Bonaparte. Carême was an early exponent of grande cuisine, the elaborate style of cooking that was widespread among the elite until its simplification by Georges Auguste Escoffier in the early twentieth century.
Escoffier published Le guide culinaire in 1903. This book was groundbreaking in that it embraced the grande cuisine of earlier centuries while modernizing it for contemporary tastes and service styles. Le guide culinaire is still considered essential reading for chefs and is often a required text in culinary schools. The major culinary textbooks discussed later in this essay have their roots in Escoffier’s Guide. La repertoire de la cuisine, published a decade later, might be referred to as a “hip pocket” Escoffier. It was written by Thomas Gringoire and Escoffier’s acolyte Louis Saulnier as a quick-reference guide to Le grande cuisine. A quick guide to hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes in the classic canon, this tiny volume assumes a culinary education, because it is really just a list of significant ingredients and garnishes for the great dishes presented in Le guide culinaire.
What has become known as nouvelle cuisine is often said to have been invented by Fernand Point at his restaurant La Pyramide in Vienne, France. A classic in French gastronomy, Point’s Ma gastronomie, first published in the late 1960s, is a provocative and smart take on cuisine. Complete with more than two hundred delightful, inventive recipes gleaned from Point’s meticulous kitchen notes, the compilation gives the reader an accurate picture of a great chef’s mind, energy, and creativity.