At the Table

A very well-researched exposition on the art of gastronomy in the 19th century is currently underway at the Orsay museum in Paris until March 3, 2002. Copiously illustrated, this exposition has been called At the Table in the 19th Century. You will see there paintings representing meal-time scenes, the first public posters for canned goods, dining room furniture, plus valuable and refined dishware. There is also a section reserved for cookbooks.

Nineteenth century France saw the birth of gastronomic discourse. That is to say, that eating as a science and as an act of refinement became more and more important. That, I think, is a French trait which is from elsewhere… France still lives under this legacy, which is one of very elaborate cuisine, always looking for new creations made by great chefs with a desire for excellence, and who look, really, at eating as an art. Therefore, there was, as far as cooking was concerned, not so much in terms of the table decoration but in terms of cooking in the 19th century, there was really a sort of gastronomic sanctification of the meal, as if the French had a particular science to it.

In glancing over the exposition set up in rooms with lavish decorations from the former hotel of the Orsay train station, you understand how eating and cooking habits settled into France during that time period. Why? How? This is what Bruno Girveau, curator at the Orsay Museum and Exposition Commissioner, explains:

The first driving forces of change in the eating habits were the technical changes, the technological changes… The exposition opens with the effects of the railroad and of canned goods. The railroad, the train established itself at the start of the 19th century. Then, with the railway lines well established under the Second Empire, this allowed the not only the transport of people but also of goods and products, food products. Therefore, as a result, you could consume products from all regions, including from across French borders. From the colonies or from other countries, you could rapidly transport them, and thus have a little bit to eat from everywhere…and particularly in Paris. The second change, the second driving technical force, was the invention at the very beginning of the 19th century of canned goods by Nicolas Appert, who created preservation, that is, food preservation, first in glass jars and then in tin cans.

The railroad itself abolished distance, and canned goods abolished time. So, the first upheaval, the first driving force, was the technical aspect. Following, we would see a lot of other sociological and demographical changes which altered eating habits.

Among the big changes was the emergence of the restaurant.

So, they ate outside the restaurant. Before they ate in taverns, in hotels, in family-style restaurants, at caterers’ homes, but the meal eaten outside of one’s home was an adventure. The stories and travel guides are very clear. It was difficult to eat well outside of one’s home, except for the aristocrats living in large homes who could travel around with their cook and their food supply. The restaurant was going to bring something new. That is, first of all, hours which were a little more flexible, a personal table with a ceramic dishes, as well as a menu, that is to say, an indication of what you were going to eat and at what price. And you could choose. Thus, it was a whole new line of services which did not previously exist.

The service was also part of this revolution. At that time, they went progressively from French-style service to Russian-style service.

French-style, that means that when you’re at the table, you find everything already at the table, sharing the sweet and the savory, the hot, the cold, the hot in a covered dish, and you eat what is next to you, within arm’s reach. Everything is already ready to eat on the table. Russian-style service slowly started to integrate its way in during the 19th century. With this type of service, everything is prepared in the kitchen and is served to each person at the same time. It is, in fact, the service which we use today.

In private homes, things were also done differently.

It is important to know that before the 19th century, there wasn’t a dining room, so setting the table consisted of putting up a trestle and a tray pretty much wherever one wanted, usually in a room everyone used. So, there wasn’t any room designated for eating, while in the 19th century, which was the great century with the rise of the middle class, meals found their place. They began to be associated with a room which was reserved for dining regularly, with a specific decor, with furniture, a buffet, and a table. The dining room table pretty much didn’t exist before the 19th century, just as the dining room became a part of the home or apartment in the 19th century. It had a status of its own with furniture and dishes. There you have it. I would say that on a philosophical note, it was sort of the rise of cuisine, settling itself in to a definite framework.

$Id: 2002_01_soc.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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