and a Show
By Jason Sholl
of the Restaurant:
The past 10 years have witnessed the extraordinary rise of eating out in America. Exotic bistros, celebrity chefs and theme restaurants have become common even in America's dullest suburbs. And it has become not only acceptable, but de rigeur, for members of the middle and aspiring-middle classes to showcase their gastronomic prowess there.
Rebecca L. Spang's The Invention of the Restaurant traces the unlikely roots of the current culinary obsession. History has emblazoned public eating deep in the Western imagination - from the legendary Greek symposia, to the fateful Last Supper, to the medieval "knights of the round table." Yet according to Spang, the modern restaurant - with its fixed prices, a la carte menu and service on demand - is a far more recent invention than commonly assumed. Modern dining, she contends, emerged in a highly specific location over a very precisely defined time period: in Paris around the time of the French Revolution, to be exact.
The picture Spang paints of pre-revolutionary French cuisine is bleak. During the early 18th century, France - that great culinary motherland of lore - had a reputation for some of the worst food in Europe, and more than one traveler echoed the German nobleman Joachim Nemeitz's disappointment with the cuisine there: "Nearly everyone believes that you eat well in France, and especially in Paris, but they are mistaken." Thanks to the chaotic structure of guild regulation, "the man who made stews could not sell mustard ... the preparer of patés was prohibited from selling coffee," and the cuisine suffered appreciably. Amongst this bouillabaisse of hyper-specialized cooks and caterers, Spang says, the modern restaurant emerged from a simple cup of consommé.
"Before a restaurant was a place to eat," Spang writes, "a restaurant [or restorant] was a thing to eat" - a restorative broth served to fashionably delicate members of the French aristocracy in small public parlors. Distinguished from inns, taverns and cookshops by their individual tables, salutary consommés, and unfixed mealtimes, these establishments had little in common with the picture we might have today of a "Paris restaurant." They sold little solid food and advertised specifically to those too frail to eat an evening meal. Nonetheless, Spang says, the word "restaurant" already conjured an aura of urban sophistication, novelty and mystery that even Paris' cafés were hard-pressed to match.
Early restaurateurs' condensed bouillons presented "a mythical version of sincere, healthful country life which proved acceptable to an urban, elite population." They formed the backbone of a Rousseauian nouvelle cuisine dedicated to "simplicity, delicacy and cleanliness," which quickly caught on with Paris' intellectual avant-garde. "Grandiose as it may sound," Spang writes, "the restaurant was inscribed - right from its beginnings in a tightly sealed soup kettle - in debates about modernity and historical change."