The gastronomic meal: the art of eating in good company
The gastronomic meal, such as it has been practiced in France for centuries, is obviously an occasion for eating and drinking well. But it is also a social event, one which structures French life and society, sharing more than just nourishment for the body.
A special alchemy takes place during a gastronomic meal in France; it cannot be fully appreciated unless it is enjoyed in good company. These guests, or ‘commensals’ – literally, those eating at the same table as others – form a table companionship. And, by extension, the French have a strongly held belief that a festive meal is not complete unless shared with others.
The origins of this tradition of gastronomic companionship reach far into the past. Perhaps as far back as the Gauls, who never missed a chance to gather for a good meal. Celebrating birthdays, family reunions, births and deaths, giving travellers a send-off or welcoming them home: any excuse for eating and drinking! And our ancestors’ propensity for feasting developed further still under the influence of the Romans, who measured the success of a meal by its level of merrymaking. Especially at the cena, the collective meal which allowed hosts as well as guests to shine in society.
"Le déjeuner des canotiers" (1880)
revisited by Charlotte de Maupeou
"Le déjeuner des canotiers" (1880)
From Antiquity to the Ancien Régime, from medieval banquets to refined Renaissance meals, the culture of ‘good eating in good company’ steadily spread and developed. For a long time, it was the privilege of kings and the aristocracy and reflected the established social order. During this meal, the lord distributed to his closest guests not only the best food, but also the most honorific titles. As time went by, the gastronomic meal as an occasion to share in the pleasure of the senses and good conversation, progressively spread to the bourgeoisie and from there to the rest of the population, accelerated by the French Revolution.
Today, although the French no longer structure their day around table etiquette, with the exception of official meals and certain institutions, they have retained certain mutually understood rules, such as the number of meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Dinner, one of the last bastions of family social time, is especially important.
Meals naturally bring people together around the table, all the more so when they are gastronomic, celebrating one of life’s milestones. Yet another reason – should you need one! – to continue to cultivate the pleasure of sharing good food and drink, whatever the occasion.
It’s often said that the French love talking about food and cooking. The art of conversation itself is a time-honoured one in France. For the gourmet Grimod de la Reyniere, in 1808: “An animated conversation during the meal is no less salutary than agreeable; it favours and accelerates digestion, while keeping the heart joyful and the soul serene.” Such is its importance in the gastronomic meal of the French. But the host needs to know how to manage the table and steer guests on to topics that can be treated safely: literature, science, the arts, the theatre or gastronomy, for instance. At the end of the 19th century, Baroness Staffe reinforced this advice in her own book by explaining that the conversation must be focused on neutral, agreeable and amusing subjects, and that politics must be carefully avoided. This is a good rule of thumb even today, if a meal is to remain a joyous occasion.
The art of being a host
“To invite somebody is to take charge of their happiness for the entire time they are under your roof,” wrote Brillat-Savarin in the 1820s. In the 17th century, “faire bonne chère” (literally “to eat well”) included the warm welcome and friendly face of the person who was hosting the meal. To properly entertain guests is to seat them at a beautiful table, which is covered with white linen and delicate tableware. After all, the French gastronomic meal is also the art of setting the table. The creation of porcelain manufactures, including that of Vincennes in 1740 (transferred 16 years later to Sèvres) contributed to the development of tableware and its magnificence. The appearance of the first dining rooms in the great mansions of the 17th century, and their consolidation over the following centuries, also dramatized mealtimes. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution took its place at the table by modernising the way objects and cutlery were made, giving everyone the opportunity to have silverware, glassware and tableware at home, while creating new utensils (salad tongs, asparagus forks and so on) that added even more sophistication to the art of eating and entertaining at home.
Texts written by Patrick Rambourg