A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Do you follow one of my favorite authors? David Downie, a native San Franciscan, lived in New York, Providence, Rome, and Milan before moving to Paris in the mid-80s. He divides his time between France and Italy. His travel, food, and arts features have appeared in leading print and on-line publications including Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Saveur, Epicurious.com, and Gault & Millau, the premier French food guide. He is the author of over a dozen nonfiction books, including the highly acclaimed Paris, Paris and A Passion for Paris. David and his wife, photographer Alison Harris, create custom walking tours of Paris: www.parisparistours.com. His author website is www.davidddownie.com

I've long loved his books on Paris, for their illumination of a city so many people love. He is a consummate researcher, his books brimming with details I'd never known before, but he's also a storyteller - I can't put his books down. So let me share his new book (as always, I stayed up WAY too late reading it), A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food.

A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food

A Taste of Paris is that rare book that combines history with an immensely readable style. Think of how Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton brought US history to life - Downie's book does the same, but with a much broader scope (and no music, alas) - that of several thousand years, and a wide range of social, cultural, and gastronomic changes. Dating from c. 53 BC until today, Downie shares the places and spaces, people, and recipes that have influenced food and eating in Paris. Downie names the Ile de la Cite spot ground zero in the "edible and drinkable epic of Paris," and throughout the book, he shares architecture, food, wine, history, and more.

"...the city of Paris itself grew like an oyster shell, in layers, built from the intermingling of imported styles, merging the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, and so did the culture that produced the often-complicated delicacies and refined nectars Parisians and visitors adore today or prefer to fashionably disdain as unworthy of past greatness."

Downie delves into history, detailing important people, ingredients, trends, and more in an interesting, readable way. Everything is included - recipes, menus, restaurants, food writers and critics, chefs, humble and noble food, and more, all written engagingly, as if he was talking to a friend. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I was constantly hungry for perhaps archaic dishes - or the company of someone long passed. (Once you read this, you might have to rethink who you would choose for that "invite 3 people from history to dinner" game.) You might also, like me, wish to follow in Downie's footsteps, as he purposefully wanders the city of light - you'll never look at Paris the same way again. You'll love this book, and find yourself getting extra copies for your friends who love food, or France, or both - especially since your copy will be dog-eared and much-read. Highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Downie, and ask him about his book, inspiration, history, research, cultural changes, and more. Here's what he had to say...

Author David Downie. We chat with him about his new book, A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food

Please tell us about your new book, A Taste of Paris...
A Taste of Paris is a freewheeling, entertaining history of food, wine, and fine dining à la Parisienne. The narrative follows the cityscape, from the Ancient Roman core of Paris outwards, creating what I call a "culinary topography" covering 2,000 years. I take readers by the hand and show them Paris today, telling the city's story as we go, which is why the book doubles as an insider's guide to food and dining in Paris in 2017. One big question I ask is, how did gastronomy become a highbrow activity in Paris over 200 years ago and why is the love of food and wine still considered a bona fide intellectual pursuit to this day? The evolution of mere hedonism into the cult of food as high culture was spearheaded in the private dining rooms, literary salons, and pioneering restaurants of the city by a certain Grimod de la Reynière and Brillat-Savarin, two fascinating historical figures and legendary eaters. Their lives and times feature large in my book.
What inspired you to write this book?
A number of things, starting with my life-long personal and professional interest in the food culture of the city, and, more recently, the virulent attacks on French cuisine and the food experience in Paris by a handful of American food writers who seem to want to turn an orange into an apple, the Big Apple. Paris is fine as Paris, I don't think it needs to become New York, and in some ways I wanted to dig deep, then rebut the assaults when they prove inaccurate and sometimes downright nationalistic and malicious.
We're all about the research - what were the joys and challenges involved in researching and writing A Taste of Paris?
The challenges and joys were one and the same: how to write a 2,000-year history in 80,000 words in the first place and do it without putting on 30 pounds. I managed the first part, somehow, but I did eat and drink an awful lot and I have had to buy a new wardrobe! I did lots of original research, not only in libraries and archives—that was easy. I walked 10 miles or more a day revisiting the great food sites of Paris, the shops, markets and restaurants, the cafes and butcher's shops, and I put together an itinerary that reflected the evolution of the food culture in the city over the millennia. The correspondence between the physical city and the history is not perfect when taken in chronological terms, but is pretty close. It was fun, exhausting, and engrossing.
What might surprise readers about the history of food in Paris?
The extent of the Ancient Roman (and Renaissance Italian) influence. Just a couple of examples: the Parisian (and French) cult foods snails, frog's legs, and oysters were all Ancient Roman cult foods and the eating of them and another "French" food was introduced by the Romans. That other food is, of course, foie gras: the French did not invent it, not at all. The best foie gras in the world may come from France today, but it's definitely an ancient Mediterranean specialty. If you skip forward to the 1500s and 1600s, when French food finally started emerging from the Middle Ages, nearly everything—from the table settings to the ingredients and techniques, the art of pastry making, and so forth—came from Italy.
What cultural changes in Paris have shown up in its food patterns?
I would turn the question around and ask what cultural changes have not shown up the city's food patterns? The basic French menu, if you will, in Antiquity and again in the Renaissance and the modern age (meaning, from the 17th century forward) reflect the influence of Rome and Spain and the New World. One example. Many French people think potatoes are a French plant or that any rate it was the French who first discovered how to make them palatable, thanks to Parmentier in the late 1700s. They take steak-frites to be a birthright and a national icon. The truth is they only really started eating beef and potatoes in the 1800s and steak-frites appears at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. The history of eating in Paris shows that the culture of the country and of its food is a real hotchpotch, a mixed bag. That's why the notion that French food and French ways of eating need protection from UNESCO is ludicrous. France has always been—or was until recently, perhaps—open to outside influences. It is a richer, better place thanks to the foods and food cultures of other countries and continents.
What's up next for you?
A diet, a long hike—I once walked for 3 months across France and am ready to do something like that again—and fiction. I'm working on a novel.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
My hope is that the bellicose leaders of the world sit down and share a meal together, a real meal, in an informal, relaxed setting, and discover that food diplomacy, that being around the table together, is a great way to solve what appear to be unsolvable issues. Bon appetit!

Want to catch Downie on his book tour? You can find information here:

Want to hear more from Downie? Here's a recent podcast he did with Heritage Radio Network's Linda Pelaccio, called A Taste of the Past.