In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Maryann Tebben of Bard College at Simon’s Rock reveals French cuisine’s most French dish.
Maryann Tebben is a professor of language and literature at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Her teaching and research interests include seventeenth-century French literature, women writers, and French and Italian writers of the Renaissance. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.
Dr. Maryann Tebben – French Cuisine
Last year, UNESCO recognized French gastronomy as part of the ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’, an inextricable part of French identity. And the dish that most closely reflects French national identity in French literature? You might be surprised to learn it’s not an ethereal soufflé or an elaborately sauced creation. It’s not pommes frites, and most definitely not French fries. What is it? The pot-au-feu -- a boiled beef with vegetables.
From Mme de Sévigné to Flaubert to contemporary authors, pot-au-feu is tied to the feminine or the maternal, “she who tends the pot on the hearth”. But it can also be celebratory, as in a 20th-century novel about a French gastronome who wins an international competition with a pot-au-feu served with foie gras and veal stock.
The pot-au-feu is a culinary manifestation of the French motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Its “liberté” lies in its mutability, as it is open to variations in ingredients and adaptable to high and low cuisine. There is a version of pot-au-feu for every region of France, from the potée in Lorraine to (arguably) bouillabaisse in Marseille. It is accessible to all classes--its égalité--and it encourages family and friends to share a meal bathed in the glow of the metaphorical hearth--its fraternité.
Last year’s UNESCO award does not canonize a specific dish or technique, but is an appreciation of the experience of convivial eating--the pleasure of the table--that French cuisine encourages and fosters. French food in French literature, as a manifestation of the French identity and cultural imagination, is not a matter of complicated, fanciful, or intimidating dishes. In literature as at table, truly French food draws the diner into a shared experience, meant to be savored.