Monday, June 26, 2017

Peas and umbrellas

In the Middle Ages, vegetables were thought to be indigestible, coarse fare fit for peasants. As for fruit- well, it was only in 1683 that Dr. Nicolas Venette became the first medical authority to say that it was good for you. He thereby made official the message that food writers had begun to preach in midcentury. In companion volumes, the 1651 Le Jardinier francais (The French Gardener) and the 1654 Les Delices de la campagne (The Delights of the Countryside), Nicolas de Bonnefons became the spokesperson for a vision of food and its preparation at the same time completely unlike anything previously imagined and uncannily familiar to us today because of food gurus such as Alice Waters: the finest, freshest ingredients prepared in the simplest possible way. Bonnefons was the first to encourage aristocrats to cultivate their gardens. During the second half of the century, kitchen gardens and fruit orchards sprang up on great estates all over France (the most famous of which, Le Potager du Roi, the King’s vegetable garden, has recently been re-created at Versailles). He also encouraged his readers to savor the full flavor of the glorious primary ingredients that they could produce in this manner. All his recipes concentrated on bringing out “the authentic taste that must be given to each ingredient” and on rejecting the use of extraneous flavorings that “disguise the central taste.” He complained that other cooks give all their soups the same flavor, whereas “a cabbage soup must be completely infused with the essence of cabbage, a turnip soup with turnip.” 

The second half of the seventeenth century was a golden age for fruits and vegetables. Many more varieties than ever before began to be cultivated: sixty kinds of pears were available in France at the beginning of the seventeenth can my, but nearly four hundred in Bonnefon'’s day. Asparagus, artichokes, and spinach originally became important in French cuisine ; the strawberry was mentioned for the first time in a cookbook. Young, tender vegetables were the rage, which explains how the green pea became the superstar of them all. A crate of baby peas was formally presented to Louis XIV at Versailles in 1660; he adored them, and the royal craving set off a mania that lasted for half a century. Comedies lampooned the “madmen” willing to pay any price to get their hands on the first of the season; in May 1696, the King’s morganatic wife, the Marquise de Maintenon, portrayed the court as in a “frenzy": no one could talk about any. thing but the peas “already eaten, being eaten, and about to be eaten.” Better fruits and readily available sugar spelled jams and jellies. Today, French confitures are considered among the finest anywhere; their reputation began along with the craze for fine fruit, with the appearance of a number of books called confiturier: that described ways of drying and preserving-“en leur naturel,” in Bonnefons’ expression-all the newly abundant fruit. 

By the end of the Sun King’s reign, his countrymen were eating many of the dishes that are still featured on the menus of restaurants today. In this respect, no cookbook was more of a trendsetter than Frangois Massialot’s 1691 volume, Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois (Cooking for Royalty and for the Bourgeoisie). This was the next culinary bestseller after The French Cook; it was constantly reedited until the mid-eighteenth century. Massialot’s immensely readable book breaks new ground in many ways. it marks the consecration of a preparation that has played ever since a starring role in French cuisine: the stew. A few stewlike recipes-called hachis or haricots-had appeared in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century’s final decades, the modern word ragout began to be used, no longer as La Varenne still did to mean a sauce or a seasoning added to a preparation to give it what his English translator called a “haut gout," a taste that whet the appetite, but in its modern meaning, “a stew.” 

The new approach to cooking meat might well have helped along by what is surely the seventeenth century’s original culinary invention: the pressure cooker. 


At the end of the 17th century stylish Parisiennes were wearing increasingly elaborate and costly ensembles that made them ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of France's constantly changing climate. Marius' umbrellas gave women the chance to acquire a degree of independence they had not previously known. THey no longer needed to be accompanied by a servant holding something over their heads to protect them from the elements.
Little testimony has survived from three centuries ago concerning the ways in which newly created objects changed the daily lives of those who were the first to own them. In the case of the folding umbrella, we have letters from some of the female consumers who were its most enthusiastic proponents. Thus, in 1712, Louis XIV s Bavarian Sister-in-law, the Princesse Palatine, described for her relations in Germany the new umbrella their one can easily take everywhere, in case rain would happen to surprise you just as you are in the middle of a walk.” 

The princess’s letter shows us that the folding umbrella performed what may have been its most significant initial function outside the urban setting in which its creator had advertised it. The princess makes plain that she considered the umbrella news-worthy mainly because it gave women for the first time ever the chance to do something we now take for granted: to be, whenever they felt like it, on their own outdoors, alone with their thoughts While they explored the gardens and landscapes of their country estates. 

In France during the last decades of Louis XIV ’s reign, women writers were already promoting the idea that we come to know ourselves more fully as a result of an introspective communion with nature, a belief that much later became one of the founding tenets of Romanticism. Perhaps the earliest detailed evidence of the desire for a new way of being in nature is found in the correspondence of the Marquise de Sévigné. She complained bitterly about how often she risked “drowning” when she walked in unsettled weather with only a coat and hat for protection. On June 21, 1680, she described her plan to have little shelters, which she called "umbrellas” (this is one of the earliest uses of the word), put up in strategic spots on her estate. Thus protected, she would be free to spend time looking out “upon infinity.” Sévigne decided that her invention was so important that she should announce it to the relentlessly trendy readers of Le Mercare galam. Because of Marius’s invention, women of the next generation were able to walk about completely on their own in the country whenever and wherever they liked. They were able to gaze out “upon infinity” and then to record what they found there in their letters and their novels. 

Design is sometimes defined as the union of form and function. We know that Marius got the style right since, three centuries later, the folding umbrellas we own today are little changed from his creation. And if we stop to consider all the different functions performed by his pocket invention, we might be tempted to call the umbrellas branded with the name of Jean Marius the most significant design of his very design-conscious age. How many designs have an impact on the history of literature as well as the history of shopping? 

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