A lively, informative journey through France's culinary past; Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press. $35 cloth.
''What! one may perhaps say, yet another work on cookery? For some years now the public has been inundated by a flood of writings of this kind.'' So wrote the author of a cookbook published in 1759, ''Le Manuel des officiers de bouche,'' and it is a sentiment we often share today. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton begins her own book with this quotation, but hers is not merely ''yet another work on cookery.''Skip to next paragraph
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''Savoring the Past'' is a serious study of French culinary history from the middle ages to the French Revolution. If readers expect a derivative or dry treatment, they will be pleasantly surprised.
Mrs. Wheaton has based her book on close readings of early surviving cookbooks, comparing different editions or versions whenever possible to observe changes and trends.
She has examined diaries, letters, and account books and has read extensively in the history and literature of the period to illuminate her - and ultimately our - understanding of how people cooked, ate, and lived.
The subject of culinary history is a vast one and, she notes, a ''largely uncharted terrain.'' Seemingly small details lead to larger ramifications, such as fast days involving seasonal supplies, malnutrition, trade routes, and economics.
Mrs. Wheaton commands this overwhelming amount of material with an informed and original mind. She considers often repeated stories - for example, Catherine de Medici's supposed influence on the development of French cuisine - within the wider context of European civilization and on the hard evidence.
Her book is scholarly and at the same time engrossing. Whether it was prepared for royalty or ordinary people, the taste and smell and appearance of food are basic to us all.
This sense of immediacy comes partly from the author's keen humor. Also responsible is her writing style, at once refined and exuberant.
As in her opening quotation, Mrs. Wheaton often draws parallels to modern cooking. Readers may be amused that, as practiced by 18th-century chefs, ''la nouvelle cuisine, then as now, is described as both fresh and refined, but it is neither simple nor cheap.''
The title is aptly chosen, since Mrs. Wheaton trained in classical French cuisine and has tried many of the recipes.
''It is my hope,'' she writes, ''that as the richness of France's culinary past becomes known, more people will try to cook old recipes.''
A selection of recipes, in her translations and sometimes also in the original French, follows her chronological history and encourages readers to taste for themselves.
The University of Pennsylvania Press has produced a handsome volume with many black and white woodcuts and engravings.
Mrs. Wheaton, whose background is in art history, gives full captions explaining, for instance, the particulars of an 18th-century noodle factory.
The book also contains an extensive bibliography listing all sources, medieval to modern. In addition to the general index, a separate ''Cook's Index'' gives references to ingredients, equipment, techniques, and recipes.