All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France From the Middle Ages to the Present, by Stephen Mennell, Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell. 380 pp. $24.95 Although many may not believe it, the French did not invent food, nor are they the only people who enjoy fine dining. Gastronomy has always been serious stuff to the French. But historically, the English also have considered eating, cooking, and good taste to be important.
The popular assumption is that these two are poles apart when it comes to food, but Stephen Mennell shows otherwise in this scholarly, well-documented, and comprehensive examination of eating and taste.
``English and French cuisines are not separate,'' he says. They have been in contact and have influenced each other for many years.
Since the English countryside produced as fine ingredients as the French, why did the former country never evolve a more ``refined'' cuisine?
Was the French style more pleasurable? Or did the English gentry eat plain, natural foods because of a puritanical ethic -- denying themselves the pleasure? Is it simply that they liked their food and saw no reason to change? Mannell discusses all these questions. He avoids the food anecdotes and clich'es about great eaters and strange, exotic foods found in many food-history books, but he is not without wit. He gives revealing examples of how food has been influenced over the years by class structure, politics, and industrialization.
He tells why people like foods that society deems desirable. The lavish use of spices in England and France in the Middle Ages, for example, was not intended to mask the taste of spoiled food, but to provide a line with the sophisticated Mediterranean world, he believes.
Commenting on modern processed and manufactured foods, the author suggests a parallel with a theory of Theodor Adorno, a musicologist and sociologist who criticized modern musical culture, calling it ``the regression of listening.''
Adorno's ``regressed listener'' would reject a new musical experience like children who demand only food they enjoyed in the past. Adorno rejected American jazz as very simple, basic themes with endlessly reiterated trimmings.
This is one of the most thought-provoking books on food I have ever read.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.