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The Roots of Our American Culinary Tradition


French cuisine has significantly shaped how we think of and talk about food.  The French were the first people in the western world to conceptualize food as more than simply sustenance. To the French, food is art!  They invented cooking methods and dining traditions that are still in wide practice today.  In the process, they permanently influenced American culinary tradition.

At the end of the Middle Ages, French cooks began replacing the strongly flavored medieval sauces with milder, more complex sauces. They also ceased the medieval practice of adding sweet flavors to savory dishes such as meat.  Remember mince meat pies?  French chefs emphasized the taste of food over its healthful properties and this became known as nouvelle cuisine. Vegetable dishes, thought of as peasant food became increasingly popular with the upper classes.  And people began to designate special rooms in their homes simply for the purpose of dining.  You guessed it.  Our present day dining rooms come from the French tradition.  In the 1700’s the French started the practice of using forks and plates.  It wasn’t long before people were going to the first restaurants – a French word!  

In early French cuisine, many different dishes would be prepared and they would all be brought to the King’s table in at the same time.  This way of presenting food was named service en confusion.  One of the defining characteristics of a French meal today is that there are several courses, served in succession.  This concept was introduced at Versailles by King Louis XIV.  Instead of having the food served ‘in confusion’ as before, the Sun King preferred that the servants bring one dish at a time.  And that is where we get the 7 course meal.   Our meal course names come from this style of service:  appetizer, entrée, dessert, etc. 

For centuries, French food has symbolized high-quality cuisine in American culture.  So, high-end restaurants, whether they serve French food or not, often hire “classically trained” chefs and classically trained here means trained in the French tradition.   In time, words like infuse, sauté, braise filtered down to the American household.

In American cuisine we find bisques, canapés, compotes, consommé, terrines and tarts.  In Louisiana, in Cajun and Creole cuisine we find au lait, etouffee, beignets and en papillote. 

The word cuisine is French.  Common menu terms like au gratin, puree, soufflé and a la carte are part of our American lexicon.  American culinary professionals use terms like: bouquet garni, deglacer, flambé, frappe, fricassee, mirepoix, chiffonade, and julienne.  If you watch cooking shows like Memorial Cooking Innovations you have already started learning and using this culinary lingo.  And your friends are totally impressed when you casually throw out, “Oh yes, I cut the basil in a chiffonade.”  And then you get to explain to them what chiffonade means and that you learned about it on Memorial Cooking Innovations!  

Our recipe this month, Coq au Vin literally translates into “rooster in wine.”  It is a traditional French dish and a delicious way to stew a chicken.  You can use red or white wine.  Use white in the hot months for a lighter flavor.  Then try it with red for a more robust dish.

As a registered dietitian and nutritionist, it seems I’m always talking food.  One would think that I might grow weary of the subject.  On contraire!  For me, the endless exploration of food and cooking is one of the joys of life!

 


Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health.  In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations.  The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.  

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