Passion for the Pot-au-Feu, the Meal and the Movie

Passion for the Pot-au-Feu, the Meal and the Movie
The words pot-au-feu, or “pot on the fire”, conjure up a simmering kettle of meat and vegetables suspended over a fire. It was once considered commonplace, but for many this rustic dish is the symbol of traditional French cuisine.   The term derived from the pot itself – a cauldron, or earthenware vessel – that peasant wives kept simmering on the hearth. It was a humble dish, started in the morning when ingredients would be tossed in the pot, covered with water and left to cook slowly for several hours. The ingredients used for the pot-au-feu depended on what livestock the family reared. Centuries ago, paysans had to make do with fatty off-cuts of pork and stringy chicken. Root vegetables – carrots, parsnips, turnips, celeriac and onions – stored for the winter, were part of the stew. Depending on the region and the time of year, cabbage, leeks, and cauliflower could be included.  A peasant farmer would consume most of the meat and vegetables for his midday lunch.  The thick broth that remained bubbled away over the fire until it could be sopped up with bread for the evening meal.   Léonard Jarraud, Le pot-au-feu (27 x 17,8 cm). Musée d’Angoulême, Charente (France). The officious Dictionnaire de l’Académie française says the term pot-au-feu was coined in the 17th-century, yet the first instance, spelled pot au fu, was recorded in medieval times. However, similar stews would have been prepared centuries before. In 1792, the phrase “pot-au-feu” was first evidenced in the English language as a term for a large cooking pot.   Incidentally, it was also in 1792 that Goethe stopped to sample this typically French dish, while he was crossing the volatile Lorraine region. Here’s what Goethe said about his experience.    “The beef was almost already cooked when carrots, turnips, leeks, cabbage and other vegetables were added. The servant placed small slices of good bread into the plates and bowls set on the table. She then poured the bouillon from the kettle and bid us to eat it. The meat and vegetables completed this very simple dinner, which seemed to please everybody.”   Thus, in the late 1700s, the plain-old- pot-au-feu had found social status; other well-to-do foreigners sought it out.   Pot-au-feu. Photo credit: Andre/ Wikimedia commons Over time, pot-au-feu has embodied French egalité with perhaps a soupcon of fraternité. Available to all, it honored the tables of rich and poor alike. Communal, it was ideal for sharing amongst family and neighbors. Economical, because like the stone soup and nail broth of fables, its richness depended on what was added to the pot. Choice cuts and famous chefs elevated the unpretentious pot-au-feu into haute cuisine. To have such a proletarian meal in the mouths of peasants and princes seems like the democratization of dining.   The pot-au-feu went out of fashion for the general populace during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule, when meat became more expensive for the lower classes. Under King Louis Philippe (1830-48), a working-class diet depended upon the staples of meat, cheese and soup. On Sundays, scraps of meat would be added to the daily pottage. For commoners, pot-au-feu was no longer a common dish. The expanding Parisian bourgeoisie could afford better cuts of meat, and the dish fell under the purview of the middle class. Nevertheless, classic French cuisine was nothing more than provincial cooking gone to town.  

Lead photo credit : "La Passion de Dodin Bouffant," starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.