A Taste of Paris: Interview with American Author David Downie

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A Taste of Paris: Interview with American Author David Downie
David Downie is a native San Franciscan who moved to Paris in the mid-1980s and now divides his time between France and Italy. He is the author of over a dozen nonfiction books, two thrillers, and two apps: one about the history of Paris (from 8000 BC to the present), and another about the food and wine of Rome. His travel, food and arts features have appeared in many print magazines and newspapers, and on dozens of websites, and his nonfiction works include several critically acclaimed books about Paris and France, among them Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light; Paris to the Pyrenees; and A Passion for Paris: Romance and Romanticism in the City of Light. Downie is also co-owner and operator (with his wife, photographer Alison Harris) of Paris, Paris Tours–which offers custom walking tours of Paris, Burgundy, Rome and the Italian Riviera. Downie recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about his next book, A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food, which will be released in September, in this interview for Bonjour Paris. JH: What made you decide to write A Taste of Paris? Was there a sudden inspiration of some kind, or was it a more organic process? DD: It was a combo platter, so to speak: for decades I have thought of Paris in terms of its culinary cityscape but I had never realized that the cityscape of food and wine corresponded to an astonishing degree with the history of the city, and specifically the history of French food and wine. While researching and writing A Passion for Paris, my earlier book about Romanticism and romance in the City of Light, I stumbled upon lots of food-related material. One day a light clicked on. I saw Paris as a giant banquet table, the topography, cityscape, history and food all beautifully organized, spiraling outward from the Ile de la Cité, the core of Paris. It was very exciting. I must have had lots to drink—and it was not wine from Paris. JH: The subtitle of A Taste of Paris is “A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food.” Toward the beginning of the book you say that although the recipes in Taillevent’s 14th century cookbook might be regarded as marking the beginning of the Parisian love affair with food, you continue by saying that you actually believe that started “when Paris was named Lutetia.” Can you explain what you mean by that? When did the French, or at least the Parisian obsession, or passion for food begin? And why then? DD: An excellent question, and it took me the entire book to answer it, so I won’t be able to manage that here. What I can say is, the Ancient Romans, who arrived in 53 or 52 BC (depending on which sources you consult), conquering the ragtag army defending the settlement known as Lutetia Parisiorum, brought with them their often excessive love of food and wine. The Gallic tribe they ousted or subsumed—the Parisii, hence the ancient and current name of the city—were not gourmets by any measure. The Roman passion for gourmandizing and guzzling was adopted and adapted, and lived on despite “barbarian” invasions, changes of dynasty, plague, famine, war, rioting, urban rebuilding, floods, and so forth. It underlies the Parisian love for entertaining. Think of it as the operating system buried beneath all those programs and apps on your laptop or smartphone. JH: You identify Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, which was published in 1825, as “the cornerstone of France’s intellectual appreciation of food and wine.” What was it that Brillat-Savarin introduced, or perhaps just formalized, that had this effect? DD: Brillat-Savarin was a food-loving dilettante with a solid grounding in science, specifically medical science, and though he was a magistrate his real passion was food and, to a lesser degree, wine. (Baudelaire really beat him up over his supposed lack of enthusiasm for wine, but Baudelaire was largely off the mark). Brillat-Savarin took the scientific notions of his day, applied them to appetite, digestion, health, happiness and so forth, and borrowed a great deal about food and entertaining from the other great food theorist of the day, Grimod de la Reynière. The thing about Brillat-Savarin is he was a natural-born writer and storyteller, an enthusiast, and he was also positive, whereas Grimod de la Reynière was corrosive, ironic, sardonic and possibly (probably) devoted as much energy to poking fun at self-styled gourmets as he did elucidating the rules of good eating, drinking and entertaining. Brillat-Savarin was a stylist. That’s why non-French audiences might possibly be less overwhelmed by his work. But for the French, because he intellectualized science and gourmet dining, and did so with flair, he is God. JH: I’ve heard some pretty heated debates about the difference in meaning between the words “gourmet” and “gourmand” in French. Can you settle this debate for me and for readers of BP? What is the difference between the two? And also, while we’re on the subject–kind of–what is your opinion of the word “foodie,” in English? DD: I’m afraid I can’t settle the debate because it is an open question. Put it this way, the word “gourmet” is used much more often in America and the U.K. than in France, where it is replaced by “gastronome” or “gastronomic” (gastronomique). Gourmet is pretentious. Followers of persnickety food theorists might use it. But the French are pretty relaxed about all this. It’s Americans who get heat up about the difference. A gourmand in any case is someone who loves food, possibly immoderately, meaning he or she likes lots of it. You might joke in France and specify that you’re gourmand or gourmande if you want to fess up to wanting a second helping, or prefer the chocolate…
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).