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Response to Review no. 156

I am delighted to have this opportunity to respond to Emma Spary’s generous and perceptive review of my book. She has ably identified many of my book’s preoccupations and placed them within contexts that I find almost entirely sympathetic. First of these is the broad framework of the sociology of knowledge and while I am not familiar with Wiebe Bijker’s study of the bicycle, it sounds as if the concern there with the ‘formation and stabilising of cultural objects’ is very similar to what I endeavoured to do with my book. In The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton wrote of the difficulty of seeing the humour in another culture’s jokes and of the cultural historian’s anthropological project of making difference intelligible and meaningful. Bijker and I have faced the opposite problem, however: how to make something basic and banal into something weird and wonderful. As with the bicycle, so with the restaurant: people are all so familiar with the current form (be it two-wheeled and eco-friendly or two-starred and overpriced) that it requires considerable effort and ingenuity to realise how strange and unfamiliar they both once were. Yet something other than sheer perversity motivates this transformation of the everyday into the exotic: the point is to explore the specifically historical processes through which the restaurant came to have the form and meaning it has today. I shall certainly read the study of the bicycle to which Spary has so helpfully directed us; in the meantime, it is interesting to note that my own point of reference was actually another study of transportation technology, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s wonderful book, The Railway Journey.

Spary also sees my book addressing a set of questions concerning the emergence of modern notions of the private and the public. These issues have been central to much of the past decade’s most exciting work in eighteenth-century history and provided much of the original impetus for this project’s first incarnation as my Ph.D. thesis. Yet in the ten years during which I worked on restaurants, I became increasingly dissatisfied with accounts inspired by Juergen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. My book develops this critique at some length, so I shall not reiterate it here, but I wanted to register my agreement with this portion of Spary’s analysis.

As a historian of science, Spary is well placed to outline ways in which I might have developed my project’s medical themes more fully. I agree that ‘regimen’ could have proved a useful category of analysis; indeed, I recall having spent some time pondering the medical connotations of the term ‘Old Regime’ and wondering how I could integrate this pun into my revisions of chapter four. But I worried to what extent a homonym could be said to constitute an argument. (Many years ago, I was struck by hearing Roy Porter raise a similar objection to his own work on consumption as a disease of consumer society.) To some extent, this question has been answered by Antoine de Baecque’s Le corps de l’histoire (1993; I believe there is an English translation as well), which fully demonstrates the omnipresence of medical language and imagery in political writings of the Revolutionary era. Within the framework of a book about restaurant culture, further consideration of these themes would, I fear, have constituted as much a digression as an enhancement.

Continuing to explore the restaurant’s early medicinal uses, Spary asks how the restaurant patron’s interaction with the restaurateur differed from relations in private households with cooks and physicians. This is an important question and one that again brings us to the problem of private and public. The truly unwell would almost certainly have been better advised to stay warm in bed while drinking their restorative bouillons, rather than venturing through mud, muck and rain to a Restorer’s Rooms (no matter how exquisite in furnishings and controlled in climate the latter might have been). The crucial point here is that the restaurants of the 1760s and 1770s did not offer salvation to people on their death beds; instead, restaurants made a certain fashionable and self-conscious frailty into a quality to be exhibited and shared with others. I do not have access to the individual desires and motivations, conscious or otherwise, of all who frequented restaurants in the period before the French Revolution, but I doubt that they did so in a last, desperate effort to cling to life. A restaurant in this period was something like an urban spa – the first restaurants were, in many ways, also the first ‘health food’ restaurants – but they were neither shrines nor hospices. Rather, they made it possible for even the most vulgarly robust to participate publicly in the behaviours of the sensitive and suffering.

Spary is correct to note that references to the medical and health literatures are absent from my book’s later chapters. In tracing how the political connotations of public eating shifted during the period 1789-1815, I moved away from specialist medical texts and concentrated on the guidebooks, travellers” accounts, popular fiction and specifically gastronomic literature that did so much to make the restaurants of early nineteenth-century Paris into cultural landmarks. Nonetheless, I very much like the idea of positioning First-Empire gastronomic literature with reference to other contemporary sorts of food writing (such as the medical and agronomic literature) and look forward with interest to reading such a study.

Spary’s final paragraph raises another fascinating question and one I hope to see answered in detail by other scholars: how did the habits and practices of restaurant culture, so intimately identified with ‘French’ life, spread around the world? I have attempted a brief answer to this question elsewhere (see my contribution to Raymond Grew, ed., Food in Global History) but a few comments may here be in order. As I see it, the crucial components of restaurant service – separate tables, formal menus, the provision of a semi-public place in which to be private – were only slowly adopted outside of Paris. I do not mean to imply that all food elsewhere was eaten within the home but I do want to argue that ‘eating out’ as an enjoyable leisure activity in which both men and women participate is a fairly recent development. Comparison with Victorian London may be instructive here: while private clubs (some staffed with French chefs) catered to their gentlemen members, and while the street vendors described by Mayhew fed thousands every day, there was nothing like a culture of restaurant going until the very end of the century. In the twentieth century, Western-style restaurants have often been consciously exported by transport companies, tour organisers, and international hotel firms. A full analysis of the ways in which the restaurant, as institution, has been globalised, even while cookery, as cuisine, has been localised, would be an enormous, necessarily collaborative, project, but one well worth pursuing.