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Response to Review of Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760

I am grateful to Jennifer Davis for her rich and thoughtful review of Eating the Enlightenment. Intended as a snapshot of contestations over alimentary authority in the public domain, the book is not structured as a chronological investigation of particular forms of authority over time. Davis rightly questions how such a narrative would look, and calls for a larger perspective on the public debate over eating. A fairly well-developed picture of contestation over authority where food and diet were concerned is already available for the 19th and 20th centuries, for example in the published proceedings of the International Commission for Research into European Food History. How does my narrative latch onto these earlier historical, sociological and anthropological studies of consumption? Does it have wider implications for our current food predicament? One of the issues that surprised me most in carrying out the research was finding that concerns about the implications of globalised consumption were as lively in the 18th century, at the very beginning of Europe’s obsession with imported foods, as they are today. The other was discovering the extent to which commercial disputes translated into struggles over expertise in the public domain. In pursuing these themes, I ended up focusing upon the debates over particular foods and drinks, including coffee and liqueurs, and over practices like digesting and dieting, because these issues produced the largest amount of literature in the period, and polarised contemporary views of the significance of eating (or not eating). The subjects covered by the book are thus windows onto wider debates, in which the assumptions and anxieties of eaters were articulated in ways that illuminated their views on the relationship between nourishment, government and natural knowledge.

In a sense, this approach also prohibits a good answer to Davis’s first question about the consequences of such contestations. Many knowledge controversies were never fully settled: even in the 1810s, the physician Armand Jenin de Mont├Ęgre defended an iatrochemical view of the digestive process, long after there had seemingly been consensus on a mixed model of digestion which united the two rival explanations on offer in the 1710s. Today’s views about food, similarly, are palimpsests: new claims, new nutrition science are inscribed over a plethora of older advice which has passed into the domains of general knowledge, tradition, custom or popular culture. Often the historical origins of such claims are completely lost over time. The St Dalfour brand, for example, claims to utilise a ‘traditional’ ingredient in its fruit preserves. That traditional ingredient, grape syrup, so far from embodying tradition and artisanship, is one of the first French industrial foods, manufactured on the large scale since the 1800s. It is thus by looking both forwards and backwards that we can understand how exceptionally rich is the tapestry of inventing, borrowing, defending and resisting food choices at any moment in modern societies. The French Revolution would shatter and then reinvent the relationship between different types of expert (culinary, medical, chemical), the State and the public. Thus it is not that contestations over diet necessarily provide definitive answers within any given period; it’s more that they establish the range of possible positions a consumer might adopt on a particular dietary issue. To address these multiple viewpoints for Paris was a vast undertaking which I feel I have barely adumbrated in Eating the Enlightenment. It would be marvellous to extend this approach to other countries, and (needless to say) I hope that there are historians out there who may take up the challenge.

A final point raised by Davis should be articulated, since it bears on her question about the wider picture underlying the study, though Eating the Enlightenment was perhaps not the ideal place to discuss this. French opposition movements to the Crown from the late 17th century onwards have been treated piecemeal, not in a single continuous study. Yet from the work of Dale Van Kley, we know that, for example, the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism broadened into a general political debate over the state of the nation in the second half of the 18th century. Others have explored the importance of opposition much closer to the Crown, in researching the history of the Dauphin’s circle in the very early 18th century. And studies of the Huguenot diaspora have developed a convincing portrait of opposition journalism and print culture throughout the century, stemming from England, the Dutch Republic and the Swiss cantons. In a rather incidental way, Eating the Enlightenment supports the existence of a close connection between all these opposition movements, from exiled Protestants to reformist heirs to the throne. Though we are more accustomed to thinking of authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the principal critics of the Old Regime, Rousseau’s native city, Geneva, was a site where the implications of the tension between reform and tradition were already apparent in a bourgeois uprising of 1766, put down by armed representatives of the French Crown. In this sense the turn towards dietary austerity occurring in the 1760s was already political, and had been for 50 years. The common ground shared by political opponents of the Bourbon dynasty centred on material culture: against Court life with its rigidly controlled forms of ostentatious consumption, from dress to banquets, they advocated naturalness: simplicity, transparency and austerity. Insofar as French cuisine in the 18th century emulated courtly standards, it therefore subscribed to a particular political position – something of which contemporaries were well aware. The study of a highly symbolic activity like eating is a good way to link innovation to continuity, individual choice and the disciplinary society.