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  • Eating à l’Anglaise in Provincial France, 1750–1789
  • Robert James Merrett (bio)

Culinary history based on eighteenth-century cookbooks holds that French food and eating styles dominated the courts and noble homes of Europe. 1 The court-censored press of provincial France, however, suggests evidence of culinary exchange. Affiches, newspapers available in the provinces, 2 demonstrate how national policies limiting food imports failed. British foodstuffs, cookware, and tableware all reached provincial towns, revealing an untold story of economic exchange between England and France and a provincial cookery intrinsically marked by Britain’s agrarian and industrial revolutions. 3

The affiches reveal, for instance, the extent to which aristocratic eating in France adopted British modes. On 20 June 1787, the Intendant of Lyon fêted the wedding jubilee of four seniors from Avant near Nogent-sur-Seine. A letter, excerpted in the affiches of Sens on 25 August, describes his charity to his vassals. After a church service and parade through the village, the local lord and lady held a feast in the court of the Château of Rosières where they had built a covered green arbor to protect diners from the rain that fell all day.

Une table de soixante-douze pieds de long sur douze de large étoit dressée sous cette tente. Le milieu de la table offroit un tapis de gazon sur lequel on avoit dessiné un jardin Anglois orné de grottes, de ruines & de toutes sortes de fleurs. Quatre-vingt personnes étoient assises autour de la table; on porta des santés aux vieillards & à leurs enfans, au son des violons & des tambours.

Dans un autre endroit de la cour, on avoit pratiqué des guinguettes de feuillage où l’on distribua du pain, des gâteaux & du vin aux habitans d’Avant & des villages voisins, que la curiosité avoit amenés en foule. Enfin ce jour rappella le souvenir des anciens divertissemens champêtres.

Remarkably, a model English garden, the centerpiece of the table, features in a meal intended to symbolize traditional French eating. 4 Yet, bicultural interest in food symbolism was longstanding. On 15 March 1776, the affiches of Orléans relished the narrative details of a landowner in northern England who had created a feast of Ceres. They describe a week-long harvest festival during which the man works alongside retainers who dine with his family. The feast terminates with the marriage of twelve couples who are exempted from rent for two years and whose initial household costs are provided by the landowner. This account is striking because the feast combines traditional aristocratic conduct with agrarian and civic progress. It fits the retelling of an anecdote about Samuel Johnson and Catherine Macaulay printed in the affiches of Sens on 10 May 1786. While her guest at dinner, Johnson grows irritated by Macaulay’s republican preaching of equality, eats, and leaves the table quickly, asking a servant to take his place. This retort to Macaulay is narrated sympathetically, the newspaper ignoring Johnson’s reputation for gross eating. 5 [End Page 84]

Although the affiches satirize modish English eating—as when the paper in Sens mocks aristocratic women for dining on Turkish carpets with doors and windows shut to prevent catching cold and for eating at midnight in humid gardens for fashion’s sake (25 October 1787)—the regional press documents how refugee British aristocrats imported eating modes that were much noticed by the community. For example, Lords Southwell and Walsh, displaced Irish Jacobites, were often noticed by the paper in Angers. One of Southwell’s French retainers made and sold the finest potato flour, offering recipes for soups, custards, “beignets, soit en pâte ou en crême, crêmes soufflés, gâteaux en moules, des petits choux à la reine, biscuits en caisse à la crême, biscuits ordinaires, biscuits marrins, gâteaux de Savoye, gâteaux à la Magdelaine, & autres petits entremets.” A second retainer put a collection of baking tools on the market when Southwell moved away (Angers: 22 April 1758; 2 and 16 December 1758; and 7 July 1786). Walsh left his own grand house during the Revolution as his sponsorship of fine dining became more obvious to locals. His collection of Anjou...

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