Dining out, or ordering in, has become second nature in modern day society. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2018 44% of all food spending was done away from home, with an annual average of $3,459, and Statista predicts online ordering will steadily increase at a rate of 4.3% through 2024. But do we actually appreciate the food that is served to us, or are we just picking items off a menu?
After reading William Sitwell’s,The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining Out, I developed a hungering for French food. Aside from being in France over a decade ago, I don’t recall ever seeking out the cuisine, I merely stumbled into those sorts of restaurants by happenstance. But after several chapters describing France’s influence on modern day dining, I soon found myself Googling the top rated bistros in my area. Voila, Bistro La Source in Jersey City, 4.3 stars. Reservation for two confirmed.
Inspired by my recent page turner, I dined like a French woman. Then, once home, I dove into the history of what I tasted. In doing so, my experience became a journey of the palate.
My first dish was the French onion soup au gratin. It was noticeably less salty than most I’ve had in the past and so delicious that I eventually picked up the bowl to drink the remaining broth. Apparently, I was drinking what most French households consider to be a hangover cure. Yes, French onion soup is the preferred meal after a night of excess drinking. But how did the soup originate?
According to Culture Trip, there are two theories. The first, King Louis XV (who reigned 1715 – 1774) was hungry one afternoon but could only find onions, butter, and champagne in his kitchen. He then decided to mix them all together in a pot (I imagine today those ingredients would instead be placed in a drinking glass with onion as the garnish). The second theory is that the Duke of Lorraine was on his way to visit his daughter Queen Marie (King Louis XV’s wife) when he stopped into a hotel and tasted a soup by a chef named Nicolas Appert. The duke enjoyed Appert’s soup so much that he watched the chef prepare it, copied the recipe, and brought it to the King and Queen at the Palace of Versailles. No matter how you swallow it, both theories lead back to King Louis XV.
Another popular dish (though, not so popular in NYC anymore) is foie gras, fattened duck or goose liver. Some may find it appalling to consume, both for taste and ethical reasons (a great detailed explanation from Series Eats in 2010). However, it’s interesting to know that, as the Wall Street Journal reports, foie gras has quite an in-depth history. Fattening geese dates back to the Egyptians in 2498-2345 BC. Centuries later, the Romans followed suit. Then, eventually, it became a part of Jewish culture. And when Jews migrated to Germany and France in 1100 so did their method of fattening geese. Like the Egyptians, Romans, and Jews before me, I spread the homemade pate of duck liver and foie gras on my toast. It could have been a single meal in itself— if one ever chooses to fill up on pate alone— but instead made for a satisfying appetizer to share.
If you’ve never had escargot before, but are curious to try it, the escargots de Bourgogne au pastis, shallot, garlic and parsley butter is a smooth, simple transition into the delectable world of snails at Bistro La Source. Grossed out at the idea? Don’t be. Humans have been savoring snails for nearly 30,000 years, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Arriving at the main course, beef short rib Bourguignon is a classic French dish that was ideal for splitting between two. It swam in a palatable deep red wine sauce, alongside mushrooms, onions, carrots, and potatoes. It comes from Burgundy (Bourgogne in French), a region recognized for its wine and Charolais cattle, hence the mix of beef and wine. It turns out, Bourguignon was originally prepared for peasants back in the Middle Ages. At the time, the dish took two days to cook. It wasn’t until 1903 that chef Auguste Escoffier wrote down a recipe and brought it to the likes of city diners and thus creating the swifter recipe of today.
Concluding the meal was a Creme Brûlée. Interestingly enough, the modern day version of creme brûlée comes from NYC, although the first recipe with the name dates back to 1691 by chef Francois Massialot in Versailles. Saveur writes that Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque, came across creme catalana in Spain in the 1980s. He returned desiring a similar dish for his Le Cirque menu and that’s when pastry chef, Dieter Schorner, mixed the ingredients into the now recognizable fluted casserole and created a thinner sugar shell.
In between mouthfuls I sipped on the spiked hot cider, strong enough to warm the insides on a cold night, followed by a drink I had never heard of before—a Vieux Carré. The Vieux Carré is another stateside creation from 1938 in New Orleans. Walter Bergeron was head bartender at the Carousel Bar when he mixed together rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, cognac, Bénédictine liqueur, bitters, topped it off with a Maraschino cherry, and thus invented the “French Quarter” drink.
My meal was enjoyed in a heated bubble in Jersey City, without the romanticized French backdrop, but for those two plus hours I traveled through a culinary history of the world. It might take a bit more time to understand the origins of various ethnic recipes, but I’m one restaurant closer to savoring like Sitwell.