Woody Allen, in Love and Death, speculated that Napoleon, fearful of the threat of Beef Wellington, was striving to perfect some piece of imperial patisserie – ‘more cream!’ – that would carry the day. After reading E C Spary’s Eating the Enlightenment, I reckon that Waterloo boiled down to coffee drinkers versus tea drinkers. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that, as far as the most important things are concerned, the French actually won, on account of superior baguettes and croissants. Spary would surely concur with Claude Lévi-Strauss that it is reasonable to think of the French as ‘frogs’, in terms of menu and table manners, just as they think of us as ‘rosbifs’.
‘To know is to eat,’ said Jean-Paul Sartre. A fan of rich foods and desserts, he would have scoffed up Spary’s book, which lays out a groaning table of inspired culinary epistemology. Spary has delved into the kitchens and laboratories and cafés of the French Enlightenment and come up with