There is a certain tradition in French cuisine with a paradoxical connection to French history: following the revolution, bourgeois cuisine saw itself as a sort of heir to court cuisine, and on formal occasions the elaborate productions of the aristocratic table were perpetuated in upper-middle-class dining rooms. This can be observed in many different details, for instance in the history of the table centerpiece. Among the oddest imitations of aristocratic dining extravagances utterly lost to us today was the custom of serving edible structures. The only example we are still familiar with (at least from shop windows) is the wedding cake, which combines elements of architecture, sculpture, and occasionally portrait painting.
Surprisingly, Balzac, the great diner, never provides a detailed description of a grand dinner with all its accessories, a lack of interest implying a certain critique of the stultifying pomposity of these elaborate rituals—he is more concerned with depicting en detail the dreariness of the dinner table at Pension Vauquer. But in one superficially unremarkable passage, the bourgeois novel at its peak casually pulls off a radical exposure of the custom of staging food. Read More