What to Eat in France: What is Bourgeois Cuisine?
French cuisine is much more than the haute cuisine inherited from the nobility. It is also the tasty, inexpensive cuisine that French families eat every day, called cuisine bourgeoise, or “bourgeois cuisine.”
We all learned in school that “bourgeois” was a social class. Originally, it was what we now call the “middle class,” as opposed to the nobility and the poor and working classes. The bourgeoisie, or middle class, grew rapidly in France after the French Revolution.
In terms of cooking, the bourgeois weren’t rich enough to use expensive ingredients and their cooking skills were not as highly developed as those of the aristocrats’ chefs, but they had sufficient means to entertain friends and family. This cuisine came to be known as cuisine bourgeoise, which today simply means family cooking, tasty but not pretentious, as opposed to the haute cuisine of the elite.
François Massialot’s Le Nouveau Cuisinier royal et bourgeois, the “new royal and bourgeois cook,” was the first book to document cuisine bourgeoise in 1691, well before the Revolution. Massialot deemed that bourgeois households should be able to serve meals better than the gruel of the common man, but without spending an excessive amount of money on ingredients, so he offered them a thousand ways to cook meat. He was nonetheless playing both sides — a reflection of the historical period — by covering both aristocratic cuisine and middle-class home cooking.
Much later, in 1742 (some say 1746), François Menon published L’abrégé de la cuisine bourgeoise, or “summary of bourgeois cuisine,” which included 39 recipes for the middle class “with few means to prepare a respectable dinner.” His 1746 La cuisinière bourgeoise, or “the female bourgeois cook,” became one of the most popular cookbooks ever printed in France, reprinted until the latter half of the nineteenth century, by holding that true “cuisine” could be done by a woman. Menon remarked that the bourgeois often spent far too much money on feasts to little effect since they didn’t know how to give noble ingredients the honor they deserved. Home cooks simply didn’t have the technical expertise and knowledge of the aristocrats’ chefs, who had unlimited budgets and staff, and, therefore, needed some instruction.
It was only in 1870 that Urbain Dubois published Nouvelle Cuisine bourgeoise pour la ville et la campagne, or “new bourgeois cuisine for town and country.” His objective was not to make the dishes eaten by the nobility available to the bourgeoisie, but to teach them how to get the best out of the products they could afford to use. Dubois’ cookbook contained several hundred recipes and was organized in much the same way we organize cookbooks today, with chapters on meat, fish, vegetables, and eggs, as well as on stews, sauces, desserts, preserved foods and jam. Sauce, which was previously exclusive to the aristocrats and the rich, arguably became more accessible to the French middle class.
Historically, cuisine and class cannot be separated in the context of French food history. The haute cuisine of the aristocrats — and now of the elite and moneyed — and cuisine bourgeoise represented and still represent a two-tier system, with, in the past, the poor and working class left out of the equation. This has progressively changed since the Revolution, and by the twentieth century, bourgeois cuisine included many refined dishes that were previously exclusive to aristocratic cuisine. The stews of the past were superseded by meat and fish with fine sauces, once only available to those who had personal chefs who spent days in the kitchen making stocks and mother sauces.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.