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A Parade of Francophiles, With Peter Mayle in the Lead

A BITE-SIZED HISTORY OF FRANCE
Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment
By Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell
333 pp. New Press. $26.99.

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To many Americans, the history of French food starts with Escoffier. Try the Gallo-Roman era! In this Franco-American couple’s not-so-bite-sized history, the complex political, historical, religious and social factors that shaped some of the country’s most iconic dishes and culinary products are explored in a way that will make you rethink every sprinkling of fleur de sel.

Take that flaky seasoning from Brittany, whose saltworks date back to Roman times. It was so valued that Philip the Fair levied a tax on it in the 13th century to help finance his wars. This gabelle became permanent, giving rise to networks of smugglers and fomenting centuries of revolution and rebellion — even providing the central character in Balzac’s novel “Les Chouans” — until it was officially nixed in 1945.

The couple’s gee-whiz style leavens the impressive amount of research compressed into each chapter. What could be dry texts on, say, papal relations in the 13th century and the French resistance in World War II become easily digestible anecdotes about Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Kir cocktail. While the tone might occasionally tip too far toward puns and alliteration, it’s the authors’ friendly accessibility that makes these stories so memorable. Brillat-Savarin may have been able to tell people who they were based on what they ate, but Hénaut and Mitchell use those dishes to reveal the character of an entire country.

(NOT QUITE) MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH LIVING
By Mark Greenside
264 pp. Skyhorse. $22.99.

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Greenside, whose biography positions him as “a civil rights activist, Vietnam War protester, anti-draft counselor … union leader and college professor,” bought a house in Brittany in 1991 on a whim. He didn’t speak French. He hated to fly. And he lived in California. So began a bicontinental life with more pratfalls than a Jerry Lewis movie — except the French like Jerry Lewis.

In his cut-offs and Mr. Bean T-shirt, Greenside is so spectacularly out of sync with the French, it’s a wonder how he gets through a day. Driving, shopping, banking, showering — every mundane task is primed for failure, which Greenside draws out in cringe-inducing detail. “I balance the baguette on top of the box of tin foil, which is balanced on top of a 12-pack of toilet paper, which is under the arm of the hand holding the overflowing shopping basket,” he writes of a shopping expedition that centers on not wanting to pay a euro to use a cart. Greenside piles scorn upon himself, reflecting it through the eyes of his part-time countrymen while simultaneously pointing a finger at them. It’s an exhausting dance, one that makes you appreciate the talents of a Kelly or Sedaris.

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