In 1825, the French philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin put forward his theory that food was better than sex. The joy of eating, he said, may not be as intense but it lasts longer, and the body can savour it when it has grown too old and too tired for more active pursuits.
“The pleasure of the table can be associated with all the other pleasures, and it is the one that consoles us when the other pleasures are lost,” he wrote.
The French broadly approved of this theory, which helped to turn France into the world’s culinary capital in the 19th and 20th centuries. But today, Brillat-Savarin might have trouble convincing his compatriots that he is right.
It is not that French food has got worse over the past 177 years, or indeed that sex has got better. No, the problem is psychological, with the modern Gallic dinner table burdened by the sort of hang-ups that can stifle your fun. Is the meal healthy? Is it germ-free? What would the medics say about it? These are the concerns that are spoiling France’s pleasure.
Consider, for instance, the important new exhibition on food that has opened at the Paris science museum, the Palais de la Decouverte. “A Table!” (“time to eat”) is a startlingly ambitious endeavour – an attempt to guide visitors through a thousand years of culinary history and all its implications for politics, economics, religion, society, art and health.
It took the curators three years to prepare the exhibition, and their efforts have been rewarded with glowing reviews in the French press. “This is a passionately interesting gastronomic journey,” praised Le Figaro.
And indeed it is – for the first 990 of the years under scrutiny at the Palais de la Decouverte. You find out how Arabs invented the fermented grains and sugars that were called al-kohl (alcohol); how lemons, pineapples and coffee arrived in Europe; and how gastronomy developed in France under Louis XIV.
But then you get to the 1990s.
The first room in the section dedicated to the modern era is brightly lit and full of exhibits designed to illustrate the food industry that provides 80 per cent of what we now consume. Here, it is not so much taste that matters as the packaging. On display are Cellophane packets, plastic packets and vacuum-filled packets. There are packets that tell you when the product (it is no longer even called food) is about to go off, and there are packets that tell you when it has gone off.
And from then until the end of the exhibition, alimentary hygiene – “going off” – becomes the main theme, reflecting contemporary Gallic fears.
Take, for instance, the chicken. For Brillat-Savarin, there was only one question of importance linked to this animal: should it be roasted with chestnuts or with truffles?
But in “A Table!“, in the room themed “From danger to risk”, there is a computer simulation that tells you how fast a chicken acquires salmonella bacteria if left outside the fridge: “316 bacteria in 12 hours,” it says. “One billion in 48 hours.”
Worse is to follow. The next display is on beef. “Mad cow disease has killed 118 people in Great Britain,” says the exhibit.
Walk on and you come to the genetically modified crop room. On the wall, in big letters, is a reminder that no scientific body has found the slightest evidence that GM vegetables are a danger to human health. But on television screens is a film of experts discussing just how dangerous GM vegetables might be.
France is by no means the only country to suffer from such anxieties. But per- haps because food has always been so important to the French, these fears are amplified here.
A recent survey, for instance, found that 19 per cent of French people were worried about pesticides on their vegetables, 17 per cent about mad cow disease, 14 per cent about GM crops, 7 per cent about nitrates in their drinking water, 6 per cent about refrigeration conditions in supermarkets, and so on.
Professor Marian Apfelbaum, a nutritionist, says more people in France fall ill from worrying about their food than from actually eating it. “Fear concerning food is very powerful and can provoke many diseases because of the anxiety that it produces.”
Yet, she goes on to say, such anguish is illogical, as it is spreading at a time when food is safer than ever before.
But then this is not about logic. It is about psychology. Every year, the French consume ever more sandwiches, frozen food and pre-packed supermarket offerings. And every year, opinion polls show a growing distrust of sandwiches, frozen food and pre-packed supermarket offerings. In short, the French are moving towards an Anglo-Saxon diet, and hating themselves for doing it.
The penultimate room in the exhibition analyses what you have eaten over the past week in terms of whether it was good for you.
This makes for traumatic reading. “Too much animal fat,” said the computer when given seven days’ worth of typical Parisian meals to study. “Too much sugar . . . increases the risk of chronic illness. Not enough dairy products . . . 3.6 per cent of your diet was alcohol . . . Too much . . . The ideal is 0 per cent.”
The ideal? Whose ideal? It was certainly not Brillat-Savarin’s ideal.
The final room is an attempt to forecast the future of Gallic gastronomy. There are pictures of what are described as fat-free, high-vitamin meals. The biggest picture, in the centre of the room, is of Brussels sprouts on a barbecue.
But if barbecued Brussels sprouts are the future, then Brillat-Savarin’s apostles are going to have to revise their theory. Sex is better.