A Loaf of Pain, A Jug of Vin...

In This Course-Mais Non-You Can't Just "Grab a Bite"

by Patricia Farrell

"Think of the staples," says Berkeley professor of French Len Johnson. "Nearly all cultures have some version of the basics-bread, cheese and wine-but when these same things are French bread, French cheese and French wine, people immediately feel as though they're talking about something special."

In teaching "The Culture of Food: Cuisine in the History of French Civilization," Johnson says he thinks about cuisine in the very largest sense of the word-meaning not only food, but also how it is prepared and eaten.

Add the adjective "French" to cuisine, he says, and yet another level of experience is suggested.

"The Culture of Food," offered this year from July 6 to July 20, is one of a half dozen courses available to participants in Berkeley Extension's Paris Program.

Johnson, who has been at Berkeley since 1961, created and taught the course for the first time last summer.

Through lectures and slides, students spend each morning learning the exceptional place the preparation, consumption and contemplation of food has occupied in the history of French civilization.

However, the course is far from being a dry academic experience. According to Johnson, it gave him and his students access to dining rooms and kitchens in and around Paris that would have normally been off-limits to individuals.

In Versailles they were allowed into the private apartments of the 18th century's royal family.

A trip to the luxury hotel Lutetia included not only a guided tour of the hotel's enormous kitchen but was also followed by a gourmet lunch in one of Lutetia's starred restaurants.

Later in the week the class visited the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking, where after an afternoon demo class they were treated to the chef's creations.

Mary McWilliams, a Paris program participant last summer, likened all this access to private kitchens, dining rooms and apartments to a kind of "back stairs" experience.

In Versailles she was particularly struck by the smallness and intimacy of Marie Antoinette's private dining room.

Apparently the room where the queen took her meals with family, friends and, quite possibly, a lover or two is dwarfed by the grandeur of the rooms preferred by Louis XIV.

Of the trip to Lutetia, McWilliams said she took part in the most spectacularly eloquent meal of her life. "I don't expect I'll ever have a meal that will be its equal, nor do I feel the need to-it was that perfect."

This summer Johnson is adding a trip to Rungis, the great food market held on the city's outskirts each morning. Formerly located in the center of Paris and known as Le Halles, the Rungis opens at 3 a.m. and the selling of every kind of food stuff goes on until mid-morning.

Johnson's passion for French cuisine began years ago while on a Fulbright scholarship in Aix-en-Provence.

He describes his course for extension as a natural outgrowth of the book he's currently working on. In it he considers the metaphorical use of food by French writers from the Middle Ages to the present.

Johnson is also the author of "Poets as Players," a book on late medieval poetry.



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