Omnivore - Waiter, there's a bird impersonating a frog on my plate

How the French manage to eat anything

In my Grazing column two weeks ago, I wrote briefly about the ancient Romans' penchant for disguising one food, particularly offal, as another, as illustrated in Petronius "Saytricon."

The new issue of my favorite foodie mag, Gastronomica, features a 14-page article about the French's own penchant for such culinary tricks during the 17th and 18th centuries. I haven't seen the issue yet, but Marc Abrahams discusses it in his "Improbable Research" column for the Guardian. His article is headlined "When is a frog not a frog? When it's a bird" and is illustrated with the Muppetesque photo above.

Abrahams writes:

The French will swallow almost anything, so long as it's surprising to see and delightful to taste. Jennifer J Davis explains why in a study called "Masters of Disguise: French Cooks Between Art and Nature, 1651–1793.J" The 14-page report, replete with old drawings and few new photographs, is published in the journal Gastronomica.

"Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," Davis writes, "cooks engaged in a multitude of games in which one food masqueraded as another. Such games often played along the fault lines of alimentary taboos, as the cooked imitated the raw, the dead masqueraded as the living, and the injunctions of Catholic fasts were followed to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law."

Religious fast days, especially, became opportunities for cooks to strut their ingeniously stuffed stuff. All things seemingly became possible. Vegetables took on the appearance of fishes. Fishes were made into simulacra of beef, pork, and other meats.

French chefs fried up frogs "en guise de" chicken. Going in the other direction, sometimes birds became faux amphibians.

Read Abraham's entertaining summary but subscribe to the quarterly Gastronomica to read the whole article.

(Uncredited photo courtesy of the Guardian.)