The French connection — Napoleon's influence on food is still being felt today

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28 2007 12:14 a.m. MST

The layered pastries called napoleons were not named for Napoleon, the French emperor.

Liz Martin, Deseret Morning News

History doesn't forget a man like Napoleon Bonaparte. And neither does the culinary world, which still feels his influence 200 years later.

Napoleon I (1769—1821) was a general during the French Revolution who rose to become emperor of the French (empereur des Francais). He conquered most of Europe while opponents in Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia declared him "an enemy of humanity."

But he apparently ate well.

His reign at the turn of the 18th century saw the rise of French haute cuisine — what Americans usually think of as "gourmet cooking" — and the first celebrity chef. He's credited with the saying, "An army marches on its stomach" and for fostering the idea of canning as a way to preserve food.

And he's part of the legends surrounding a few dishes, such as Chicken Marengo, Lobster Thermidor and napoleon pastries, some of which fall into the George-Washington-chopping-down-cherry-trees category. But they do make interesting tales.

The French Revolution is associated with the doomed Marie Antoinette's famous saying, "Let them eat cake." Perhaps Napoleon remembered this when he became dictator, as he exercised strict control over the prices of food staples, according to "The Age of Napoleon" edited by Horizon (American Heritage Publishing Company, 1963).

"I fear insurrection when they are caused by hunger," he was quoted as saying. "I would be less afraid of a battle against an army of two hundred thousand."

The canning industry

The quote "An army marches on its stomach" is attributed to Napoleon (as well as Frederick the Great). During Napoleon's military campaigns, French soldiers suffered numerous casualties from malnutrition, scurvy and starvation.

In 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs for a method of preserving food for use by the army and navy. Chef Nicolas Appert began experimenting in his workshop at Massy, near Paris, and in 1810 was awarded the prize for his method of packing food in bottles, corking them and submerging them in boiling water to stop spoilage, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition).

The method is based on the idea that heat destroys or neutralizes the ferments that cause food spoilage. With his prize money, Appert opened the world's first commercial cannery.

The glass-jar concept was replaced with tin or wrought-iron canisters (later shortened to "cans") which were both cheaper to make and easier to transport. Until can openers were invented, soldiers would pierce the cans open with bayonets or smash them open with rocks.

Chicken Marengo

There are a lot of different versions of Chicken Marengo, which is generally chicken stewed in a tomato sauce with garlic and mushrooms. Some recipes call for the white wine and crayfish, which were supposedly in the original dish, while others have been dumbed down to canned tomato and mushroom soups.

Legend has it that Napoleon's cook, known as Dunand, created the dish to celebrate the 1800 French victory over the Austrians at the battle of Marengo in northern Italy.

Napoleon's custom was to eat nothing before a battle, but afterward, he was ravenously hungry. The cook was without the supply wagons, so he had to scrounge around to get a chicken, some crayfish, a handful of eggs, a few tomatoes and some garlic. The chef cut up the chicken and fried it with the garlic, adding the chopped tomatoes and some brandy from Napoleon's flask.

He fried a ration of army bread along with the eggs, and the cooked crayfish were served on the plate as a garnish.

The story goes that Napoleon liked this "victory dish" so well he wanted it prepared after every battle, and when Dunand later tried to substitute white wine for brandy, or delete the crayfish, Napoleon refused to eat it.

It's an inspiring, necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention tale for cooks who have to improvise with whatever they have on hand. Some historians have disputed the story, saying tomatoes wouldn't have been available at the time, or that this chef didn't work for Napoleon until five years after the battle took place.

Whatever. It's still a popular dish today, especially in Europe.

Lobster Thermidor

Lobster Thermidor is a classical dish where lobster meat is sliced, sauced and served in the lobster-tail shell. Although home cooks aren't likely to have this on their everyday menu, during the 1950s it had enough snob appeal to be served at top American restaurants such as Sardi's and the Waldorf-Astoria, as well as formal White House dinners, according to "Fashionable Food" by Sylvia Lovegren (University of Chicago Press, $19.99).

"Legend has it that Napoleon named Lobster Thermidor after the month in which he first was served it. Evidently Thermidor was the eleventh month of the Republican calendar used for a short time after the French Revolution," writes Emeril Lagasse in his book, "Emeril's Delmonico" (William Morrow, $29.95).

However, other food references — including the respected food encyclopedia, "Larousse Gastronomique" (Clarkson Potter, 2001), say it was created in 1894 at Marie's, a famous Paris restaurant. Other authors attribute it to Leopold Mourier of the Cafe de Paris, where chef Tony Girod, his assistant and successor, created the recipe used today.

There is, however, a Napoleon connection: the dish was purportedly created for the premiere of Victorien Sardou's play, "Thermidor," about the French Revolution. "Thermidor" was the month in the French Republic's calendar, and the "Thermidorean reaction" refers to the political machinations that led to the execution of Robespierre, ended the Reign of Terror and helped propel Napoleon to power.

The lobster dish, however, has enjoyed a much longer run than the play, which was banned after only three performances because of its politically sensitive subject matter.

Here are the directions from the French chef George Auguste Escoffier in his 1903 book, "The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery":

"Split the lobster in half lengthways, season and gently grill, then remove the flesh from the shell and cut into fairly thick slices on the slant. Place some Sauce Creme finished with a little English mustard in the bottom of the two half shells, replace the slices of lobster neatly on top and coat with the sauce. Glaze lightly in a hot oven or under the salamander."

Napoleons

The consensus among food historians is that the layered pastries called napoleons weren't named for the emperor. The name is thought to be a corruption of the word "Napolitain," referring to a pastry made in the tradition of Naples, Italy. The pastry used for making napoleons is mille feuilles, literally meaning "thousand leaves."

But again, there's a connection. According to "Larousse Gastronomique," the pastry was likely created by Antonin Careme, a French chef during the Napoleon era who is considered the father of modern French cuisine.

He was the first "celebrity" chef, and Napoleon was one of his numerous well-heeled clients, according to "Cooking for Kings," by Ian Kelly (Walker & Company, $26). Careme popularized the souffle and invented the puffy white toque that chefs still wear on their heads today.

Careme excelled at lavish pastry centerpieces that were the crowning glory of grand dinners, and it's possible that he made Napoleon's wedding cake, as Emeril Lagasse writes in "Emeril's Delmonico."

CHICKEN MARENGO

1/3 cup olive oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 1/2 pounds)

12 ounces fresh, white mushrooms, sliced (about 5 cups)

2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (undrained)

1/2 cup dry white wine (or chicken broth)

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until hot. Add chicken; cook until brown on both sides, turning once, about 3 minutes for each side. Remove chicken from pot. Add mushrooms, onions and garlic. Cook and stir until mushrooms are golden, about 10 minutes. Return chicken to skillet. Stir in thyme, salt and pepper. Add tomatoes, with their juice, and wine; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low; cover and simmer until chicken is tender, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve over steamed rice, if desired. — The Mushroom Council

LOBSTER THERMIDOR

This is a streamlined version of the classic Lobster Thermidor.

4 (6-8 ounce) packaged lobster tails, shell jumbo shrimp or prawns can be substituted

4 tablespoons butter, divided

1 small white onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Splash dry white wine or dry sherry (optional)

1/2 cup milk

1/3 cup grated white cheddar

1/2 teaspoon paprika or crab boil seasoning (Old Bay recommended)

2 tablespoons Parmesan

2 tablespoons bread crumbs

Handful parsley leaves mixed with 2 cups baby greens, for plate garnish

Lemon wedges, for garnish

Bring a pot of water (3 or 4 inches deep) to a boil. Add lobster tails to the water and boil 7 to 8 minutes. Drain and shock under cold water to cool. Use kitchen scissors to cut away soft underside of tails. Remove meat and save the shells, arranging them in a shallow casserole dish. Chop the cooked meat on an angle into chunks.

Preheat your broiler to high. Heat a medium skillet and a small saucepan over medium heat. To the small sauce pot, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add finely chopped onion and cook 3 to 5 minutes until very soft. To the skillet, add remaining 2 tablespoons butter. When the butter melts, add chopped lobster meat and saute.

Add flour to saucepan with onions and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in wine or sherry, then milk. Remove sauce from heat and stir in cheddar cheese and paprika or crab boil. Season sauce with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over lobster meat and stir to combine. Pour lobster into and over the shells in a casserole dish and top with Parmesan and bread crumbs. Broil on high until golden, 2 or 3 minutes. Serve each tail, spilling over with lobster bits and sauce, on a bed of mixed baby greens and parsley with wedges of lemon alongside.

Option: To make this dish with jumbo shrimp, cut up peeled, deveined raw shrimp. Saute the shrimp in butter, as with cooked lobster. Cook until pink and firm and proceed with method. Place the shrimp and sauce into a small casserole, then spoon completed shrimp Thermidor over bed of greens and parsley leaves. — "Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals," TV Food Network


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