116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Reminiscences on Food by Expatriate Journalist Janet Flanner: “Eating in France was a new body experience”

Sylvie Blum, University of Florida

Flanner’s Letters from Paris from 1925 to 1954 reported on food and culinary modes, on top of socio-political and artistic matters. A rue Jacob (Left Bank) bistro became her platform to figure out the political landscape, wine making, cubist designs, writers, surrealism and French customs regarding food and meals. 

Proposal: 

New Yorker foreign correspondent Janet Flanner (under the pen name of Genêt) spent many years of her life in Paris commenting on social life, writers, political events, art and ….food from 1925 to 1975. Flanner who trained as a journalist was also an aspiring fiction writer.

Flanner was at the heart of the generation of American expatriate authors and artists, the ‘lost generation’. She was able to integrate the Parisian avant-garde artistic culture. She belonged to the community of women presented in Shari Benstock’s Women from the Left Bank (UT Press, 1986) as well as Greta Schiller and Sabine Weiss’s Paris was a woman (1996), a documentary film devoted to the contribution of French, and American expatriate lesbians in the roaring twenties.

Flanner managed to enter different worlds in order to report back to her American readers for over two decades. Both her Letters from Paris (1925-1939), translated into French as Chroniques d’une Américaine à Paris, and her Paris Journals propose a lively account of life in France. As Natalia Danesi Murray recalls, ‘she interpreted European people and events to American readers’ (“letters to a friend,” French Review June 1,1985,108). She is one of the early voices to explain the Josephine Baker phenomenon in Paris and to sketch different portraits of writers and actors. Colette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, and Ernest Hemingway were her friends. Flanner managed to give the reader the illusion that she/he was there in the middle of the 1920s.

Although food does not occupy a central position in her literary and artistic profiles, it pops up in her descriptions and tastes, recalling the sensual appeal of eating and drinking upon her arrival. As an American with modest means in the 1920s, she frequented a modest bistro on Rue Jacob with a prix fixe menu. Years later, in 1972, Flanner reminisces on the importance of these early meals. Her memory of food remains strong and ingrained in the Parisian transformative experience. “Eating in France was a new body experience”. While not belonging to Haute Cuisine, her standard meals were nevertheless extremely pleasing due to the location, the company, and ingredients. She explains, “It was a civilized, countrified, delicious, inexpensive French meal” (Flanner 1972). She recalls and breaks down the taste of such food and wine for the reader.

Her favorite haunt, a bistro named La 4eme République on rue Jacob, became a platform allowing her to figure out the political landscape, wine making, cubist designs, writers, Surrealism and French customs regarding food and meals. Forced to leave France during the war, upon her return in 1944 she resumed her conversation then turned toward food shortages impacting the French population. Later in the early 1970s, she projects on food again. Her Letters from Paris and her Paris Journals show a brilliant understanding of the culture as well as an appreciation of culinary modes.