The cultural magnificence of the vinaigrette was revealed to me in a paper read by Timothy Tomasik, an accomplished scholar of 16th-century French food, basically 1530 to 1560, during the height of the foires of Lyon and right around the time that the grand councillors of the city hosted their Swiss counterparts. The event, held on a rainy Saturday morning in Manhattan, was moderated by Allen Grieco, a research associate at the Villa i Tatti in Florence, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies. (Spoiler alert number five: We did visit New York City—twice; in fact, we would eventually return.) Tomasik’s paper was on the history of the word “vinaigrette.”
Since the withering humiliation of my having to ask how to make a vinaigrette, I had become a student of it and its many variations and its importance to the French kitchen (acid! wine! balance!). But the history? I had read Pasteur, but Pasteur was 19th century. Tomasik, then a friend (we met at another Renaissance food conference), was going to go deep into the word’s very origins. I showed up jumping-in-my-seat excited, and was shocked, genuinely, to see that only six other people were in the audience in a room that accommodated 200. On a Saturday! New York is a big city. Where were everyone?
Tomasik’s lecture was an effort to solve a puzzle. The modern sense of the word “vinaigrette” was first published in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française in 1694, which describes it as “a type of cold sauce,” une sorte de sauce froide, that is made “with vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and chives.” Since then, there have been variations on the essential formula, but the French Academy’s remains the best definition.