The Way of the Croissant: Traditional Perspectives On A Traditional Pastry1



Abstract

This investigation draws on concepts that have shaped the discipline of folklore since its inception to exact a fresh encounter with a transnationally popular item of Viennoiserie: the crescent-shaped pastry known as the croissant. Their application to this ephemeral foodways item sheds light on the croissant’s roots, dissemination, and distinct permutations. I discuss the origins of the pastry in the light of historic-geographic methodologies; its diffusion and evolution with reference to scholarship on tradition bearers, oikotypification, intertextuality and the role of the individual in perpetuating a tradition; and matters of its commodification and authenticity through consideration of how tradition functions in the modern age. Finally, through an autoethnographic approach, I draw on personal experience to consider one way in which croissant consumption may be traditionalized.

Key Words: croissant; food consumption; food performance; pastry; tradition; transmission

Introduction

These days, I am highly conscious of my croissant-consumption, but I don’t remember the first one I ate. I was probably a toddler and on one of many family holidays in France, since the combination of having Francophile parents and being brought up in the southeast of England—and therefore just a short trip away from the land of boulangerie—meant that my early years were marked by almost annual trips across the Channel. Initially, I would have eaten croissants in the utterly unconscious manner that aligns with the very first stage of Honko’s “folklore process” (2013 [1991]). The folk group was my family and—although my parents were surely aware that croissants were something apart from our everyday world—I would not have “noticed, recognized or emphasized” the pastry because it would have been simply “an organic part of everything that” happened (2013 [1991]:39). My level of awareness would have evolved though, and perhaps by the time I reached five or six, I had arrived at stage three of Honko’s process and become one of the many “external discoverers” of this particular pastry, at least to the extent of recognizing that the croissant was something that seemed to be French.

My croissant-eating process is now well into Honko’s concept of “second life of tradition” (2013 [1991]:48). Every time I enjoy a croissant these days, I recycle material “in an environment that differs from its original cultural context” (2013 [1991]:48). After all, I am no longer a child and have not been on holiday with my family to France for many years. Instead, when I now choose to eat a croissant of a morning, I am performing a small act of homage towards a lovely aspect of my childhood. I am intentionally acknowledging a connection with the past and with my familial cultural inheritance, and doing so in a manner that serves me in the present and is constitutive of my current life experience. I have meaningfully traditionalized my experience of the pastry, even invented a tradition for myself, and done so in a way that speaks to many themes that recur in the contemplation of tradition itself. As a result, I have gained, in Honko’s words, an “understanding of tradition even in a way that might not be possible by a genuine performance” (2013 [1991]:48).

I will share more on my traditionalization of croissant-consumption later. First, though, I want to explore “The Way of the Croissant” using lenses afforded by select folkloristic understandings of the word “tradition.” Given that interrogating the term is, in and of itself, an acknowledged tradition within folkloristics (Glassie 1995, Noyes 2009, “Introduction” to Cashman et al. 2011), there is no shortage of lenses from which to choose. This paper draws on concepts that have informed the discipline of folklore since its inception. It is notable that the majority of folkloristic theories and approaches regarding tradition have been generated in the course of studying oral and written texts. Here I apply them to an ephemeral foodways item and consider how they serve to shed light on this transnationally popular item of Viennoiserie, in particular on its roots, dissemination, and on distinct permutations.

Although iterations of the croissant are probably available on every continent in the world, the pastry is most commonly associated with France. Because its provenance is nevertheless contested, I first examine how historic-geographic methodologies can assist in evaluating varying origin claims for the croissant. Next I make reference to scholarship on tradition bearers and oikotypification to conjecture about the pastry’s diffusion and evolution, an area of inquiry to which a consideration of intertextuality also contributes. These concepts, along with discussion of the role of the individual in perpetuating a tradition, go on to assist my analysis of specific croissants. I then show how scholarship on heritage making, commodification, authenticity and traditionalization proves salient to croissant study.

Besides utilizing academic texts, I draw on my personal study (and consumption) of numerous iterations of the pastry, my fieldwork interviews (although I directly cite only one of these in this paper), as well as relevant newspaper reports, and websites. My order of business begins by establishing precisely what I mean when I use the word “croissant.”

Definitions, Patterns, Rules, Laws, and the Croissant

Recent evaluations of “tradition” usually allow for at least three basic understandings of the term: a process, a product, and/or a construction or attitude (see, for example, Noyes 2009, Kaplan 2013:124).2 A croissant fits most readily into the category of “product” but beyond that, how can it be classified? In pondering this, I exhibit a concern that has absorbed folklorists for decades, including early scholars like Edwin Hartland who understood the discipline to be “a science of tradition” (quoted in Bronner 1998:12). For example, Olrik sought to establish the “epic laws” governing folk narrative (1999 [1908]), Propp laid out essential elements around which the Russian fairy tale was shaped (1999 [1928]), and Dundes mapped a “structural typology” of North American Indian folktales (1965 [1963]). Abrahams brought similar efforts to bear on “process” (1976) and also sought to account for this enduring folkloristic preoccupation with demarcation. It is, he wrote, by naming certain patterns of expression that one is able to “talk about the traditional forms and the conventional contents of artistic representation, as well as the patterns of expectation which both the artist and audience carry into the aesthetic transaction” (193).

What then of patterns of expression and expectation when the traditional form in question is a croissant, with a baker the artist, and a consumer the audience? Or perhaps it is better to describe them as “maker” and “user” respectively since these are the terms Abrahams deemed more appropriate for forms of material culture (213). The croissant itself conforms with Abrahams’ outline of a static form since the user usually need not directly interact with the maker (though perhaps could if the maker were within easy reach of the point of sale). However, if the pastry in question were a mass-produced iteration whose maker or makers were so “far removed from” the user that personal interaction between them would be all but impossible, Abrahams would label it a product “of technology” and not folklore at all (213).

Continuing in my quest to pin down the patterns which govern and differentiate the croissant from other dough-based fare, I turned to Larousse Gastronomique, the venerable French encyclopedia of gastronomy, which defines the item as a “crescent-shaped roll generally made with leavened dough” (Gastronomic Committee 2001:372). It also points out that boulangers “usually sell two sorts of croissants: those made with butter and ‘the others’, which no law obliges them to declare are ‘made with margarine’” (Gastronomic Committee 2001:372).3 Another respected source comes courtesy of the diplomat-turned-food historian Alan Davidson. Davidson—who founded the food journal Petits Propos Culinaires and co-founded the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery—is also the author of The Oxford Companion to Food. In it, he proclaims that “croissant” is “a French word meaning crescent or crescent-shaped” and “the name traditionally given to a buttery breakfast roll or bread popular in France ” (1999:228). He adds that “croissants are made with a yeast-based dough, rolled to incorporate the butter exactly as is done when making puff pastry” (1999:228).

Moving on from Davidson, I lighted on the influential American cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck. Child and Beck’s view of croissants is both expansive and emphatic:

The most delicious of French croissants, to our mind, are those called croissants de boulanger, which are made of risen yeast-milk-and-flour dough that is flattened out, slathered with butter, folded in three, and rolled and folded again three times as though you were making French puff pastry. There are other formulas for croissants, including some which are really puff pastry or brioche dough rolled into crescent shapes. And in some of the quick methods the yeast dough has only a short single rise, resulting in a semi-puff pastry. None of these, to our mind, produces the tenderly layered, puffy, deliciously buttery croissant one dreams of. The old classic method does just this—and why go to all the trouble of making croissants otherwise? (1970:96)

With these sources to guide me, along with my perusal of various recipes and, of course, my own extensive experience of croissant consumption, I decided—tongue firmly in cheek—to formulate my own “Epic Laws of the Croissant.” Herewith, I proclaim that these four laws taken together can be used to determine the measure of the pastry. A true croissant:

(Law 1) —is a baked pastry that either takes a crescent shape, or has been straightened in such a way that a whisper of the crescent form remains, even if it is all but silent (this is because, thanks to a convention established by French bakers, croissants aux beurre, or butter croissants, are typically distinguished by the straightened form from those made with other fats, which are rounded);

(Law 2) —is rolled into said shape from a triangular, flattened piece of yeasted dough, typically of white wheat flour, that has been laminated through repeated folding and rolling with the fat.4

(Law 3) —is ideally made with butter, though other fats—generally margarine—are often substituted.5

(Law 4) —is associated with France (even though that association may be purely symbolic).

The Philology of the Croissant

The folkloristic engagement with discerning rules, delineating patterns and distilling structures necessitates access to multiple examples of whichever item or genre is under consideration and so has both fueled and been fueled by the collection of data. This was never truer than during the first half of the 20th century when the historic-geographic method was in vogue. Rooted in the philological study of the origins, development and diffusion of languages, the historic-geographic method was developed and primarily used as a means of approaching the texts of folk narratives, but it also was applied in early folkloristic studies of foodways with scholars recording modes of production, recipes, ingredients, and utensils (Long 2015:12). However, the croissant does not, alas, appear to have fallen within the purview of food scholars who espoused this methodology and thus we lack an index of early sightings, tastings, and mentions of the pastry. As it is, convincingly rigorous scholarship regarding the croissant’s origins is surprisingly hard to come by. Meanwhile so many conflicting stories exist about where the croissant is supposed to have first appeared, they could almost be considered a tale type in their own right.

A slim history of the pastry by Australian journalist David Halliday begins with a mention of the earliest known representation of the crescent form as carved onto a Sumerian ivory cylinder c. 2450 BC (2010:2), though Halliday contends that the “first glimpse of the croissant” was not spied until almost two millennia later in c. 500 BC, courtesy of the crescent-shaped breads baked in Ancient Greece to honor the moon-goddess Artemis (2010:6). He then states that “Austrian scholars from the museum of Vienna” confirm that “crescent-shaped pastries” known as a Kipfel or Kipferl date back to 13th century Vienna (2010:10-11). Allegedly made by bakers who wanted to pay homage to Duke Leopold VI for his involvement in the fifth crusade, the pastry’s shape was a reference to the sickle-moon symbol that was associated with the Byzantine Empire which was one of the targets of that holy war. It is these which Halliday designates as “the first croissants” though he clarifies that they were actually “simple glazed bread rolls and almond biscuits” (2010:11-12).

Larousse Gastronomique tells a different story, asserting that the croissant:

... originated in Budapest in 1686, when the Turks were besieging the city. To reach the center of the town, they dug underground passages. Bakers, working during the night, heard the noise made by the Turks and gave the alarm. The assailants were repulsed and the bakers who had saved the city were granted the privilege of making a special pastry in the form of a crescent in memory of the emblem on the Ottoman flag (Gastronomic Committee 2001:372).

Given the influential status of the French classic culinary reference book, it is perhaps not surprising that this version of the story has been oft repeated, not least in James Trager’s Food Chronology (1995:141). However, Trager also offers an alternative, the provenance of which is unclear. For the location, we return to Vienna, but the year is 1683 rather than the 13th century. Many of the other details Trager offers bear distinct similarities with the Budapest version: Vienna was under siege by the Turks; Viennese bakeries were located in cellars; bakers who were working through the night “heard digging and hammering sounds, realized that the Turks were trying to tunnel beneath the city’s walls, and . . . sounded the alarm”; the Turks were driven back and when the siege finally ended, the heroic bakers created a celebratory crescent-shaped pastry called a Kipfel to mark the occasion (1995:139-40).6

As a folklorist, I am of course as interested in oral sources as textual ones. Whilst working on this paper I chanced to meet a Ph.D. student by the name of Trisha Myers whose research is focused on the Ottoman Empire. I immediately asked her what she knew of the origins of the croissant. Her response, which she later confirmed in an email dated April 3, 2015, was as follows:

In the context of the new Franco-Ottoman alliance [which had taken place in 1536] François I ordered the creation of a pastry/food in the shape of a croissant to celebrate the friendship between the Ottomans and the French to be consumed at some kind of celebration upon the arrival of an Ottoman delegation.

This version was new to me and I did some research to see if I could find it repeated elsewhere. I was led to a recipe book by baking and pastry chef Michel Suas, the founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute. Suas mentions the 1683 Vienna origin story—though refers to the resulting pastry item as a Hörnchen rather than a Kipfel—but also states that, “in the culinary inventory of Patrimoine Français, mention is made of a cake in the shape of a croissant served during a banquet given in Paris by the Queen of France in 1549 to commemorate the alliance of François Ier with le Grand Turc” (2009:330). No citation details are given for this Patrimoine Français and as yet I have been unable to find out anything else about it.

None of these sources offers much detail about the pastries mentioned in the discussion of the croissant’s origin beyond their being crescent shaped. Bearing in mind my “Epic Laws of the Croissant,” I found this opacity unhelpful; after all, form alone does not a croissant make. I was delighted to find that Alan Davidson shared this opinion, for he writes that there “is more to the croissant than shape” (1999:228). In The Oxford Companion to Food, Davidson makes no mention of the 16th century France origin story but does refer to those of 17th century Vienna and Budapest, albeit with a variation: in each case it is just a single baker who denounces the tunneling Turks and then asks for “no reward other than the exclusive right to bake crescent-shaped pastries commemorating the incident” (1999:232). However, both stories appear in a section headed “Culinary Mythology.”7 Meanwhile, under the entry “Croissant,” Davidson narrows down the pastry’s provenance to some time between the latter half of the 19th century and the early 1900s. His reasoning is based on two key areas of evidence: (1) that croissants are found throughout France, and (2) that the earliest printed references to the item are found in French texts. Among the sources he cites are Payen’s 1853 publication of Des substances alimentaires which contains a reference to “les croissants;” the first edition of Littré’s French dictionary which appeared a decade later and wherein the croissant was defined as “a little crescent-shaped bread or cake;” and the first “true croissant recipe,” which was published in 1906 as part of Colombie’s Nouvelle Encyclopédie Culinaire (1999:228). Davidson’s argument thus conforms very neatly to the parameters set out by historic-geographic methodology and it was also the one I found most persuasive. As a result, although scholarship based upon the tenets of the historic-geographic method rather fell out of vogue in the mid 20th century (with notable exceptions and defenders; see, for example, Goldberg 2010), I am convinced it continues to have value as a research tool in studies of food origins and dissemination.

Croissant “Bearing” and Oikotypification

My next scholarly port of call is the work of one of the earliest critics of the historic-geographic method, Carl von Sydow. In particular I want to focus on his insights regarding tradition bearers and oikotypes. For illustrative purposes, I shall take one of the non-Gallic croissant-origin stories outlined above and—since the croissant forms part of a broader genre of French bakery items made with yeast, sugar, butter, and eggs labeled Viennoiserie (Suas 2009:305)—I am going to opt for the 1683 Vienna version. If the Viennese Kipfel (or Hörnchen) really were the proto-croissant, then who bore it westwards and how did it come to be so popular in France?

According to James Trager, the figure we have to thank was Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette upon her move to Versailles in 1770 ahead of her marriage to the French dauphin, later to be crowned Louis XVI (1995:170). If so, perhaps the initial popularity of the foreign aristocrat smoothed the acceptance of this particular culinary tradition, given that the culture of her native land was otherwise generally more likely to inspire fear and contempt amongst the French people (Kaiser 2003). Self-styled and self-published “French bread historian” Jim Chevallier has another bearer in mind: an Austrian ex-army officer by the name of August Zang (2009).8

The entrepreneurial Zang opened the Boulangerie Viennoise in the late 1830s on Paris’s then-fashionable Rue de Richelieu. His establishment quickly became immensely popular. Baking rivals took note and versions of the Kipfel began to appear in bakeries across Paris and beyond. Over time and in a manner that fits von Sydow’s theory, an oikotype emerged that was appropriate to the new location and which transformed what had originally been a “hard roll” (Bourguignon 1996:397). French pâtissiers added yeast and copious quantities of butter (or butter-substitute), layering fat and dough into a characteristic lamination, from which the familiar flaky croissant eventually emerged. It would go on to “become a traditional French breakfast treat” (Trager 1995:170), as well as “one of the most familiar French pastries to those living outside France, ubiquitous in bakeries through the world” (Suas 2009:330).9

Intertextuality and the Croissant

In 1995, Henry Glassie described tradition as a “volitional, temporal action” (409) which brings “about the creation of the future out of the past. A continuous process situated in the nothingness of the present, linking the vanished with the unknown” (395). Into the spaces that open up between these pasts, presents, and futures comes the concept of intertextuality and, more importantly, intertextual gaps. Intertextual gaps occur when a fresh interpretation of a generic form deviates from past performances—often through reaction to aspects of the present context—and thus becomes an emergent expression (Bauman 2004:7). The dimensions of these gaps can vary substantially and there is no doubt that where the croissant is concerned, “deviations abound” (Suas 2009:330). I shall therefore restrict myself to the brief examination of one particular iteration which I experienced courtesy of Pistacia Vera.

Figure 1

Photo 1. Pistacia Vera, April 2015. Photo: Rachel Hopkin.^

Pistacia Vera is based in Columbus, Ohio (Photo 1) and is, according to its website, a “pastry kitchen and café.” Every day, Pistacia Vera’s carte du jour offers a “rye croissant” which in many respects corresponds with my “Epic Laws of the Croissant”: it has a typical shape, it is yeasted, layered, flaky and buttery, and the fact that it is described as a “croissant” alone is sufficient to establish a symbolic connection to France (Photo 2). However, the flour is made, at least in part, from rye. Moreover, the pastry is topped with caraway seeds before baking. Both rye flour and caraway seeds are staples of many central European bakery items but why would they appear in this particular context? My surmise is as follows: Pistacia Vera is located in the Columbus neighborhood called German Village. As its name implies, German Village is a district that was settled by an influx of immigrants from the central European region now known as Germany during the mid 1800s (Conte 1994). This rye croissant is therefore effectively making intertextual links to two different genres—French Viennoiserie and German Brot—and my conjecture is that the latter functions as a means of acknowledging, paying homage even, to the history of Pistacia Vera’s location.

Figure 2

Photo 2. Pistacia Vera rye croissant, April 2015. Photo: Rachel Hopkin.^

The Individual and the Croissant: Artist, Performer, Consumer

The Pistacia Vera rye croissant also appears to show how an individual can shape a tradition. The establishment’s founder and head chef is Spencer Budros and if it was he who devised this particular culinary riff on two pre-existing dough-based traditions, presumably he was drawing on his training and experience, on his imagination and his individual taste, on recyclable elements from a relevant past, along with materials available to him in the present, to enact a fresh pastry synthesis that both maintains and changes the croissant tradition.

The importance of the individual in the maintenance of a tradition and its ongoing evolution rose to prominence during the so-called “performance turn” in folkloristics. Among the characteristics of that scholarly paradigm shift were a redirection of focus from texts to contexts, an awareness of the responsibility borne by the performer, and an understanding of the audience’s ability to shape any given rendering. Hymes’ “Ethnography of Speaking” was an important constituent of the performance turn and led to what Lucy Long terms the “Ethnography of Eating.” Central to an “Ethnography of Eating” approach is the “food event” concept where all choices made represent “the enactment of the individual’s history and identity responding to the specific context” with any meaning conveyed or understood thereby being “contingent on the situation” (Long 2015:284).

In their introduction to a 2011 collection of essays (and festschrift for Henry Glassie) that is appropriately entitled The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives, editors Cashman, Mould and Shukla explain why folklorists attend to the embodied particular:

In order to interpret and to generalize—to earn conclusions—folklorists gather information from specific individuals because tradition is enacted only through an individual’s act of creative will. This starting point—the study of tradition through attention to the individual—is not merely a methodological necessity (one must start somewhere), but more significantly a matter of philosophical conviction (2).

A few pages later, they compare the individual within a tradition to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur: “a crafty recycler who constructs new possibilities out of available handed-down raw materials, meeting present needs” (4).

To illustrate how some of these ideas work in practice, I shall draw on a series of email communications which took place between myself and Michelle Kozak during March 2015. Michelle is the chef/proprietor of the Ohio-based Pâtisserie Lallier and since 2009 she has provided “French pastries and desserts” to numerous businesses in the city of Columbus, in addition to maintaining a personal presence at a number of local farmers’ markets (Photo 3). On the “About Us” page of the Pâtisserie Lallier website, the text indicates Michelle has a personal connection to the land of the croissant:

Figure 3

Photo 3. Michelle Kozak after a busy morning at Clintonville Farmers Market, May 2015. Photo: Rachel Hopkin.^

In France, pastry shops are known as pâtisseries, and many times these stores take the name of the chef who founded them. Michelle’s grandfather’s family, the Lalliers, came to this country from France in the 1800s. 

Despite her ancestry, Michelle herself did not visit France until she was in her late teens, though she had already enjoyed the croissants of a local Columbus French-style bakery. Once she reached adulthood, her career took a number of different turns. She had been working as a banker with Chase for almost a decade when she decided to take a four-week intensive basic pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School [LCB] in Paris. I asked her if her having French forebears had influenced that decision but she demurred. Instead she explained that her interest was:

. . . separate from the family because I don’t think I really knew about the French heritage so much until later in life after my love of that language and culture had already been formed. I am also Polish, Scottish, English, German, Irish, and growing up Polish was what stood out. My dad’s father and four uncles were all born here, but they were raised speaking Polish so I was more familiar with that culture.

However there were a number of other factors that did have an impact: many members of Michelle’s family, including her grandparents and her mother, enjoyed cooking, and she picked up her initial interest from them; she had spent a couple of years in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she became fluent in French and fell in love with the language; her grandparents ran a grocery store for around 30 years (Lallier Food Center in Leavenworth, Kansas) and her father was also an entrepreneur, so she too had been looking for ways to form her own business. Michelle had taken one cookery class in Columbus but it proved to be an unsatisfactory experience and she began wondering about the next step. After hearing about LCB from a colleague, she explored the courses that the school offered. The pastry course was the one that most appealed partly because she has “a sweet tooth” and also because she “didn't want to have to work with certain types of protein/animals for the cuisine classes.” She participated in her first LCB course during the summer of 2009, returned twice for further study, and in 2011 she received her Pastry Chef Diploma.

On Michelle’s return from her initial visit to LCB, she found she had to practice extensively before she was able consistently to produce pastries she judged adequate. Her earliest croissants “seemed heavy and didn't have the lighter texture that they should, and there was so much butter on the baking sheet after they had baked.” She continued with a process of trial and error and also carried out some text-based research. In time she learned that “the butter wasn't incorporated well enough through the dough turns and also the croissants hadn’t proofed long enough.”

That Michelle undertook lengthy training, then worked diligently alone in order to reach a level of mastery that corresponded to the standards she had been taught—and tasted—in France, as well as those she herself held, indicates that she took seriously her responsibility for performing the croissant tradition. In addition, as her transition from banker to baker progressed, she had to ensure she was producing croissants that her Ohio audience would deem “competent” and “appropriate” at the very least. Throughout her efforts to meet both demands, Michelle told me she has always adhered to the ingredients specified in the original LCB croissant recipe yet has managed to exercise certain changes:

I have experimented with times to let the dough rest before/during/after butter incorporation (lamination), proofing times, and baking times/temperatures. I found that longer proofing times (longer than what they told us at school) work better. Early on I used to have some problems with the croissant . . . sometimes toppling over when proofing and/or baking. For that I made the base a little longer, and it corrected the problem.

In addition, Michelle has developed a number of variations on the croissant theme that she regularly serves alongside the plain versions (Photo 4). She added almond croissants to her menu early on “because that was always my favorite when we ordered croissants from [the local French bakery] in high school.” She described how she came to introduce several other elements:

Figure 4

Photo 4. Patisserie Lallier butter croissant, May 2015. Photo: Rachel Hopkin.^

A couple of years ago I saw an episode of one of the America’s Test Kitchen episodes on PBS where they were making croissant cinnamon rolls called morning buns. I tested the filling with my croissant dough, and we really loved it. I started selling those at the farmers’ market in the summer of 2013. Over time I had also gotten requests for savory croissants, so last summer I tested some different flavors and liked best the combination of olive tapenade, roasted red pepper and feta. I started making it in the traditional croissant shape, but then found that it was easier to wrap up all of that filling if I used the pain au chocolat shape. The oranais croissants with the apricots and pastry cream have been a favorite of mine when I have travelled to Paris, and I had a customer asking about them last summer, so I'm hoping to experiment and add those soon.

Such activity indicates that Michelle is indeed a bricoleur in the sense that she can creatively and innovatively recycle a range of “materials”—materials in the form of her own memories, taste-preferences, and encounters with new ideas, combined with audience interaction and suggestions—yet still maintain elements of earlier croissant-making practice. She thereby upholds the past, shapes the future, and both creates and re-creates in the present the tradition of which she is both bearer and constituent.

The Croissant—Tradition and Modernity

During the course of our correspondence, Michelle commented to me that although she had much enjoyed the croissants offered by the French-style bakery of her high school years, their products had not been the same following a change in ownership of the establishment. On her last visit she found that “their croissants didn’t really look like croissants. I think they use commercially made dough.” If true, the bakery would be by no means alone in selling mass-produced pastries. In a 2012 article in the Daily Telegraph headlined “Croissants ‘dying out’ in France,” Henry Samuel reported that survival of the “true French croissant” was threatened by exponential growth in sales of “industrially made” iterations that could be heated up on site and sold as “home-made,” and goes on to claim that those:

. . . makers of the true French croissants complain they cannot compete with the lower prices of industrially made fare, which are sold at around 20 centimes apiece in bakery catalogues.10 “I make my patisseries myself but I’m losing money,” warned Sophie, a baker in a chic quarter of the 1st arrondissement [of Paris]. “It’s not on. While they haven’t resolved the problem of the cost of home-made croissants, lots of bakers will call on the industry,” she said.

“Commercially made,” “industrially-made” . . . such terms fairly drip with disdain for products of technology, of mechanization, items which come about lacking meaningful contact with the human hand; expressions of “modernity,” in other words.

“Folklore is predicated on the death of tradition,” states Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (2000:8) in recognition of the discipline’s Romantic roots. However, in the 21st century, the majority of folklorists understand their subject to be “thoroughly embedded in modern life” (Blank and Howard 2013:1) and in a state of constant regeneration. Something which took place in France during the late 1970s serves as an illustration of how this applies to the croissant. At that time, the country was dealing with the onslaught of American style fast food which in turn prompted massive efforts to counteract the foreign fare (Davidson 1999:228). Part of the pushback involved the establishment of so-called croissanteries across the country. These new eating places specialized in croissants that were split open lengthwise and garnished “sandwich fashion, with every imaginable filling from ham to chestnut cream” (Davidson 1999:228). This multifaceted innovative adaptation of the croissant actually “strengthened the French attachment to what is considered a national food” (Davidson 1999:228) even though it necessitated the large scale commercial production of croissants which—as the Daily Telegraph article quoted above indicates—is now being blamed for the demise of the pastry.

As it turns out, a thorough reading of the Telegraph article indicates that the situation is less dire than its grim headline implies since the author goes on to describe that French “makers of true home-made croissants” are also finding ways to adapt:

Pierre Couderc, a baker in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, has placed a large sign in his window that reads: “All our products are prepared on site. They have not been chosen from a catalogue and delivered frozen by the industry.” Discerning customers can taste the difference, the bakery’s croissant-maker-in-chief Eddy Le Tourrier insisted. “Our croissants are not rubbery, nor are they full of air. They are consistent and at the same time light, unctuous and crispy when they come out of the oven” (Samuel 2012).

It appears then, that even in the face of mass-produced croissants, hand-made croissants—and the way of the croissant more generally—will continue.

The Croissant, Invented Traditions and Notions of Authenticity

Although those mass-produced croissants feed the hungry customers at French croissanteries and inspired an increased national identification with the pastry, are they considered authentic? And if not, then what is the measure of an “authentic” croissant? Historian James G. Ferguson poses this very question in an article entitled “Is this the Real ThingTM?” and asks if there exists an “undiscovered template from Plato’s bakery” or some other fail-proof means of establishing the standard against which all others may be judged (2006:178). Unable to find one, he instead offers an anecdote. A friend of his had just purchased a baguette from a patisserie in Dijon, Burgundy. On exiting:

. . . she was accosted by an older man for buying bread made in a machine. It wasn’t a flute from an enormous department store or even one from a local miniature grocery shop. It was a piece of French bread purchased from a Frenchman, with French money, at a French establishment. Apparently those conditions were not enough to ensure French authenticity (2006:178).

Are French bakers quoted in the Telegraph article therefore making claims of authenticity when they speak of their products being hand “prepared on site?”

The concept of authenticity is bound up with that of tradition because the latter is often wielded as a strategic means of establishing the former (Glassie 1995:40), which has led to concerns that “authentic” folkloric traditions may be used as legitimizing forces to underpin particular ideologies. This issue was tackled in the pages of the influential edited volume The Invention of Tradition which set out to show that traditions, through the forging of tenuous links to the past, could effectively be “invented”—institutionally and otherwise—to serve partisan viewpoints in the present (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

What are the implications of the notion of invented traditions for the croissant’s status within France where its popularity expanded during the course of the 20th century to such an exponential degree that it is now considered “one of the most definitively French symbols in the world” (Halliday 2010:xi)? It even entered the discourse when the “Gastronomic Meal of the French” was nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” despite the fact that the pastry is typically served at breakfast and, even when it is made into a sandwich, it still plays no role in the lengthy multi-course meal described in the formal nomination.11 That minor detail did not prevent the New York Times from publishing an article about the nomination which was headlined “Time to Save the Croissants” (Sciolino 2008).

Is the croissant’s traditional status within the Land of the Gauls fatally compromised by the persistent rumors of its roots lying elsewhere? It has certainly led some to mock. For example, David Halliday writes, “we have good news for those people who want to order a croissant without genuflecting to all things French or sounding like a pretentious faux-French imbecile. The croissant is not originally French” (2010:xii). In a similar tone, an article published on a website devoted to “features, advice, information and news about and from France” is titled “Croissants–a Great French Icon?” and its first line declares that “the flaky, buttery delicious crescent-shaped pastry called a croissant is a French icon and yet . . . it isn’t really French” (Marsh, n.d.). Such derision calls to mind Hugh Trevor-Roper’s pompously scathing (if also amusing) excavation of the genesis and evolution of the Scottish kilt, which he variously locates in almost any place but Scotland (1983).

If the authenticity of the croissant is doubted because it may have originated outside of France, its potential precursor may be tarred with a similar brush. After all, the Kipfel/Kipferl/Hörnchen complies with many of the facets of “invented tradition” as set out by Eric Hobsbawm in his introduction to The Invention of Tradition. It was, after all, constructed in response to an official command, then more or less “formally instituted” as a culinary vehicle through which the rulers of Vienna (or Budapest) could mark, celebrate, commemorate, and generally prolong the afterglow of their triumph over their Ottoman enemies, thereby allowing them a means of maintaining “continuity with a suitable historic past” (1983:1).

Overall The Invention of Tradition regarded invented traditions in a poor light, with its contributors associating the concept with malfeasance, manipulation, subterfuge, deception, and ignorance. However, a year after its publication, anthropologists Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin responded by asserting that all traditions are inventions. Their argument, simply put, is that traditions are neither genuine nor spurious but exist only in our interpretations of them. An invented tradition therefore is not an anomaly but the rule since “to do something because it is traditional is already to reinterpret and hence to change it” (1984:281). As a result, the value of a tradition “does not depend upon an objective relationship to the past” and “the origin of cultural practices is largely irrelevant to the experience of tradition; authenticity is always defined in the present” (1984:286).

On that basis, it would seem that—regardless of whether the croissant’s roots lie in Sumer, Ancient Greece, Austria, Hungary, or anywhere else—if French bakers and consumers find value in interpreting the croissant as being an authentic symbol of their country’s heritage, culture, and cuisine, as well as meaningful in their formation of their own identities in their act of making, displaying, eating, or digesting it, then so it is.

The Croissant and Traditionalization

The idea that tradition, as spelled out by Handler and Linnekin, is essentially a matter of interpretation in the present, albeit connected to some form of reference to the past, is not unlike Dell Hymes’ concept of “traditionalization,” namely that the historical antecedents of a given tradition are not so important as its place in social life. According to Hymes, we all make efforts to “traditionalize” aspects of our experience:

In a given case, the namings of situations that recur, the ritual arrangements that are recreated, may be idiosyncratic. But the traditional begins with the personal. Its distribution in history, in a community, is important, but secondary, not defining. Something partakes of the nature of the traditional already when the effort to traditionalize has brought it into being. For that one or few, it answers to the notion. (1975:354)

That explanation gives me, I hope, license to offer my own personal and idiosyncratic eating of croissants as an instance of traditionalization in action.

In the introduction to this paper, I explained how I enjoyed many family holidays in France as a child and my memories of those times are almost uniformly idyllic. The significance of the country for me lies in its being the location of that early happiness even though it later became one of the seven countries, spread over three continents, in which I have lived during my adult life. I seem to have been almost addicted to inhabiting new places, finding somewhere new to explore every 18 months or so on average. Between 2010 and 2012, I was in Kentucky and studying for a Masters in Folklore at Western Kentucky University. There, as I learned about the nature of tradition and traditionalization, I realized my fragmented and multi-sited existence, while exciting and stimulating, had been a poor proving ground for nurturing and maintaining traditions of my own. I was almost always far from my family and although I like to think I am reasonably good at making friends, inevitably those who were physically closest to me in any given base were also the ones of most recent standing.

Between Kentucky and my current home of Columbus, Ohio, I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. I moved there for a job, arrived ten days before its official start date, and spent the time exploring the city and its environs. One of my stops was at the Bellagio Hotel on the Strip where my attention was caught by its Palio Café. For some reason, it triggered memories of French eateries in Menton, a town on the Mediterranean coastline which my family had visited during three summers. (I later discovered that the Bellagio was designed to give visitors the illusion they are at Italy’s Lake Como, which is not so very far from Menton.) I went back the following day specifically to enjoy a croissant breakfast like those I would have eaten as a child—although the Palio croissant had the dimensions of a full-grown hedgehog and therefore was several times the size of the ones I remembered from France. I enjoyed the meal and the illusion the place evoked of being on the Riviera. On leaving, I decided to visit the Bellagio’s small art gallery, where an exhibit of works by Monet was on show. To my delight I found that one of the paintings depicted a panorama of Menton! The next day, I went hiking on Mount Charleston, which is about 45 minutes to the northwest of Vegas, where memories of the Riviera once again overwhelmed me—the topography and the flora were so similar to those of the mountains behind the French town.

When I moved to Nevada I had hoped it would be for more than 18 months, and even that I could set a new precedent by building a home there in the deep sense of the word. Perhaps then, it was a combination of the family memories—which happened to be tied to France and were stoked by certain encounters in this new city—along with my recently acquired folkloristic knowledge, that led me to traditionalize my croissant-consumption. It also helped, of course, that I find the pastry—at least when well performed—utterly delicious!

I returned to Palio many times, then started to visit a few other cafes around town. Over time, I began to make it a conscious activity to seek out new croissants to try for breakfast. I soon found I was sampling so many iterations, I needed to record my observations and so began to talk about my “Quest for the Best Croissant in the West.” I also made efforts to find croissants whenever I traveled. When I moved to Ohio to start my Ph.D., my endeavor transmuted into the “Quest for the Best Croissant in the Midwest.”

Tom Mould offered a reassessment of traditionalization in 2005, perceiving it as a conscious process in which performers draw on items they deem traditional within an interpretive framework that allows them to construct “a conservative dialogue against the modern” (289). But this is not the purpose it serves for me. I don’t traditionalize my croissant-eating to critique modernity. Nor do I want to revisit even the nicest parts of my childhood. However, in drawing on resources available to me now but influenced by my memories and tastes, I have found a practice that requires no hard work (bar the pain experienced when I encounter a disappointing croissant), which enhances my inhabitation of the present and literally enables me to savor my experience of life.

Other than eating croissants, my traditionalization involves other components. They include: researching new sources; introducing friends and dear ones to “croissants I have loved” (Photo 5); communicating with purveyors about their ideas vis-à-vis good croissants; throwing parties where croissants are served; giving croissant-themed gifts (Photo 6); writing this paper even. My croissant traditionalization is transportable, often delicious, and a lot of fun. It is also strangely meaningful and I imagine this is because, to paraphrase Henry Glassie on the subject of authenticity, my “individual commitment” to my croissant quest brings with it “social association” (1995:401).

Figure 5

Photo 5. Folklorist Martha Sims with croissant from Salt Lake City’s Tulie Bakery, visited on author’s recommendation, 2015. Photo: Brian Lovely.^

Figure 6

Photo 6. M.J., Jr., son of folklorist Sheila Bock and historian Michael J. Alarid, with croissant rattle author sent as a gift. October 2015. Photo: Sheila Bock.^

As for the croissant’s continuing traditional evolution—based on its history I can only imagine that more variations, more hybrids, and more pushbacks of a conservative nature lie ahead. I would certainly love to see more scholarship on its history. As for me, it’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future, I may decide to seek out scones or brioches. But even if that does happen, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before I return to “the way of the croissant.”

Notes

(1)^I thank Jasmine Stork, whose turn of phrase in a different context inspired the title of this paper.

(2)^In the cited 2009 paper, Noyes argues for an additional mode to the three mentioned in the body of my paper, namely “the transfer of responsibility for a valued practice or performance” (233). In a synthetic 1984 article, Ben-Amos outlined seven ways in which folklorists have used the term “tradition”–lore, canon, process, mass, culture, langue, and performance. Oring has since argued that six of these (i.e. all but process) relate to product (2013:24).

(3)^Margarine was invented by Frenchman Mège Mouriès in 1869 in response to a competition organized by the Emperor Napoleon III. At that time, the Franco-Prussian war was underway, butter was scarce and expensive, and the goal of the competition was to find a cheaper substitute (Davidson 1999:478).

(4)^ Laminated doughs are formed by blending the basic ingredients with only a small proportion of the fat. The resulting mixture is then rolled out and the remaining fat is spread over the top. The fat is then incorporated by successive foldings and rollings out of the dough, a process which produces the characteristic laminated dough layers.

(5)^When margarine first appeared (see note 2), it was an instant commercial success but also provoked widespread disdain as a “cheaper and inferior substitute” for butter (Davidson 1999:478). Croissants made with margarine are generally considered to be inferior to pur beurre iterations.

(6)^Trager adds that “some historians say that the bakers produced the kipfel in anticipation of a Turkish victory” as opposed to celebrating their defeat (1995:140).

(7)^ Davidson attributes the dissemination of these croissant origin “myths” to Alfred Gottschalk who gave the Budapest story in his entry for the croissant in the 1938 first edition of Larousse Gastronomique and then offered the Vienna version in his own later and single-authored history of food. Aside from “The Origins of the Croissant,” The Oxford Companion to Food’s “Culinary Mythology” section contains five other so-called myths, including “Effect of Searing Meat” (apparently, contrary to popular understandings, searing meat does not seal in the juices) and “Marco Polo’s Supposed Introduction of Pasta from China to the Western World” (documentary evidence indicates pasta was being served in Italy prior to 1295 which was when Marco Polo returned from the Far East).

(8)^ The quoted description of Chevallier comes from his page at academia.edu, accessed on 4/18/2015 via https://independent.academia.edu/JimChevallier.

(9)^Examining other figures who helped further the croissant’s status as an internationally-enjoyed pastry lies beyond the scope of this paper. However, future research might examine potential “passive tradition bearers” such as Charles Dickens and Henry James, since both referred to the item in their writings. James described croissants as “so softly-crusty crescent rolls” in his 1913 autobiography A Small Boy and Others (as quoted in Chevallier 2009:53), whilst Dickens mentioned their having become staples in Parisian cafes by 1865 (Halliday 2010:107) and later wrote of “the dainty croissant on the boudoir table” (Dickens 1872:61).

(10)^Twenty centimes is approximately the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents.

(11)^ The “Gastronomic meal of the French” was inscribed on UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2010. According to the UNESCO website, the meal consists of a “fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert.” (See http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/gastronomic-meal-of-the-french-00437, accessed January 5, 2017)

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