The essence of French food, as any gastronome will tell you, is not wine, cheese, or pastry, or anything featured in a travel brochure. The backbone of French food is something more subtle and difficult, and infinitely more French. It is sauce--the stubborn, difficult, patently unmodern sauce. I do love a sauce, but more than a sauce, I love the idea of a sauce. There is something so retrograde about it, the very opposite of a shortcut, the long process that whittles down 25 pounds of meat and bone into five quarts of exquisiteness, into a puddle on the plate. I myself have never made a demi-glace or any of the veloutés, or even a decent hollandaise. I have never transformed espagnole into Sauce Robert. As it turns out, I love sauce in an abstract manner.

The precision, the difficulty, the science-art intersection, the extensive taxonomy of the sauce--all seem particularly French, on par with the explication de texte and deconstructionism, the pleasure hard-won and deeply enjoyed. To see the full glory of French cuisine laid out like the table of elements, you should get yourself a copy of Escoffier's Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery (or Guide Culinaire), published, in its most thorough edition, in 1921; Escoffier's sauce chapter alone has 280 items.

Escoffier codified French cuisine in a manner that's almost maddeningly conflicted. His insistence on conformity and generality of instructions (Escoffier was big on vague verbs like "prepare"--he assumed that someone reading his book would already know the basics) is less useful than formidable, at least to home cooks like me. I can read the Guide Culinaire, if not like a novel, then like an anthology of poems--skipping around, reading carefully here and only half-attentively there. I maintain a conceptual relationship with all of the four mother sauces (from which all the French sauces derive), which is much easier than actually making them.

A sauce, in the classic French haute cuisine definition, is a process that begins with making stock out of bones, roasted or not, for about 12 hours, and then straining the stock and reducing it, then reducing it further, adding a roux (flour cooked in clarified butter until all the chalklike flour taste is gone)... and then, when you are actually ready to cook two days later, adding seasoning, herbs, spices, whatever, and pouring it over roasted this or poached that. You cannot start with bouillon cubes--if you reduce crap, you get concentrated crap. It's much like the minimal tolerances carpenters adhere to when building a staircase--too many sloppy mistakes add up to stairs that you'd fall right off.

My intellectual relationship with the French sauce, however, mostly sounds ridiculous because food, in the end, is about deliciousness. But what can you do? Some people ignore French sauces altogether, preferring a more Italianate concept of food (one that has filtered down into American cuisine by way of Alice Waters), which is that the only essential part of good cooking is excellent ingredients. It's hard, after all, to ruin an insalata caprese: tomatoes in full bloom, milky mozzarella, the sweetest possible basil, a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and olive oil. No reduction, no skimming, no chinois.

I suspect that the resistance to haute cuisine and Escoffier's endless lists has something to do with our contemporary self-image as sensual, pleasure-loving animals. There's a reason Nigella Lawson and Jamie "Naked Chef" Oliver are so popular, what with strewing a few things together in a pot and then serving it up casually to anxious friends and family. The Guide Culinaire can seem like a major killjoy, prescriptive and stern. (Here is where I like to remind people that it was Catherine de Medici's Italian chefs, whom she brought with her when she arrived in France to marry Henri II in 1553, who taught French chefs a thing or two and changed French cuisine forever. Historically, it's a debatable point, and sauces as we know them didn't appear in French cookbooks until the 17th century, but it's a good story nonetheless.)

But taste a sauce. There is nothing more sensual, and perhaps more so for having been created within definite limits. The flavors in a sauce, if you are a fan of what food really tastes like, are the flavors of food reduced and concentrated to their purest essence, perfectly heightened by seasoning. And the processes of food are as engaging for the mind as the flavors are for the mouth. Raymond Sokolov, author of The Saucier's Apprentice (the book that definitively translated French sauces for American homes, published in 1976 and still going strong), wrote, "It is nonsense to say that complex results are not just as tasty and more interesting than simple ones. A sauce... adds something, really two things: a taste as well as the opportunity to think about how the thing was made. This is the same kind of pleasure we derive when we look at a painting."

Recently, I've noticed that you can get handsome little containers of ready-made demi-glace at places like Whole Foods, so theoretically you could skip the two days of sweating over an enormous stock pot and do something more useful with your time. But then what would be the point?