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Thought for food


WINNING DISH: The book's character Dodin-Bouffant served a classic French pot-au-feu

Marcel Rouff’s ‘The Passionate Epicure’ is one of the best examples of gastronomical literature.

A novel, published in the Marcel Proust era, and devoted to food from one end to another deserves special mention. And this, not because of its literary worth so much as for the way its author, Marcel Rouff, manages with great verve and dexterity to attain two objectives: one, to provide a straightforward narrative with a rather thin and predictable plot and two, to develop a discourse on gastronomy that reaches the zenith of codification.

Set in an unnamed small town in the Franche-Comtê, the main character, Dodin-Bouffant, a jurist by profession, devotes all his waking hours to gastronomy: to eating, thinking and talking about the refinements of French cuisine. For him this activity is both an artistic and a patriotic one since it upheld the glory of France. No other book I know of describes one delectable meal after another - and indeed one detestable banquet too - with such overpowering wit, verve and authority as this one. Satire and sensuality on this scale and intensity are yet to be matched.

The novel opens with these sentences: "Eugênie Chataigne, Dodin-Bouffant's cook, was dead. In the full development of her genius, she had just passed away, an incomparable artist, the blessed dispenser of all culinary treasures of which, for ten years, at the table of the master celebrated throughout France, they were the cherished beneficiaries. " Her death, Dodin-Bouffant fears, foretells a bleak future: "sautêed chickens smothered tactlessly under mountains of tomatoes, shamefully rushed hashes, dry, tough partridges, veal fricasses with neither enrichment nor succulence, saddles of hare without broth, crunch-less French fries, un-browned beans. " The fears are unfounded for the master soon acquires another cook whose culinary wizardry is, if anything, superior to that of Eugênie Chataigne.

The centre-piece of the novel is a gastronomic duel - the only one in the history of literature. Aware of Dodin-Bouffant's fame as a gastronome, the Prince of Eurasia invites him to a dinner and offers him a gargantuan meal. It consists of an endless stream of the most exotic dishes prepared with the most exotic ingredients and served with an ostentatious display of ornamentation. The prince was clearly determined to flaunt his wealth and the skills of his cooks. But the master, finding several 'solecisms' - offence against grammar or idiom - in the meal is unimpressed. He detects gastronomic grammatical errors in the menu, he notes the violation of culinary rules and laws, he spots the absence of reason and logic: all egregious acts that, in his eyes, are tantamount to murder.

To teach the Prince a lesson, Dodin-Bouffant invites him to dinner where the menu sparkles with simplicity. After a modest range of hors-d'oeuvres, some fried morels named after Brillat-Savarin, a pot-au-feu, an onion puree and dessert. Two white and three red wines accompany the dishes. Each one turns out to be superb. Dodin-Bouffant easily wins the duel.

Marcel Rouff's lengthy account of this meal - the soup alone takes two pages to describe - outclasses in its style anything one has found in gastronomic literature. Here is one passage: "This soup was simply a master-piece. Very complex and very meditated, with a somewhat old-fashioned charm like greuze, it had some brutal aspects like Ribera and some unpredicted tenderness like Da Vinci. Its general allure recalled the development of the sonata in which each theme keeps its own life and taste in the collective strength and harmony of the whole. It had a singular taste, but each part of the taste kept its own natural and personal taste. "

Passages of such haunting evocation of the sense of taste occur in page after page of this novel that sadly didn't sell well. The first edition quickly went out of print and for decades stayed out of print. Marcel Rouff was better known as the co-author, along with the legendary Counonsky, of the monumental work La France gastronomique. But in recent years The Passionate Epicure has generated much excitement among scholars of gastronomic literature and the general public alike.

Those interested in the place of gastronomy in French literature and culture thus have a vast body of work to turn to for information, insight and pleasure. Before we talk of other novelists who focussed on food in their work, it is pertinent to point out that France's great chefs were also excellent writers in the sense that they were not content to provide recipes but also to engage in a literary activity. Consider Auguste Escoffier's 'Guide Culinaire', published in 1903, that lists some 5000 recipes. He vindicates the pertinence of the theory that cooking is a form of writing. And he vindicates another theory too viz. that French gastronomy lends itself to two kinds of rhetoric: the rhetoric of the 'terroir' and the rhetoric of 'êpice'. One is bound to the soil of the earth, and the other, spice, to the world beyond the Hexagon.

(This is the fifth of a six-part series on gastronomy in French literature and culture)

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