Issue 24 Shadows Winter 2006/07
Ingestion / Fear of Flesh
Allen S. Weiss
“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.
And then there’s the joke about the tribe of cannibals who have decided to become vegetarians: for the moment, they’re only eating fishermen. This dark humor sums up the ambiguity and resistance that vegetarian cuisine faces in France. Consider a cautionary recipe. Several years ago, in autumn, I arrived at a superb restaurant famed for its use of wild ingredients, with great expectations regarding a dish featuring six varieties of wild mushrooms. But the results were disappointing because, the dish being a main course, the chef felt obliged to serve the mushrooms adorned with fish or fowl or flesh. Consequently he used six sea scallops—for both decorative and gustatory reasons—as miniature edible pedestals for the succulent mushrooms in question. While many surf-and-turf combinations—such as Portuguese clams and pork, or Bordelais oysters and sausage—are excellent, this one failed as the scallops and the mushrooms resisted each others’ charms. How much better the dish would have been if the fundament had been tiny blinis soaked in butter and studded with garlic and chives! Or even graced with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, as the song goes.
In a country where the Potager du Roi (the King’s vegetable garden at Versailles) is a national institution, the aesthetics of vegetarianism would appear both logical and likely. However, it remains unseemly in France to serve a vegetarian main course. We should note that no entry on vegetarianism is to be found in the famed Dictionnaire de l’Académie des Gastronomes (1962), and perhaps even more emblematic of the degree to which French culture disregards vegetarianism is the fact that throughout the nearly 600 tightly printed pages of Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s Histoire naturelle & morale de la nourriture (1987), there are only two (!) references, in passing, to the subject—a most curious and ironic omission in what purports to be a moral history of food! This explains certain criticisms suffered by Alain Passard at his restaurant Arpège (at the summit of French cuisine, with its three Michelin stars), when several years ago, upon profound reflection following the Mad Cow Disease scare, he decided to eliminate all red meat from his menus, though he still serves fish, shellfish, and poultry, such as the Bavarois d’avocat au caviar osciètre royal d’Iran (huile de pistache citronné) [Bavarois of avocado and royal Iranian osciotr caviar (lemon-flavored pistachio oil)] and the Antique poulet du Haut-Maine au foin (herbes de prairie naturelles) [Heirloom chicken from Haut-Maine cooked in hay (wild herbs)], as well as his many strictly vegetarian dishes, including the Blanc de poireau et pomme de terre fumée au bois de hêtre (beurre à la muscade) [Leek whites and potatoes smoked over beech wood (nutmeg butter)] and the Betterave au sel gris de Guérande (vinaigre balsamique) [Beet cooked in a crust of Guérande salt (balsamic vinager)]. The result: criticized by the French for being too vegetarian, criticized by the Americans for not being vegetarian enough.
There are many degrees of vegetarianism, beginning with that of Paradise, for the Garden of Eden is a fundamentally vegetarian domain, due to the biblical injunction against killing any living creature (Genesis 1:29). In terms of degrees of strictness, one passes from macrobiotic or vegan cuisine (which excludes not only slaughtered animals, but all animal products whatsoever, such as milk, butter, cream, eggs, and cheese) to the less strict meatless cuisines that nevertheless utilize dairy products. Vegetarianism spans the range from an ineluctable ethical or religious imperative to a categorical aesthetic proclivity, often being nothing more than a figure of gastronomic style. In this context, how does it make sense to experience the hybrid form of a restaurant such as Arpège, that highly visible experiment on the French gastronomic scene, where vegetarianism is celebrated, where one may compose an entirely vegetarian meal, but where broader fleshed-out possibilities nevertheless exist? Perhaps Passard’s distinction, that his is a cuisine végétale and not a cuisine végétarienne, might help clarify the matter, such that his “vegetarianism” need be understood as an orientation rather than an imperative. Whether this is just a first cautious step toward an audacious embrace of pure vegetarianism, or the definition of a hybrid genre, or a mere figure of culinary style, it has caused an interesting polemic and inspired further explorations in the meatless Gallic domain. That said, we must wonder at the continued and generalized resistance to vegetarianism. Perhaps Carol J. Adams’s brilliant and impassioned polemic is to the point: “Since vegetarianism is not a part of the dominant culture, it is more likely, however, that the vegetarian revelations, terse as they are, are silenced because we have no framework into which we can assimilate them.”1 That her discussion takes place in the context of the vegetarianism of the Frankenstein monster—for despite received opinion, this creature was indeed a vegetarian and not a murderous carnivore, like most of his detractors—might not, in the eyes of the greater public, help the vegetarian cause!
If in regard to matters of taste one were to consider the effects of images along with the influence of words (and we must, if we are to believe in the use-value of the infinite production of coffee-table cookbooks, destined for the eye rather than the mouth), the current discussion takes an interesting turn. For one should note that the first foray into publishing of Alain Passard (the rare three-star chef—and an eloquent one at that—who had long resisted publication) is the curiosity of a vegetarian children’s cookbook, Les recettes des Drôles de Petites Bêtes [The Recipes of the Strange Little Creatures], illustrated by Antoon Krings. “Illustrated” is in fact not quite the word, for this book is a true collaboration, where two parallel universes merge. One world is that of Passard, whose great passion is his eight-acre vegetable garden (which supplies all of his restaurant’s vegetables) at Fillé-sur-Sarthe near Le Mans, about 220 kilometers from Paris, where heirloom vegetables are cultivated through traditional planting, small-plot rotation, horse-drawn plow, and hand-picked crops. His gardener, Mohamadou, explains that “it is an organic garden, but not merely an organic garden. It’s a vegetable garden controlled by the beasts.”2 One wonders whether Passard—whose motto might well be his claim that “one sincere action from the garden is worth six skilled actions in the kitchen”—dreams of moving his restaurant from the city to the country, or whether he wishes to maintain his garden as a private, hidden site of wonder and inspiration.3 Adam Gopnik, in an article on the vegetarian debate, reminds us that “Passard had said that a single gesture on a plate was the right direction for the future of cooking, that one properly sliced tomato was a higher accomplishment than a tomato confit, that to get the single gesture right was harder than to make a set of gestures on a plate.”4 Need we revisit Joseph Delteil’s La cuisine paléolithique, where the author offers only fourteen recipes, “just for one week, but all the weeks of the world resemble each other, and here is a breviary for your entire life.”?5 We might extrapolate and suggest that, in this contemporary Eden, a bite into a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato just off the vine be the summit of haute cuisine?6
The other world in question is that of Krings, whose famed and marvelous children’s tales feature forty-some-odd enchanting insect personages, including a firefly, louse, spider, bumblebee, slug, and mosquito: Carole la Luciole, Lulu le Pou, Chloé l’Araignée, Léon le Bourdon, Grace la Limace, Frédéric le Moustique ….7 While gardens are often experienced as imaginary, closed, utopian worlds, eminently analyzable according to the ontologies of fictive “small worlds” (as linguistic philosophers would call such limited but rich imaginative spaces), it is rare to analyze either cookbooks or children’s books from that perspective. However, both genres reveal, in their own manner, true interpretations of our world: cookbooks by proffering, discretely yet distinctly, albeit often unconsciously, an aesthetic and an ethic; and children’s books by offering an emblematic and condensed version of the broader world, so brilliantly analyzed in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. In the interview with Passard and Krings that closes their book, Chantal Thomas touches upon the essential dynamism that connects their two worlds, culinary and literary, real and imaginary: “One of the great novelties of this book is that it introduces fire into the garden of the Drôles de Petites Bêtes.”8 And, knowing full well Passard’s passion for huge, archaic fireplaces as the archetype of the culinary stage, Krings makes a slight correction: “A fire and a chef.” Here, in an intuition that would have pleased the Bachelard of The Psychoanalysis of Fire, is revealed the secret of a Promethean imperative, such that both worlds are greatly enriched: that of the chef by an active reflection on the childhood origins of taste; and that of the artist through consideration of the adult world of gastronomic invention. But even more intriguing is the ontological conundrum posed by the book, that of a real fire in an imaginary garden, around which carouse beasts both real and imaginary. This hybrid genre recalls the radical aesthetic possibility that so fascinated certain early theorists of cinema such as Marcel Gromaire: the technique of utilizing both photography and drawing in the same film, a device so brilliantly materialized in, for example, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (One shudders to think of the havoc that Roger would wreak in Passard’s garden!)
And then there was the Charles Addams joke, a drawing of a witch stirring a steaming cauldron full of rather suspicious fixings as she addresses two other witches: “It’s going to be great. All natural ingredients.”9 We should remember that in matters of cuisine, all words and images and ideas, however enticing, must be taken with a grain of salt.
Allen S. Weiss is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.
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© 2007 Cabinet Magazine