Spring 2012

Ingestion / Glutton on the Stand

The road to hell is paved with pot-au-feu

Fleur MacDonald

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Ci-gît Curnonsky.
Mort de la tombe voisine,
Veille sur tes pissenlits:
Il te mangerait les racines.
—Epitaph for Maurice Sailland, better known as the food critic Curnonsky

Natural bedfellow of guilt, the most Catholic of hang-ups, gluttony predictably whips up fierce theological debate. In Pope Gregory’s official classification of 1590—a formalization of the order and definitions of the seven sins—it occupied sixth place. Pride, the cause of Lucifer’s downfall, came first, while lust trailed in last. This was in fact a radical shift in the pecking order of temptations: Christian scholars of the fourth century, known as the Desert Fathers, had placed gluttony in pole position. However, the demons these ascetics wrestled with were probably rather different from those tormenting the red-robed prelates of the Vatican.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas judges gluttony the most pernicious of faults, deadly due to its proclivity to spawn others. To his mind, it was the original sin. Eve, hungry for knowledge, plucked the forbidden fruit from the tree: “Gluttony turned Adam out of Paradise, gluttony it was that drew down the deluge at the time of Noah.” Whether it is Persephone’s pomegranate seeds or Edmund’s Turkish delight, the idea that damnation is only a bite away is a familiar trope.

So when does one bite become one too many? When does the gourmet become a gourmand? Who better to consult than the king of the gastronomes himself, Monsieur Dodin-Bouffant, the hero of Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel, set in the 1830s?[2] Even his name is deliciously ambivalent: bouffer means to glut or gorge, hardly the action of a distinguished epicure. So do his girth and gout condemn him to hell? Does Dodin-Bouffant deserve to be force-fed with toads (or, even worse, German cooking) in the fires of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hades?

The novel is shot through with an apology for the capital charges that could be leveled against him. The nineteenth-century philosopher—and what might now be termed “lifestyle guru”—Henry David Thoreau said, in his exegesis on the simple life, Walden: “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise. A puritan may go to his brown bread crust with as gross an appetite as an alderman to his turtle.”[3] Turtle soup aside, Dodin-Bouffant, according to Thoreau’s stricture, is no glutton; he savors every morsel as his “prodigiously refined taste would pounce upon a grain of superfluous pepper.”[4] In his universe, enjoying one’s food isn’t a physical sin but a metaphysical virtue, and cooking is the eighth art, an inherent part of France’s glory and national identity. The book climaxes with the Frenchman’s philosophical duel with the German Dr. Hugo Stumm, who Teutonically insists, “Cookery will limit itself to maintaining life.”[5] Naturally, Dodin-Bouffant is aghast.

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