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.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins (detail), 1480. Courtesy the Art Archive, Museo del Prado Madrid, Gianni Dagli Orti.

To judge fairly a man whose palate categorized as trenchantly as Balzac’s pen (but still dared instruct his chef to “wed fish and fowl”), let us return to Aquinas. The glutton—whether devouring truffes à la maréchale, dindon à la Daube, or omelette à la Célestine—is guilty of eating too soon (praepropere), too eagerly (ardenter), or too much (nimis), or of consuming food that is prepared too lavishly (laute) or too fastidiously (studiose).[6] Admittedly severe, Aquinas’s list of the particular foibles of the food lover proves him prophetic. Shopaholic or anorexic, consumption is a modern obsession that gnaws both body and soul. Never mind if it’s a fixation on the consistency of the grand veneur, the symphony of tastes in the pot-au-feu, or an obsession with calorie counting: is the sin not the same?[7]

Dodin-Bouffant “was one of those men whose delicacy of manner and gesture, whose lightness of touch, whose distinction at table, have so much charm that they conceal the extent of their appetite.” But Aquinas remarks: “Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating or drinking, but an inordinate desire. Now desire is said to be inordinate through leaving the order of reason, wherein the good moral of virtue consists.”[8] Do Dodin-Bouffant’s combination of relevés and entrées, wines and amuse-bouches, not reveal in fact the reason of the highest mind?[9] His absorption of information is as impressive as his digestion of poupetin de tourterelles.[10] For this epicure, the rules of the kitchen are sacrosanct: the glass of Pommard will be drunk before the coffee cake, and the Prince of Eurasia, pretender to his gastronomical throne, is skewered with the assessment, “No air, no logic, no line. Custom but no rules.”[11] These are the words not of an insatiable glutton but of a man of restraint.

Aquinas feared this inordinate desire would feed into the other sins—as Chaucer’s wife of Bath proclaimed saucily, “A lickerous mouth must have a lickerous tail.” But Dodin-Bouffant’s hunger is no code-word for a rampant sex drive: “His amorous adventures had always borne the stamp of a methodical, thoughtful and discreet mind.”[12] His preoccupation with the aesthetic qualities of cooking paradoxically renders him asexual. He would forgo the earthly pleasures of a nubile woman for the heavenly delights of a vacherin or ramequin prepared by his cook, who doubles as his wife.[13] The book ends firmly tongue-in-cheek; a wobbly Dodin-Bouffant, his gout-ridden legs buckling, his belly ballooning, presides over the dining table and rhapsodizes about the pleasure of food compared to the futility and “worthless deceit of diets.”[14]

Curnonsky holding court, 1953. Julia Child is at left. Photo Paul Child. Courtesy the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Dodin-Bouffant was not plucked purely from the recesses of Rouff’s imagination. The author was in part inspired by his friend Maurice Sailland, otherwise known as Curnonsky, with whom he collaborated in 1921 on La France Gastronomique, a twenty-eight-volume guide to dining out in the provinces and an attempt to locate a French identity in the cooking pot. One of the first celebrities of the culinary world—in a 1927 poll of three thousand French chefs, Curnonsky was named “Prince-Elect of Gastronomy”—he became an almost mythological figure. At the peak of his renown, eighty restaurants around Paris were reputed to have kept a table free in the event that Curnonsky decided to drop in—not unlikely given the extent of his appetite. A 1946 edition of Life magazine recounts with relish how Curnonsky would only deign eat a woodcock’s left breast: the bird apparently only stood on its right leg, resulting in that side of its body being more muscular and therefore tough.[15] As legend has it, a twenty-seven-year-old Curnonsky pulled off the feat of identifying twelve champagnes and their vintages in quick succession. But circus acts aside, would Dodin-Bouffant’s real-life counterpart get past Saint Peter?

Like Brillat-Savarin, Curnonsky aspired to make taste a science. In 1930, he founded the Académie des Gastronomes, bringing together eighteen other societies—notably, the Club des Cents. The club comprised the upper crust of the culinary elite: the hundred official members—the Compagnons de Cocagne—had survived a rigorous selection process. In front of a committee, they were required to demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of the Michelin Guide, answering crucial questions ranging from the best pit stop in the Périgord region to the ideal composition of compote de poires à la cardinale.[16] Once accepted, a member would organize one of the weekly lunches, which would then be ranked at the end of the year.

While lecturing at one of the Cordon Bleu master classes in 1950, Curnonsky met Julia Child. Members of a new motoring class, or gastronomades as Curnonsky would quip, Julia and Paul Child were already familiar with La France Gastronomique. And, as part of the Académie‘s pack and members of the Cercle des Gourmettes and Club Gastronomique, they were invited to Curnonsky’s eightieth-birthday party. The “Great Gastronomic Banquet,” held on 12 October 1952, made all banquets seem frugal in comparison: a feast as fanciful as any laid out in Cocagne, where puddings dance and roast pigs run around with knives and forks in their pork bellies, squealing, “Who’ll eat me?” Paul Child described the 387 guests as those who “whirl around the French food-flame.”[17] Speeches and courses were heaped upon one another; nine wine glasses placed before each attendee; and the evening was crowned with an eight-layer rococo cake.

In My Life in France, Julia Child recalls visiting Curnonsky at home: “[He] greeted us at four in the afternoon, in his apartment, dressed in a billowing nightshirt and red bathrobe. He was eating a boiled egg … I immediately fell for him. He struck me as a character out of a novel, or from another century.” Her adulation for the gastrostar soon cooled. At the Childs’ farewell party, Curnonsky’s wit seemed stale. Julia remarked: “He acted like a dogmatic meatball who considers himself a gourmet but is just a big bag of wind.” His professional activity—he had no dining table at home—took a terrible toll on his physique. He was finally defeated by the maxim embodied by his pen-name (cur non being French for “why not,” with the suffix -sky an ironic nod to the vogue for all things Russian). He slimmed down to 181 pounds due to wartime rationing, but at the height of his career he ballooned to 277 pounds. Six friends had to lug him to his favorite restaurants. His “gargantuan” appetite, as Life put it, led him to the most bitter of ends. On 22 June 1956, at the age of eighty-four, Curnonsky fainted while on an especially rigorous diet and fell to his death from an upstairs window of his apartment. His tendency to indulge had proved fatal. We can only hope that he, like Dodin-Bouffant, could still squeeze through the eye of a needle for a divine poulet à la favorite on the other side.[18]

  1. “Here rests Curnonsky forevermore. / But watch out, oh, dead body next door. / For your daisies and dandelions, beware. / He’ll gobble up those roots from under there.” My translation.
  2. Marcel Rouff, La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet, translated into English as The Passionate Epicure, trans. Claude (New York: Modern Library, 2002).
  3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (New York: Bantam Dell, 2004), p. 279.
  4. Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure, op. cit., p. 34.
  5. Ibid., p. 148.
  6. All dishes are from Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure. For truffes à la maréchale, truffles are coated in egg and breadcrumbs and then fried quickly in deep fat, often with asparagus tips as garnish; calf’s brain is sometimes added. Dindon à la daube consists of boned breast of turkey stuffed with sausage meat, bacon, and truffles soaked in brandy, garnished with ox tongue, and cooked in stock in a terrine and served cold. Omelette à la Célestine comprises of two omelettes, one inside the other, each with a different sweet stuffing and glazed in the oven.
  7. Grand veneur is a thick, highly seasoned gravy made of game stock and vegetables, to which red currant jelly and cream are added. Dodin-Bouffant’s pot-au-feu consists of thick slices of beef and pork-and-veal sausages cooked in broth, and layered with chicken and vegetables, and foie gras boiled in Chambertin.
  8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 3, part 2, section 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Cosimo Classics, 1911), p. 1787.
  9. A relevé is a dish that “relieves,” or immediately follows, the soup, as opposed to an entrée, which preceded it.
  10. Poupetin de tourterelles is a dish of boned, stuffed turtledoves, stitched up and cooked whole.
  11. Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure, op. cit., p. 62.
  12. Ibid., p. 89.
  13. Vacherin is an elaborate dessert of ice cream, crystallized fruit, meringue, and whipped cream. Ramequin is puff pastry filled with a mixture of milk, eggs, and cheese.
  14. Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure, op. cit., p. 159.
  15. He is also credited by his biographer Simon Arbellot, incorrectly it turns out, with suggesting the name Bibendum for the figure now known in the English-speaking world as the Michelin Man. The word, taken from the phrase nunc est bibendum (“now is the time for drinking”) in Horace’s Odes, referred to the claim that Michelin tires could “drink up” any obstacles.
  16. Compote de poires à la cardinale is a dish of pears poached in vanilla syrup and served with a kirsch-flavored raspberry purée and splintered almonds.
  17. See Noel Riley Fitch, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 196.
  18. Poulet à la favorite consists of chicken stuffed with rice and foie gras, then poached and served with sauce suprême and a garnish of cockscombs, kidneys, and truffles.

Fleur Macdonald is a writer based in London. After studying Latin and French at Oxford University, she founded the cultural review site The Omnivore theomnivore.co.uk. Her great-uncle was Marcel Rouff.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.