Written by Johan von Huff
As armies of tasteless vulgarians continue to decimate the arts, be it literature, music, film, painting, and so on, it is worth remembering that culinary art has not remained unscathed. Much like the modern attention span, tastebuds have been duly pummelled in recent years. It is a culinary Babylon in which we find ourselves—a repulsive orgy of enhancers, additives, “flavourings” and other wildly gambolling follies. Most recently, there has also been wholesale sanitising and outright gutting of la grande cuisine: in some circles, food is now healthy to the point of madness. “Here’s Quiche Lorraine—without the quiche!”, etc. Is this progress? Happily, I know of a solvent—a redeemer. And we have had it for nearly a century, hidden in plain sight.
Larousse Gastronomique, that culinary bible first published in 1938, was compiled by Prosper Montagne, and remains a manifestation of mountainous ambition. Many others were also involved in its creation; the book’s interesting history perhaps requires its own book. Since 1938, Gastronomique’s stature has only grown, as it is a near-endless feast of expertise on culinary matters, particularly in the way of French cooking. The book has also undergone many updates since its inception, which we shall touch on later.
This matter of the book’s weight and immensity is pertinent to its cause. Its mammoth girth invites one to throw modern caution to the wind and surrender to its ancient authority, “dated” as it may be. It is a veritable churning, gurgling stomach packed to bursting point: awe-inspiring in heft, humbling in scope. The enormity of the original edition suggests it was the work of obsession, dedication, perhaps even fevered salivation. It brings to mind other vast, superhuman efforts—that of Proust, say, or Balzac’s Comêdie humaine.
The recipes themselves—and there are many, many thousands of them—are brilliant in their schematization, compactness and encyclopaedic breadth. This is a book full of hearty, belly-filling substance. There are entire books living within the book. Should you be inclined, you can find the histories and even etymologies of the apple, the beet, the cassoulet, et al. In one of my various copies of the book, I counted about 500 egg recipes (with a sub-encyclopaedia re: omelettes); nearing a thousand entries, I lost count of the different hors d’oeuvres on offer. There is absurdly extravagant, shameless food photography, as if the dishes in question were captured in the dining hall of Louis XIV. The book finds space for extensive biographies of noted gastronomes. There is an A-to-Z encyclopaedia of vital brasseries, cafés and restaurants of ‘bygone days’, complete with important anecdotes about notables who graced their halls (e.g., “It is said that Henri IV ate a heron pie [at Tour d’argent]” [p. 771]), and even—no word of a lie—key details about changes of ownership.
Gastronomique’s culinary learning seems almost infinite in scale. But importantly, these are not flavourless Wikipedia-like entries we encounter—the text is drenched in a baroque, snooty panache. Herein lies character, personality, wit, tasty turns of phrase. Its entries tend to digress and meander, offering wry opinions, cutting remarks, mini histories of this or that. Under ‘ichthyophagy’ (I did mention the book was extensive), we are charmingly informed in a whimsical aside why manual workers apparently dislike eating fish. Under ‘caffeine’ we are treated to this, of all things:
“Although Voltaire, who drank six cups of coffee daily, was loud in its praise, his over-indulgence could have had a bearing on the enterocolitis from which he suffered to the end of his life.” (p. 176)
Gastronomique is an old uncle who strays off and around the topic repeatedly, but we are all the better—and more informed—for it.
Johan Von Huff is a cultural critic and commentator. He is currently correcting proofs for his upcoming works, On the nature of “fun”: Towards a new nihilism for the 21st century, and Cancer: Musings on contemporary “bestsellers” and cultural degradation.
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