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Gastro-Porn

Be that as it may, for a long time after the war it seemed the English country house pastoral cookbooks had been vanquished by the pro-French school and that the daube had triumphed utterly over Lancashire hot pot. (If the Julia Child wave is anything to go by, something of the same sort seems to have occurred in the US—France’s revenge for the Marshall Plan.) In England, particularly in the Sixties, little inns sprang up, often run by retired naval officers, in which zealous renditions of bourgeois French cuisine were offered and painstakingly evaluated in the Good Food Guide, an extremely pallid and tolerant version of the Michelin.

But gradually, perhaps as the horrible memory of rationing and whale meat receded and with them the immediate appeal of Continental good eating, a reappropriation of the English, Scottish, even Cornish (though not Welsh) past seemed to take place, more or less at the same time as the devolutionary movements. In 1968 a slimmed-down version of the great Eliza Acton’s mid-nineteenth-century Modern Cookery for Private Families was issued, with a prideful introduction by Elizabeth David. Acton’s delicate yet properly austere recipes were made available to a wider public by Penguin in 1974 and the reputation of the cheerless Beeton as the Escoffier of England at last was under serious assault. By 1970 David herself had published the first volume of “English Cooking, Ancient and Modern” under the title Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. By the mid-1970s several exercises in national gastronomic excavation had appeared, including Elisabeth Ayrton’s The Cookery of England, published by Penguin this year. “Let us cook and eat our traditional dishes,” Ayrton’s introduction concluded, “remembering that the food of France should be a treat not because it is better than our own but because it is different.” Hurray for the Cornish pasty rather than Olney’s pissaladière; down with bourrides and bouillabaisses, and up with grilled herrings with mustard sauce.

There were signs of counterattack against Gallo-gastromonopoly in the United States too. John and Karen Hess’s polemical The Taste of America, published earlier this year, paid unstinting tribute to French cuisine, but mercilessly belabored gastrosnobbery and also attempted to excavate an authentic American cookery from beneath the heavy footprints of Fannie Farmer, the nutritionists, the home economists, the food processing companies, and junk food.

The French were not idle amid such signs of mutiny from the periphery, and over the last few years a tremendous counterattack has rolled off the presses. First it was labelled la nouvelle cuisine française and latterly cuisine minceur. The premises of these self-proclaimed advances in the art of cookery are simple enough: that modern times and modern arteries no longer permit the sauces of nineteenth-century French cooking, that cooking is a revelation of the inner and spiritual essence of each ingredient rather than a decorative assemblage of flavors. The watchwords are authenticity and purity.

Much of this has to do with the history of publicity and the demands of the French tourist and restaurant industry rather than with gastronomy. Sometimes, indeed, it seemed as though the whole movement had to do with a war between various French guidebooks—such as the Kleber or the Gault-Millau—each discovering a new tradition and a new pantheon of chefs, and each assailing the ancient monopoly of Michelin.

Certainly the wretched American reader was placed at an even greater disadvantage than usual; purity and freshness were stressed ever more unremittingly, and the distance to the French country market seemed altogether unbridgeable, despite encouraging noises from visiting French chefs who were reported to take sackfuls of Idaho potatoes back across the Atlantic with them.

Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking is a fair example of the new genre. The American introduction by Colette Rossant makes a customary stress: “Quality is the most important criterion in the choice of ingredients. As he explains in his introduction, in Lyons, Bocuse himself goes to the market every morning to choose his menu for the day. Whatever he finds fresh and in season is what will appear on his table for lunch or dinner.” The sense of the unattainable is rendered even more palpable with the news that “In the book, there are numerous recipes for small game birds that usually are not found in United States markets…. Bocuse asked that these recipes be retained in the book, because he hopes that readers will enjoy them, and when traveling in France, recognize these dishes on the menus and be tempted to order them.”

It turns out really that the book is not actually a guide to practical cooking but rather a costly exercise ($20.00) in gastro-porn. Now it cannot escape attention that there are curious parallels between manuals on sexual techniques and manuals on the preparation of food; the same studious emphasis on leisurely technique, the same apostrophes to the ultimate, heavenly delights. True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes. The gastro-pornhound can, in the Bocuse book for example, moisten his lips over a color plate of fresh water crayfish au gratin à la Fernand Point. True, you cannot get fresh crayfish in the United States or indeed black truffles, three tablespoons of which, cut into julienne, are recommended by Bocuse. No matter. The delights offered in sexual pornography are equally unattainable. Roland Barthes made an equivalent point about ornamental cookery in Mythologies, when he was discussing the recipe photographs in Elle:

This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by wholly mythical economics. This is an openly dream-like cookery, as proved by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished just by looking. It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical….

Alongside Bocuse, who offers full-blooded gastro-porn along with the traditional pastoral, are the exponents of cuisine minceur. The premise of cuisine minceur is that you can have your cake and eat it with a clear conscience; that French inventiveness has brought relief to gastronomes eager for fine nosh but fearful of high blood pressure, cholesterol, not to mention cancer of the colon. Virtually banished are butter, cream, other fats, starches, sugar, flour. This Gallic answer to the McGovern senate committee’s report on dietary goals for the United States (less fat, less sugar, less salt, more complex carbohydrates) is certainly a saner strategy than the traditional pattern, namely abandoned consumption of rich food followed by brutal dieting on the morrow: two huge American industries shackled together. And again it is a form of tourist advertisement for Americans making their Continental holiday plans: eat like a hog and stay healthy. Roy Andries de Groot’s Revolutionizing French Cooking, published last year, is really a catalogue of suitable French restaurants where the chef will not tip a pint of cream into the sauce while your back is turned.

The gastro-porn that accompanies this style is far more restrained than the Rubenesque excesses of the Bocuse genre. The photographs in Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur, which crept into Christmas stockings last year just when people were bracing themselves for the Yuletide high-fat blow-out, stress the healthful simplicities of nature. Bocuse’s crayfish (about forty all told) swim in cream, cognac, wine, truffles, and even two tablespoons of flour: Guérard’s photograph has just a very few crayfish resting chastely on leaves of trevise lettuce (“It is picked very young in the vegetable garden at Eugenie les Bains”). The plate rests on earth, next to a bunch of primroses. The other photographs are in a similar style and plainly owe much to Japanese traditions of food presentation and arrangement. The entire cuisine, indeed, owes a good deal to the Orient, to which the minceur gang pays fervent tribute. Cooking and eating here become exercises of the good, balanced life in an age of recession, energy shortages, and high food prices.

And indeed essays in an interesting volume edited by K.C. Chang and titled Food in Chinese Culture make the parallel quite clearly. The Sung period produced the world’s first great cuisine. The Hangchow visited by Marco Polo bulged with restaurants, fast food joints, ritual feasts, and general gormandizing. But, as Michael Freeman makes clear in his essay, minceur morality was also abroad in the land. Freeman quotes Su Shih’s essay in praise of Tung-po’s soup:

Tung-po’s soup is a vegetable soup that he cooked when he was living in retirement. It did not contain fish or meat or the five flavorings, but it had a natural sweetness. His recipe was this: he took sung cabbage, rape-turnip, wild daikon, and shepherd’s purse and scrubbed them thoroughly to get rid of the bitter sap. First he took a bit of oil to coat the pot, then he put in the vegetables with water, along with a bit of rice and fresh ginger.”… For Su Shih [Freeman continues] and for many others of the intellectual elite, naturalness was itself a value, and their interest in mountain herbs and peasant dishes reflected a broader concern for health, society, and self-definition. The praise of simple food, held up in opposition to the elaborate cookery and costly ingredients of the city, was attuned to common intellectual concerns….

The cook, to return to the modern minceur school, thus appears as a moral guide, appropriating not only the national pastoral virtues but world gastronomy in an effort to lead the consumer toward the balanced life. (Just how ludicrous this catholic appropriation can get is demonstrated in Armand Aulicino’s The New French Cooking. One of his specimen “minceur menus” suggests the following: “Appetizer: Guacamole Salad. Main Dish: Swedish Pot Roast. Alternate Main Dish: Steak with Tomatoes and Oregano. Accoutrement: Spinach and Pear Puree. Dessert: Bahamian Banana Soup.” Aulicino does not make one feel much better by starting many of his recipes “Apply cookware spray to a skillet….” I much prefer the older, though no doubt perilous, “Throw a lump of butter the size of a hazelnut into a pan….”)

But at whom are all these adjurations and recipes leveled? You cannot read many of the cookbooks mentioned above without starting to feel that Bocuse’s claim that his book is really a novel is not so wide of the mark. De Groot, for example, presents “An American adaptation of Chef Roger Vergé’s Almost-Melted Leg of Lamb Layered with Eggplant and Tomato à la Moussaka.” It is of immense length and complexity and indeed de Groot says sympathetically that “perhaps it should be a weekend project with some help from family or friends.” I’m not so sure about the family or friends. Food preparation in fact becomes a solipsistic ritual, almost infinitely protracted. The ritual accords with certain well-known trends in American life: to wit gradual decomposition of the home, exit of the wife to work, dwindling number of tiny mouths agape to receive the junk contents of the local supermarket. Gradually the domestic kitchen of the postwar period is cleared of female/child oriented appurtenances of domestic management and becomes instead the temple of the modern gastronome, male and at peace with himself and his Cuisinart.

I do not mention the Cuisinart idly. Just as the wife leaves the gastronome’s sanctuary this device makes its entry, a mechanical drudge instead of the human one at last making good her escape. In orderly silence the onion, pastry dough, meat, suet, herbs can be submitted to its implacable blade. And it is indeed a fine, labor-saving tool, with only the paradox that modern ritualistic gastronomy demands a reverence for process, for the tender adaptation of natural materials to human requirements, whereas the Cuisinart is an abrupt instrument of domination, attacking and ravishing food, smashing it into small pieces or even pulp. The old pestle and mortar were servile adjuncts of the (usually female) hand and wrist, whereas the Cuisinart (itself set in motion by rapid jerks of the wrist rather than by pressing a button) is a mode of assault and subjugation.

Cooking thus becomes a lonely pastoral idyll amid the rising tides of liquid protein, McDonald’s hamburger, taco chains, and the active pursuit of the better beefsteak. The pastoral implies an entire scheme of life revolving around the gourmet store, the spice parlor, the trusted market, and even perhaps in the end the small family farm where critters can crawl out of cabbages unpolluted by insecticides. Man is restored to the kitchen, in a modern rendition of the good life of the old hunter-gatherers.

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