Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An excess of gluttony

I've been reading Secret Ingredients, a compendium of New Yorker columns on food and drink. As well as containing some delightfully written gems, it's also, in places, a weird catalog of gluttonous overindulgence. The oddest piece was a detailed account of a 38-course meal the author consumed:
We headed into the "second service" without an appropriate break -- say, a five-mile march through the mountains and an eight-hour nap. The courses, naturally, became more substantial. First came an oven-glazed brill served with fennel cream, anchovies, and roasted currants, then a stew of suckling pig that had been slow-cooked in a red-wine sauce thickened with its own blood, onions, and bacon. I leaped forward from this into a warm terrine of hare with preserved plums, and a poached eel with chicken wing tips and testicles in a pool of tarragon butter. But I only picked at my glazed partridge breasts, which were followed by a savory of eggs poached in Chimay ale, and then a mille-feuille of puff pastry sandwiched with sardines and leeks.

... (After a break,) The "third service" loaded even bigger guns, or so it seemed, with its concentration on denser, heavier specialties that tried the patience of my long-fled appetite. From Massialot, we were offered a "light" stew of veal breast in a puree of ham and oysters in a pastry-covered casserole, and a not-so-light gratin of beef cheeks. La Varenne's gray squab was boned, stuffed with sweetbreads, squab livers, and scallions, and was spit-roasted. ...(W)e had wild duck with black olives and orange zest, a buisson (bush) of crayfish with little slabs of grilled goose liver, a terrine of the tips of calves' ears, hare cook in port wine inside a calf's bladder, crispy readed asparagus, a sponge cake with fruit preserves, and cucumbers stewed in wine.
This quasi-pornographic account of palate over-stimulation left me with absolutely no urge to run to the kitchen and grab a snack. Gluttony had always seemed a slightly charming vice -- eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may diet! -- but this resolute slog up a mountain of rich fare just because it's there left a grim and depressing aftertaste. This was compounded by the author's clinical justification for the feast:
At midnight, while sipping a paltry brandy from the 1920s and smoking a Havana Churchill, I reflected that this was not the time to ponder eternal values. I was sitting next to Gerard, who was cherubically discussing the historical subtleties of certain courses. In a way, we were forensic anthropologists, doing arduous historical fieldwork. How could we possibly understand the present without knowing what certain of our ancestors had consumed? (The chef and staff) had led us on a sombre and all-consuming journey into the past.
Sombre indeed. Fortunately, the rest of the book has proved to be quite charming, but it's been hard to rinse the taste of the 37 courses from my mouth.


Ginkgo100 said...

The title of your post is redundant, but in this case it fits. I never realized what "gluttony" truly is until I read this! It just never occurred to me that modern people would do this... I thought it perished with the Roman vomitoriums. I'm no vegetarian, but I think it seems especially egregious because so many animals were killed for no good reason -- they certainly weren't needed to feed the already-stuffed diners!

On a more squeamish note, some of those ingredients -- particularly the assorted organs -- make me think I wouldn't enjoy even a portion of this meal.

mrsdarwin said...

I think a number of courses were modeled on favorite dishes of French gourmands. You'd have to read the whole piece to really understand how disgusting it all sounds -- this was only an account of two courses. The first term that came to mind to describe the overly detailed account of actions carried on past the point of titillation was "pornography".

When I think of gluttony, I think of having an extra helping of dinner just because it tastes so good. The idea of stuffing one's self to such excess is just... unappealing.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said... sounds like they went to a really well organized potluck, and had full servings of EVERYTHING.


LogEyed Roman said...

Mrs. Darwin, I believe you remarked about people perpetrating acts of overeating that were revoltingly excessive--just because the food was there.

I can't help but agree.

Vice is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The person with the vicious lifestyle (the original meaning of "vicious"; pernicious, partaking of the nature of vice) gets less and less pleasure out of more and more indulgence and finds it harder and harder to forgo.

I believe there is a cultural element here: Conspicuous consumption indeed; hunger has been a chronic problem in most of the history of humanity, and having surplus body fat was a sign of extraordinary good fortune (or of your superior birth or whatever gave you the life of privilege). Also it made such gross dining a way of showing off, and of honoring and/or impressing important guests.

I saw a news story some years ago: They held a Chinese "Imperial banquet" based on the traditional Chinese royal customs. They admitted that it was almost certainly the last one that would ever be held. It included a number of foods for which they had to get special government permission, such as bear paws and elephant's trunk.

Yes, they put a dish with about the last 2 feet of an elephant's trunk lying on it, all roasted and everything, and sliced it up and served it.

I remember hoping desperately that the kitchen had the nasal equivalent of bore-cleaning brushes for shotguns, and REALLY cleaned those nostrils out before they cooked and served them...

The victims, I mean guests, were an international group of cooks and gourmets.

In one respect they were wiser than those held the feast you wrote of: A traditional Chinese Imperial banquet took three days. There were more than 100 dishes, if I remember correctly...

I REALLY hope they scrubbed that elephant's trunk out beforehand...


LogEyed Roman