Spring 2001

Ingestion / A Personal Gastronomic Alphabet: Part II


Allen S. Weiss

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


Some like the new, some the old, some everything, some nothing at all. There exists a gastronomic imperative of the first person singular. Not as subjective choice, but as determinable style. Not as rhetorical inflection, but as existential openness. It is precisely the issue of such point of view—the Nietzschean question of who is speaking—that determines our faith in a given gastronomic discourse and establishes a common level of gastronomic interaction. The most pointed comparison might be that of different restaurant guides. The year 1900 was a key moment in modern gastronomy, as it marked the appearance of the first Guide Michelin (recently republished in a centennial facsimile edition), soon followed by Escoffier’s Le guide culinaire in 1903. This tandem would codify a certain French culinary tradition that was both a nineteenth-century reality and a twentieth-century ideal, solidifying a myth that still exists, however attenuated. Escoffier’s encyclopedic compilation of recipes and techniques long constituted the lineaments of quality and style that were interiorized by the anonymous, panoptic Michelin mechanism, thus becoming the (often inappropriate) standards by which cuisine was judged in an expanded, increasingly democratized twentieth-century version. As the discourse and criticism of French cuisine began to encompass, however hesitantly, regional, peasant, and familial cuisines (as well as an increasing influx of foreign and experimental foodstuffs and techniques), the culinary presuppositions behind the Michelin standards were revealed as glaringly inadequate; yet change was to come slowly. In the course of this century, the dialectic between tradition and invention would be played out within the culinary arts, with the Michelin as a conservative touchstone for all other critique—it is precisely the anonymity and “stylelessness” of the Michelin that makes it useful, yet risky. In guides of narrower range—such as the now famed Gault-Millau, at least in its early versions (before Henri Gault and Christian Millau became institutionalized as “Gault-Millau”), or the wonderful series of small guides to French country inns entitled French Leave, written by the perspicacious Englishman Richard Binns—we can come directly to know the likes and dislikes of the authors, measure their intuitions and foibles, gauge the gastronomic differences between the critics and ourselves, and consequently choose restaurants and dishes accordingly. In such works, one may and must read between the lines. To the contrary, guides such as the immensely popular Zagat’s series—astute statistical compilations of readers’ reactions, instantiating La Rochefoucauld’s dictum that, “Our taste is no longer our own, we no longer command it, it changes without our consent”—are truly populist enterprises. Here, our own opinions, which become part of a statistical sampling, are precisely what exist “between the lines.” What Michelin is to tradition and Gault-Millau is to innovation, French Leave is to intimacy and Zagat’s is to consensus.


Junk food. Cultural studies has motivated vast amounts of writing on fast food and junk food conceived as a major sociological phenomenon; they are occasionally also considered in culinary terms, either as a counter-ideal opposed to the heights of “transcendental” cuisine, or as a means to argue for the total subjectivization or nonhierarchization of culinary values. However—while usually avoiding arguments on these matters, since they originate in a very different, indeed antithetical universe of values from my own—I still await the word of a great chef who claims any inspiration whatsoever from such food. Furthermore, in response to criticisms of hierarchical æsthetic judgments, quite frankly, I have never yet heard anybody say, “Hey, let’s go out for an awful meal.” The notion of “taste,” when practically utilized in regard to food, almost always implies good taste. I wish to insist that this position is not at all a manifestation of culinary snobbism, since the very poorest of peasant foods—in fact much less expensive, more nourishing, and simpler than fast food, and still just as ubiquitous and widely appreciated—have inspired haute cuisine from its inception. Consider onion soup, cabbage soup, and that provençal garlic soup whose name so poetically indicates a zero-degree of the culinary arts, aïgo bouïllido, “boiled water.”


As psycholinguistics readily testifies, the letter k, as a glottal occlusive, corporeally and symbolically articulates the tensions between the upper and lower parts of the digestive tract, between speaking, eating and defecation; between life and death. It belongs in the kitchen, and is indeed its very essence.

Its appeal to curiosity is legendary, and I might cite two examples. First, consider that bizarrely named Austrian dish, kaiserfleisch [king’s flesh]—a rack of smoked pickled pork—a term that suggests quite novel rituals concerning the politico-theological problem of the two bodies (sacred and profane) of the king. Also of interest is the German term katzenjammer—meaning both a hangover and a specific remedy for hangovers (namely, thinly sliced beef marinated in a vinaigrette, then folded into mayonnaise with potatoes and gherkins)—yet another instantiation of the efficacy of the antithetical sense of primal words.


Logic. Certain art forms inscribe, within the work itself, the proper manner of appreciation. Paintings done in one-point linear perspective, for example, guide the spectator to the proper viewing position—all deviation risks distortion. Most cultures also distinctly articulate the proper sequence of eating given dishes on a menu, as well as the appropriate combinations of wines and dishes. Yet very rarely are there revealed the secrets and subtleties of precisely what constitutes the optimum order of eating and combining the different morsels that appear on a dish! The more complex the dish, the more difficult the problem. Often, the “logic” is simple. For example, one dish recently enjoyed at Michel Bras (Laguiole, France)—on one plate, cepes classically sautéed in garlic and parsley, and on another a portion of mountain ham—necessitated, after a brief moment of trial-and-error, eating the two parts simultaneously, for the mushrooms were under-salted, and the ham was salt-cured. At the other extreme, a dish like Bras’s gargouillou—a warm vegetable and herb salad containing nearly three dozen ingredients, highlighted with edible flowers, sprouts, crystallized herb leaves and pearls of flavored oils—permits many possible combinations and series. Indeed, the numerical possibilities are staggering, approaching 36 x 35 x 34 x 33... etc. We here broach the matter of gastronomic intuition and discover that, regarding a dish of such complexity, every bite is tantamount to a composition. This is not an argument of culinary scholasticism, but a daily reality.

Culinary logic also guides the invention of new dishes, motivated by the desire to find novel solutions to old problems. In France, foie gras—whether served chilled in a terrine or sautéed and hot—is traditionally paired with a sweet accompaniment, whether a glass of Sauternes, Barsac, Monbazillac, or Baumes de Venise, or else a fruit stew (more commonly associated with game), etc. At the restaurant Le Méjane (Espalion, France), this problem—along with the subsidiary question of how to serve bread with foie gras—was brilliantly resolved in a recent creation: sautéed foie gras in a crust of fouace (a regionally specific type of sweet brioche), dusted with course salt and pepper, and set upon a drizzle of ratafia- (a fruit liquor or wine fortified with brandy) based sauce. Animal, vegetable, mineral; liver, breadstuff, wine, salt—all in every bite; an elegant solution to a classic problem.


Menus belong to the ontological category of prophetic phenomena and, like most prophecies, disappoint more often than not.


Names. Consider the genius of nomination and the poetry of apples: Autumn Strawberry, Baldwin, Black Gilliflower, Blue Pearmain, Bullet, Bushwacker, Cabbage Head, Chenango Strawberry, Cortland, Delicious, Esopus Spitzenberg, Golden Delicious, Golden Sweeting, Granny Smith, Grimes Golden, Gravenstein, Hangdown’s, Idored, Jonared, Jonathan, Juicy Bite, Kestrel, Ladies Sweeting, Lady’s Finger, Large Never Fail, Long Pippin, Macoun, McIntosh, Melon, Melt in the Mouth, Missing Link, Monstrous Pippin, Nickajack, Northern Spy, Old Foxwhelp, Paula Red, Pawpaw, Pound Sweeting, Prima, Priscilla, Puritan, Red Astrakhan, Red Delicious, Red King, Red Prince, Red Rome, Red York, Rhode Island Greening, Rome Beauty, Royal Red, Russet, Sassafrass Sweet, Sheepnose, Sops of Wine, Spartan, Starkling Delicious, Slack-my-Girdle, Sour Bough, Sparhawk, Spartan, Stayman, Staymared, Talman’s Sweeting, Wealthy, Westfield Seek-no-Further, Winesap, Winter Banana, Yellow Newtown...


Ostentation. Every epoch, every social group, has its own forms of culinary ostentation. It would be difficult to write of ostentation without mention of decadence, aristocratic and otherwise. Food has always been among the most common forms of conspicuous consumption. It should therefore not go unnoticed that one of the foundational moments in the history of modern cuisine was one of its most decadent meals: Grimod de la Reynière’s mock funerary feast, an extended joke highlighting a banquet of all black foods in a particularly morbid setting. Indeed, it was deemed so perverse that J.K. Huysmans, in À rebours, the  nineteenth-century exemplar of decadence, used it as the model for des Esseintes’s final feast. The menu of this funerary dinner—for which the invitations were in the form of a death notice—included turtle soup, Russian rye bread, Turkish olives, caviar, pressed mullet roe, smoked Frankfort sausages, game in black sauce, truffle cream, ambered chocolate cream, puddings, plums, and grapes, served with wines of Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Van de Peñas, and Port. (Incidentally, this is an early example of fusion cuisine!) The food was placed on black-rimmed plates and the wines in dark glasses, all set on a black tablecloth and served, to the tunes of funeral marches, by nude black women in mules and silver stockings covered in tears, all in a room decorated in black, giving on to a garden with paths covered in charcoal.

In a less literary context, consider two dishes. The restaurant Bond Street (New York) offers a special sushi platter where one of the morsels of sushi is topped with a minute sliver of pure gold leaf—an extreme example of the subtleties of conspicuous consumption, its bottom line. Contrast the extravagance of the nineteenth-century gamebird pie described in the unjustly forgotten La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin, written by Lucien Tendret, nephew of the famed gastronome, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The dish, offered by Monseigneur Gabriel Cortois de Quinsey, Bishop of Belley, to his canons for the feast of Notre-Dame, consists of pastry crust lined with a forcemeat (containing chopped veal and pork flesh, chicken livers, black truffles, egg, and cognac), upon which are placed the marinated parts of numerous gamebirds (greenshank, snipe, quail, partridge, corncrake, and whole beccafico, to which are added cockscombs, mushrooms, black truffles, and butter), all topped off with another layer of forcemeat, and sealed with a pastry crust perforated in the center. A sauce is prepared by crushing the birds’ entrails and stomachs, moistened with beef bouillon, marinade, and white wine, all of which is reduced and then strained, to be added to the pie before serving. Try and imagine what such a dish would cost in a restaurant today, when a single snipe is an extreme luxury, the rare times one is even available. Furthermore, how many of us would actually enjoy the intense, and decidedly high and fecal, flavors of this dish? Indeed, one of the forgotten cuisines—with its own codes of ostentation—is that of the hunt, once at the summit of aristocratic passions, and now relegated to a small subculture. Rare is the restaurant that does total justice to game. (I personally know of only one: L’Auberge de l’Âtre in Quarré-les-Tombes, France.)

Ostentation might well coincide with quality and perfection in a fine and creative object or event (cf. Yquem, infra), but more often than not it is merely a sign of commonplace one-upmanship. As “decadence” commands a certain vogue in our fin de siècle, albeit in a particularly post-post-modern fashion, it should be noted—to the detriment of the æsthetic aspects of gastronomy—that the popular press tends to measure cuisine by monetary standards. (Numbers make easy gauges: how can one not react to the recent news that at a charity auction, one bidder paid $500,000—this is not a typo—for a single bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet?) One often reads feature articles in non-gastronomic magazines on great (or to-be-great or would-be-great) chefs, without encountering a single menu or recipe, or even mention of a single dish, yet replete with his or her financial portfolio. According to Nietzsche, decadence has a double meaning: The negative sense is that of the decline of culture; the positive a philosophical form of protest against that very same culture, not unlike the double significance of dandyism earlier in the nineteenth century. Needless to say, the “positive” decadence that differentiates cuisine from everyday eating occasionally exists precisely in the baroque extravagance of creativity, where food sets the scene for pleasure, passion, and flights of the imagination.


Paradigms. Appropriate to the current situation of post-modern multiculturalism, notably the hybridization of genres and the flow of international capital, fusion is the reigning contemporary culinary paradigm. One extreme is the fusion of two different cuisines, not unlike so many “world music” combinations: Here, culinary identity dissolves in a métissage that is usually disappointing, though it occasionally offers successful and surprising results. The other extreme is the desire to maintain a culinary identity, all the while profiting from exotic techniques and ingredients, as is the case for so much French nouvelle cuisine (see Herbs, supra). It is of particular interest that spices, herbs, flowers, and preserved or cooked fruits have taken a central role in this cultural intermixing, given that they abound in much earlier moments of European cuisine. (One may note, for example, the English Elizabethan marigold tart, or the even earlier Tudor herb and flower salads.)

The recent history of “fusion cuisine“ was actually initiated by a culinary imperialism, a blend of “major” and “minor” cuisines, such as Vietnamese cuisine Gallicized or Americanized to please an upscale, outgroup crowd. Now, the path is open to all possibilities, but—like the mixing of food-stuffs—though all is possible, not every combination is necessarily interesting. If ever the hybridization of fusion cuisine becomes the paradigm, and national or regional cuisines no longer constitute a central operative principle, “haute cuisine” might well be spoken of as one now speaks of the “historic avant-garde”—as something of the past. Cuisine as historic index and symbolic form.

Allen S. Weiss teaches at the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies departments at New York University. He is the author of numerous books, including Phantasmic Radio. Weiss is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

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