Monday, May 25, 2020

The Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet

"Dodin, torn between the burning memory of pain which he trembled to think of experiencing again, ... and the intuitive horror he felt for the word Diet, shut himself up with Adèle to plan the first of the severe evening meals... That night, therefore, after lengthy discussions, he was served a thick bisque, well seasoned and full of shrimp-tails, cardoons au gratin, and the first truffles of the season, wrapped in bacon and paper and baked in hot wood-ash. A good piece of Septmoncel cheese and an apple pie with cream completed this 'modest' meal." (The Passionate Epicure, p. 119)

The Passionate Epicure, 2002 Edition.
First published 1920. Irony: the cover depicts
a male chef, while Dodin's cooks were women.
Marcel Rouff (1877-1936) wrote many books on French gastronomy including the novel The Passionate Epicure: La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet. The central focus of the novel is the resplendent meals eaten by Dodin-Bouffant and his three equally food-obsessed friends. To a normal American reader, these meals seem completely overdone and unbelievable, and I was wondering if the intent was satire. However, I suddenly realized that exaggerated as they are, they reflect actual attitudes of the French, which I've observed in the conversation of our friends there. A more convincing similarity between Rouff's fiction and recent reality is the famous last meal of French President Mitterand. Here's a brief description of that meal:
"François Mitterrand, the former French president, ... gorged himself on one last orgiastic feast before he'd died. For his last meal, he'd eaten oysters and foie gras and capon—all in copious quantities—the succulent, tender, sweet tastes flooding his parched mouth. And then there was the meal's ultimate course: a small, yellow-throated songbird that was illegal to eat. Rare and seductive, the bird—ortolan—supposedly represented the French soul. And this old man, this ravenous president, had taken it whole—wings, feet, liver, heart. Swallowed it, bones and all. Consumed it beneath a white cloth so that God Himself couldn't witness the barbaric act." (Michael Paternity, "The Last Meal," Esquire, 2008)
Dodin-Bouffant -- and one assumes also Rouff himself -- had firmly fixed ideas about cuisine and highly refined ideas on how every dish should be prepared and served, including wine selections. While the book includes brief descriptions of the hero and the other characters in the book (and this edition includes several amusing black and white drawings of them), the text is amazingly, almost entirely made up of food descriptions and lists of elaborate dishes from classic French cuisine.

Rouff's hero suffers two great tragedies in his life, described in the first and last chapters of the book. In the opening chapter, his cook has died, and he must find a replacement. Her loss seems only important because of the loss of her skilled cooking in his kitchen. After many interviews with lesser talents, he finds Adèle, a small middle-aged woman who knows her onions and every other vegetable, fish, fowl, meat, game, and sauce in the repertoire.

A near-tragedy occurs when the "Prince of Eurasia" (is this serious or satiric?) offers her a salary that Dodin-Bouffant can't meet. Predictably, despite the discrepancy in their social class, Dodin-Bouffant ensures her lifetime commitment to producing his multi-course meals -- he marries her. Actually, they live happily ever after as she continues to create gastronomic masterpieces (which are compared to the works of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and DaVinci).

Alas, another near disaster: his habits catch up with him and his foot swells in the horrific pain of a gout attack. The doctor prescribes a restricted diet, which Dodin-Bouffant cheats with lavish and very rich vegetarian and fish dishes -- as illustrated in the quote at the top of this review. After failing to control his illness, Adèle herself suffers a kidney complaint. Therefore, the two of them are sent to Baden-Baden for a water cure, which is Rouff's method of comparing the utterly awful cuisine of Germany to the highly refined and perfected food of France, and ultimately of attacking the German nation -- it's not irrelevant that the book was written during World War I. The possibly cured couple return to France vowing never to restrict their French meals in any way ever again. Germany is conquered. French food is supreme. Happiness is restored.
Pot-Au-Feu. Editor: Julia Csergo.
A whole book of essays on the iconic dish,
including an excerpt from Rouff's novel.
I blogged it last year (link).

One of the most famous scenes in The Passionate Epicure involves the classic French dish pot-au-feu, translated as boiled beef. The "Prince of Eurasia" had presented Dodin-Bouffant with a pretentious and overdone menu: a huge number of courses with very expensive ingredients. Dodin-Bouffant disapproves of the details:
"What mistakes in the succession of flavours and textures! Can one serve a quail soup after a pigeon bisque? And in two adjacent courses stuffed sole and stuffed pike? ... He brings a chef and no lobster! And what a chef! who, haphazardly, with no concern for the taste and substance of meats, places a goose between rabbits and larks, and presents it à la Carmangnole .... As for the secondary wines, they were as badly distributed as possible, and in a most unfortunate ignorance of the gustatory preparations." (p. 63: this diatribe goes on for almost 2 full pages).
The reciprocated meal, cooked by Adèle, consists of this low-brow single dish menu -- the most famous passage in the novel.  Every French region has its own version, but in this book the central definition is used: beef boiled in broth with vegetables, served in courses. An important distinction is assumed: all the other meals in the book reflect the highest of haute cuisine, while this meal represents bourgeois cuisine or even that of (shudder) peasants. Needless to say, the description of the revenge that Dodin-Bouffant takes on the pretentious and unsuccessful "Prince" is incredibly detailed and lovingly presented. After several pages of details about every nuance of Adèle's pot au feu:
"Dodin, perfectly content, had a half-smile. He triumphed. To the oh so vain culinary sumptuousness of the Prince he had replied by a meal which was simple, short, bourgeois, but whose profound art had convinced even the dispenser of superfluous luxury of his own unworthiness." (p. 74)
Title page of an earlier edition.
This review © 2020 by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.


Catalyst said...

Sometimes he best meal is the simplest food.

My name is Erika. said...

I wonder why someone feels they need to eat songbird. I can't imagine there is any meat on them. Sounds like an interesting read. Hugs-Erika

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I too have a horror for the word diet so your opening quote resonated with me. Fantastic review and thanks for sharing the last meal. Who on earth would want to eat a songbird, bones and all?

Debbie V. said...

This does not sound like a fun book - the Mitterand episode is ewww. I am never happy reading when I can't tell if it's sarcasm or not. But thank you for your report :) I do like cookbooks with stories though.

I took 4 semesters of French in college, and found out there was a lot I didn't know about France. They are very serious about a number of things including food. I loved the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey.

I have not really eaten at a French restaurant except for at Walt Disney World - the EPCOT France pavilion. They have a French bakery called Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie which has an overabundance of great pastry choices including quiche and sandwiches. I've only been there once and I was amazed at how tasty it is. There is also a restaurant called Les Chefs de France where I had a roast chicken that was perfectly cooked. All the chefs and servers are from France. Of course right now - it's been closed for weeks due to Covid 19.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

There is a reason gluttony is considered a sin.

Iris Flavia said...

OK, you got me hungry with the first passage, ohh, do I love truffles! And cheese and...
The bird... not so much all!
To marry for food, LOL! A water cure?!
Hmmm, the beef sounds yummy! Now I´m like really hungry, great book, I reckon.

Marg said...

So I guess I am a bit confused. Did Mitterand know he was going to die the next day or maybe he ate like that regularly!

Beth F said...

Mitterand ... yikes!

Tina said...

I have the same queestion as Marg, did Mitterand know he was at death's door? Horrific story of gluttony. This sounds like a fascinating in depth book about extreme foodies.

Ah, to marry a woman for her cooking, I hope there was love there as well. Not just for her cooking.

Mae Travels said...

In response to the question about MItterand's deathbed meal: yes, he definitely knew that he was about to die, and those dishes conformed to his last request. No doubt he was a great gourmand during his life as well as at its end. My point about how this relates to the seeming exaggerations of the much earlier book is that it seems satiric, and indeed might be so, but reflects the attitudes of real people in France throughout the past century and prior. A great interest in food and the details of how it is cooked is definitely a French habit, which cuts across classes and includes a wide section of French society. Many American observers have gone on and on about this!

Currently, or at least for a couple of decades, the French have been complaining that their standards about food are changing and being corrupted. But as the famous French poem by François Villon said in the fifteenth century: "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) Customs are always changing, and to many people that seems terrible.

best... mae

Marg said...

British TV chef Rick Stein recently did a trip around France looking for "real French food". I think you are right though - things change. Food evolution happens!