The Passionate Epicure

The Passionate Epicure


Dodin's Dilemma

For some time after the death of Eugénie Chatagne Dodin-Bouffant took his meals at the Café de Saxe, bringing anguish and terror into that peaceful establishment. Twice a day, to the dining-room where the famous gourmet sat severe and inscrutable, the trembling cook dispatched feverishly-concocted dishes; the innkeeper, in an attempt to conceal his unease and his constant fear of an explosion of contempt, plunged into his bookkeeping: the figures danced before his eyes as he waited at every moment for the irritable voice of his client to be raised. Dodin-Bouffant, resignedly, said not a word.

Convinced, however, that he owed it to the memory of the departed to uphold and preserve from decay an art which she had adorned, and determined, moreover, to eat as decently as heretofore, after a week of mortification he caused an advertisement to be inserted in the front page of the regional newspaper, in which he declared in solemn terms that a high standard had been set for those of good will who wished to follow in great footsteps, and that he would welcome such as already had serious experience and a sincere passion for the cult to which they made sacrifice.

In all sincerity, he dared not hope that a second Eugénie Chatagne would come to embellish his existence, nor simultaneously to satisfy his aesthetic taste for superior cookery and, it must be admired, the coarser requirements of his other senses which had retained much of their youthfulness but to which a provincial career had offered satisfactions of mediocre quality. Eugénie Chatagne had, beyond possible doubt, added to her culinary virtuosity an amiable personal capitulation not devoid of charm at the still tender age when she entered the service of the former magistrate.

As a smiling philosopher, convinced that one must never ask life twice in succession to provide exceptional blessings and the good fortune of finding upon one's way an elect being capable at the same time of dispensing the joys of the heart and the pleasures of the flesh, Dodin was firmly resolved, should he succeed in finding the germ of a fine culinary talent, to nourish from separate sources the appetites which his late cook had satisfied in her own sole person.

The bold applicants who presented themselves for the master's interviews had mostly a very high opinion of themselves. Some of them, embarking upon the venture, thought secretly that the refinement of the house had been exaggerated by hearsay. Others, crossing the threshold, had not the simplest or slightest notion of their own temerity.

Dodin would receive the candidate in his library. As she entered, he would rise politely and, in doubt giving her the benefit of possible genius, beg her to be seated in a comfortable armchair; whilst he inquired most tactfully about her age, her family, her living conditions, her former employment, his juridical eye would rest upon each feature through which a culinary artist might reveal herself. Above all, he would survey the mouth at great length, and if the lips were fleshy, note their shape in search of that mobility which is a sign of sharpened senses, that quiver which suggests the habitual development of an organ, in short, he sought that physiognomy of greed which constitutes an initial guarantee. He immediately eliminated square and pointed chins, requiring of them a roundness which would reassure him as to the necessary degree of sensuality. In their eyes too he read things which are indefinable, but which did not lead him astray.

If this first examination suggested to him no peremptory reasons for prolonging it, he found a canny pretext for breaking it off. When, on the other hand, he decided that further investigation was worth while, he would lead the conversation in a grave tone towards gastronomical considerations, and, although he did not expect from his visitors either profound thoughts or new, skilfully expressed views, upon the technique of their art, he knew very well how to discern, even from brief, awkward or clumsy responses, what he could hope of the good woman's intelligence, instinct and vocation. Sometimes he would emit some heresy in order to elicit a revealing protest, at others he would firmly state his preference for charcoal-cooked meat, or proclaim the necessity for suiting the essence of the firewood to the nature of the meat to be cooked. And even if he observed his candidates' ignorance of these elementary truths, at least he noted the effect of his statements upon them, and from their attitudes deduced their faculties of assimilation and what promise they might hold out. Sometimes, in the middle of the conversation, he would rise, walk over to the favourite shelves of his library, select therefrom a rare volume of the Almanach des Gourmands, open it with the deft gesture of a habitual book-handler, and say: 'Grimod de la Reyni`re wrote: "Sixth year. Chapter on Bindings. The immoderate use of roux and coulis has formed all the charlatanism of French cuisine for the past hundred years."' Holding the book open, head bent, but looking over his spectacles at the bewildered girl, he would add: 'Grimod, with good reason, chose this essential observation from La Cuisine de Santé, Tome 1, p. 247. Meditate, Mademoiselle, meditate!' And he would add, continuing to read, 'Some flour and certain starches employed with moderation, real meat and game gravies, essences and well-reduced stocks often enter into the composition of bindings. It is from the art of skilful blending that a good binding draws its principal value, and this is a difficult art. However, if a binding is not perfect, it separates instead of uniting, and as it is the complement of the ragoût, if it adds not to its perfection it must surely ruin it.' He would close the book and narrowly watch the effect of this high technique upon his possible cook.

To tell the truth, most of them, upon hearing these philosophical meditations, seemed to be seized by sudden cramp in the buttocks, performing a giratory but stationary movement upon their chairs. In fact, they would have been far happier elsewhere. The unconscious and ignorant began to be enlightened. The confident made the acquaintance of doubt; some remained dumbfounded; a few, finally, were made aware of great gulfs of science which filled them with a passing vertigo. These last Dodin identified easily. He retained them only, and mercifully, to rescue them from the grip of their discomfort and bring them down to earth again, putting the book back in its place he would suggest a visit to the 'laboratory', that is to say, the kitchen. He took them first to the dining-room, furnished in light oak, bright, cheerful and comfortable, inciting by its gentle atmosphere a flow of beautiful inspirations. The table could hold no more than a limited number of guests, eight at most. He pointed at it:

'It must always be adorned by flowers as well as by china, so that the senses may be amused and rested, but not distracted: they must remain concentrated upon the main object.'

The sideboard and side-table, bearing massive pieces of family plate, were broad, convenient, and well set out to accommodate a number of dishes with ease. The glassware, in neat rows of thick ribbed crystal, and very wide-mouthed, was designed to welcome the appreciative nose as well as the grateful lip. The armchairs were built to favour supreme ease of the posterior. A few field flowers, upon a small occasional table of no particular period, bowed over the lip of a stoneware jar.

A very large bay occupied the entire rear of the room, opening upon a very small but very green garden, carefully tended and brightened by flowering gladioli and budding geraniums. A delicious temperature reigned in this room the whole year round: the sixteen degrees centigrade which a wood-fire maintained in winter were retained in summer by a somewhat elaborate system of draughts. Upon the walls were two etchings of a rather risky nature, a dry-point portrait of Grimod, and a painting in which a covey of quail was represented in the shadow of a luminous copper cauldron.

The aspiring cook was invariably greatly moved on entering the kitchen. Suddenly, whatever her normal opinion of herself, she felt minute, humble, non-existent.

It was of vast proportions, this kitchen, well-lit by large windows with fine screens allowing ingress to the air whilst forbidding it to flies. The eye was drawn at once to an immense range: it occupied the entire wall and ended with a well-filled wood-box. Beside it, a door opened outwards on to the garden fountain. This stove comprised a gigantic spit, seconded by a smaller one, two ovens (one of which was a field-oven, designed to allow a dish to cook above and below simultaneously). Three openings for hot, medium and cool fires. There was also all the equipment for cooking fish, and a special section for pastry. Finally, an entire section of the huge stove was fitted for open-fire cooking. Beside it, within comfortable reach of the executant, a veritable library housed an infinite variety of ingredients, spices, peppers, aromatics, jars of glazes, vinegars and wines, syrups--all carefully labelled. A large, bright dish-holder overflowed with china; another table for chopping and cutting, and another, lighter but of a fair size, seemed lost in the enormous temple. Two superimposed shelves displayed a crowd of cast-iron pots, saucepans, earthenware containers, pie-dishes, frying-pans, skillets, stew-pots and soup-kettles. Copper, formerly somewhat rare, had gradually multiplied in this kitchen: Dodin had realized at last that earthenware, which he had long preferred, tended in the long run to absorb the flavour of greasy molecules retained in its pores. Outside the windows there were flowers. Two notices stood out sharply upon the fresh walls. One read as follows: 'The most meticulous cleanliness is compulsory.' And the other: 'The use of bottled essences for seasonings and sauces is forbidden and will lead to instant dismissal.'

In this sanctuary the visitor, at first intimidated and then frankly terrified, at last suspected the complexity and refinement of a prodigious art, and upon discovering the grandeur and the gravity of her mission, soon lost her head. The encouraging words of Dodin-Bouffant, hardly piercing her uneasy dizziness, could not restore her serenity.

'You are moved by the ghost of the greatness that reigned here. But if you settle down in the "workshop" it will become a familiar and helpful counsellor to you. Your personality will acquire strength, and affirm itself. Here, you might even create some masterpieces!'

When the master and his possible collaborator had returned to the library, Dodin would allow peace to flow back into the soul of the unhappy candidate who would instantly have declined the fearsome honour of catering for the gastronomic joys of so prodigious an epicure, were it not for the immense moral benefit she believed could ensue, for the whole of her life, from serving such a master. Perhaps too, in the least noble and most materialistic part of her heart, she may have considered the profits to be derived from these daily banquets. Moreover, other things apart, the wages were most attractive.

After a moment of silent thought, Dodin-Bouffant would resume:

'Allow me, my child' (he spoke thus even to the most elderly), 'allow me to ask you a few questions. I apologize for doing so, but it is supremely important that we should be well-informed about each other.'

He spoke with respect to these women, fearing to show irreverence, without wishing it, to some unknown great artist who might not even suspect her own capacities, and he treated them as equals.

'A good meal, my child, must harmonize with the age, the social condition and the state of mind of the persons invited to enjoy it.'

He did not hope to encounter the exceptional being so intuitive as to have discovered alone this refined rule of gastronomy, and relied, in this so delicate region of the ordering of meals, only upon his own experience, his personal taste, and his education. But he may still perhaps have hoped for the impossible miracle, and have wished to ascertain the extent to which instinct did service for science in his candidates.

The wide-eyed would-be cook often felt a 'little death', a cold shiver trickle moistly down her spine.

'Supposing,' pursued Dodin, 'that I wish to entertain a few middle-aged bachelors, doctors and business-men, who rejoice in domestic pleasures.... Do not be alarmed, my girl,...answer....'

Dodin-Bouffant, approving, correcting or helping the patient, would compose an ideal menu, as an examiner himself formulates the reply of an interesting candidate. He analysed the reasons for his choice, assorted the order of the dishes to the character and private life of each of the supposed guests. When, in the course of these laborious obstetrical operations, he uncovered a few elements which allowed him to hope for future results of an appreciable nature from methodical education and his own competent direction, he would add:

'We have barely touched upon theory, my child. We may perhaps get on together, especially if you consent to work docilely under my inspiration. But I must submit you to a practical test. Come tomorrow at eight. You will prepare my luncheon which is served precisely at twelve. At seven, upon rising, I eat only eggs and sausages. My charwoman can, manage that quite well at the moment.'

Dodin-Bouffant drained the cup to the dregs. For days he, tasted the test-meals with horror and patience; sautéed chickens tactlessly stifled under mountains of tomatoes, shamefully bungled stews, dry, curled-up partridges, veal fricassees in watery unbound gravy devoid of all creaminess, hare robbed of its gamy aroma, soggy fried potatoes, un-buttered butter-beans! As if, in the land of France, where great cooking is after all a national art, the hoped-for cook must remain unfindable for the great man.

One must add, however, that the impeccable, the genial Dodin who could not forgive the slightest failure in culinary art, whose prodigiously refined taste would pounce upon a grain of superfluous pepper, or the missing pinch of salt, whose extraordinarily developed taste-buds could trace by touch a few moments too many or too few of cooking, it must be admitted, we say, that the great Dodin dispatched to other stoves cooks whose talents many a gifted gourmet would justly have praised to the skies.

He needed perfection. How many times, during the long search which followed the death of Eugénie Chatagne, having methodically tasted and analysed a few mouthfuls of the dish proposed by the cordon-bleu undergoing the test, did he lay down his napkin and depart, without anger, to feed most honourably, certainly, but without glory, at the (to him) mediocre table of the Café de Saxe. He was resigned to the mediocrity of an eating-house. At home, he could not conceive of anything less than the absolute.

Dodin spent several bitter weeks in this manner. His house was haunted by short, fat women with scaly cheeks and childish eyes, crowned inharmoniously with scant, shiny hair tightly drawn back--by long, thin women bearing in the caverns of their cheeks the bitterness of involuntary virginity--by middling women, as insignificant as an aria from an Italian operetta, hatted in colourless straw, swamped by faded field-flowers. Not one allowed him, as she descended the porch steps, to hope for an unsuspected aptitude, as yet to be discovered and cultivated. His great soul grew heavy with melancholy. During this evil period, he indulged with less moderation than usual, but without abuse none the less, in that fresh and friendly claret which he wholeheartedly envied the cellar of the Café de Saxe, the only pride, if one were to take his word for it, of that establishment: a simple local wine, but of respectable age, from the best-favoured vineyard, and ripened by the sun of a remarkable year, a wine which surprised the palate by its limpid simplicity, enchanted by its vaporous lightness, which slid supply, or rather insinuated itself into the throat, and which, from the depths of the stomach, still scented the lips with a perfume of crushed mulberries.

One September Sunday the charwoman opened the door and informed Dodin, with a strange smile, that 'a person was waiting for him in the drawing-room'. In a resigned and sceptical manner, Dodin entered his library and asked that she be shown in.

A disturbing creature crossed the threshold. In one look Dodin, as a connoisseur, had made out under the vulgar, somewhat worn, flowered dimity all the firmness of body, especially the breasts, of a well-rounded woman. In a face of charming lines, innocent and submissive eyes released a flood of caresses from beneath long eye-lashes soaked in shadow. She was hatless; untidy wisps of blonde hair, full of delicate lights, framed aesthetically, without overpowering it, a forehead not lacking in wit. The girl's decent and modest demeanour suggested one of those lives far removed from the gallant turmoil which sometimes pounces, the day's toil over, upon the escapees of the pantry and the stove; one of those lives undoubtedly devoted entirely to the domestic and clandestine happiness of employers whose passions are calm, intimate and ancillary: retired colonels, thrifty shopkeepers, or inexperienced undergraduates. The wise housewife who admitted this siren of the stove to her domain would have been certain of devoted service, and of keeping her husband at home.

Dodin, for the preliminary interrogation, drew his chair a trifle closer than usual to that in which he had installed the candidate. He rubbed the knees of his trousers energetically with his palms, as if to provoke a magnetic phenomenon which might prevent their getting lost. Finally, however, and more prudently, he dug his hands into his pockets. To tell the truth, during this conversation and most exceptionally, the calf-bound Grimod de la Reynière remained forgotten upon the shelf. Dodin had no thought, in order to fetch it, to leave the chair which had quite remarkably, he knew not how, moved yet nearer to that occupied by the pretty girl. The first interview, alas, revealed to the master of the house a bottomless and definite culinary incompetence, most mediocre dispositions, and practically non-existent experience.

Anyone else would have been eliminated at once. He had packed off to their soup kitchens without the slightest compunction, volunteers indubitably better qualified and wiser than this Agnes of the kitchen, but upon whom celestial graces had not been scattered with the same profusion. Dodin wished to hope against all hope. From one moment to the next he awaited the spark which would allow him at last to reconcile in one magnificent synthesis the obligations of his art and the satisfaction of his desire. And in order to let this stroke of lightning rip through the dull, dark sky, to give the miracle a chance to occur, to provoke it, he lavished at length upon the timid and hopeless beginner the honours of the dining-room and the kitchen, slyly plotting the doorways so as to use them for apparently accidental collisions. However, he felt that in the ardent heat of these physical contacts, the whole nobility of his ideal suffered a deplorable abasement and approached the shame of capitulation. Stating boldly, who knows with what hopes, that a servant should be acquainted with the places in which she is to serve, he showed her the guest-room and the bathroom, and, relying upon some unexpected event, some sudden urge, he even led her into his own bedroom where Eugénie Chatagnet's ghost troubled him not at all. During this visit the young girl displayed only a rather glum resignation which would no doubt have acceded promptly to any clearly expressed wish of her future master, but devoid of all provocativeness. Dodin, purple in the face, swept by a flood of desires, surreptitiously sketching with greedy hands immediately curtailed amorous gestures, was only protected (and that a most fragile protection) by the awareness of his mission and the obligations of his fame. To possess this girl was to sign an irrevocable contract, it was the abandonment of his reputation to the unschooled hands and uninspired soul of an apprentice incapable, alas, of any improvement. It was to hurl the art resurrected and defended by himself--Dodin-Bouffant--into the basest decrepitude, the lowest compromises, it was to decline, via filthy stews and vile hashes, to the shameful vulgarities of mere food. The master, then, was heroic--but of a somewhat craven heroism. To all appearances, and without the slightest illusion upon which to hang his hopes, this magnificent creature deserved to rank only among the most pitiable sauce-spoilers he had examined. He had unhesitatingly evicted others of whom he could have expected far more. But, to prolong her presence which occasioned in him an excitement not entirely imaginative, he proceeded with the usual interrogation as if he had not yet made up his mind, prolonging and complicating it, and trying, with a supreme modesty, as much as was in his power, to steer his words away from the salacious paths where they kept straying. Finally, having exhausted all oratorial artifices, he added:

'It is absolutely necessary, my child, for you to give me some practical demonstration of what you can do. I have three fine trout, fished this morning, a pretty spring chicken, and some celeriac. Prepare my evening meal. I shall have it at seven.'

Dodin spent a troubled day. He took his persistent desire to the Café de Saxe where he lost a game of chess without thinking about it; he went for a walk by the fresh river waters. In vain did he try to clear his thoughts of libidinous images; the longing for voluptuous embraces obstinately occupied a mind in which art, pure, chaste and noble, retained a foothold with the greatest difficulty. Sometimes, however, the dazzling glories of ancient French cookery passed and repassed before his eyes in confusion: torn standards in the centre of a violent storm; the goal, the sense, the grandeur of his life, in the dark surroundings where desire held him down, rose up in the full light, the glare of long flashes of lightning. Saint Anthony knew this anguish of blood. And, in his overheated imagination, the names, the faces of the great chefs, the famous gourmets, his peers, mingled heartbreakingly with his post-prandial plans of love.

Dodin sat down to dinner with the certainty that he was going to eat a detestable meal, but with the contrary belief that the so long awaited miracle had at last come to pass and that he would have a revelation. He hardly dared lift his gaze to the tragic aspect of the trout being served, slumped upon a silver dish. The nameless sauce in which they soaked indiscriminately, moved him to despair. The first mouthful timidly taken from a fillet which could have been magnificent routed his final hopes. In vain did he search in the mashed-up and odiously-boiled heads for the delicate cheeks of those river-partridges which he adored above all. Moreover, little by little, an odour of ill-cooked butter and half-raw shallots rose from the dish, settled in the room and made the gourmet's gorge rise. He could no longer conceal from himself the fact that the beautiful river-beast was ruined and massacred.

The loose and wrinkled skin of the succulent young chicken allowed him to dispense with tasting this dishonoured fowl.

He laid his napkin upon his dismal and useless bread, but, having reached the point of ultimate transactions with his conscience, did not for a moment consider going out to the Café de Saxe. She was there, quite near him, in the kitchen. He opened the door of his library. As he went in, he felt a surge of rebellion. After all, was he not free of his own life? If it pleased him to content himself with inglorious food, nobody was entitled to reproach him for taking into his home a graceful creature. From this very evening he would keep her and make of her his love whose awful fare he would accept knowingly and in full independence. And to plead his cause before posterity, he still had a long past of triumphs, of unforgettable culinary initiative, of uncontested mastery, which gave him the right to arrange his last years to suit himself, in his own way. But then his mouth filled with a savour of burned gristle, of gritty vegetables and charred meat; through the fever of Venus which throbbed at his temples, he half-saw the town, the region, the whole of France sitting down, through his fault, to shameful and sickening victuals; he convinced himself that his desertion must entail the collapse of those old traditions he had resurrected and made glorious. He felt upon him all the weight of a fame which was already widespread, imposing upon him, without respite, the role of arbiter of taste. Art, the art to which he had consecrated his life and which he had rescued from ignominious depths, took on material and charming shapes to appeal to him in his delirium.

These calls of duty were followed by a too cruelly precise, vision of his shuttered room, full of the intimacy of a winter evening, in the golden dew of lamplight. Nothing stirred any longer in the house or the street. The bed was open, laden with the kindly weight of a voluptuous eiderdown, and before him, near the tapestry slippers, the young girl disrobed, her warm and passionate flesh gleaming through the falling linen.

Dodin opened the door to summon the fatal skivvy who, in the already wrecked and ravaged kitchen, unconscious both of the disturbance created by her beauty and the horror of her cooking, was ingenuously helping herself to the choice portions of the fowl scorned by her prospective employer. He closed the door again.

Here were new effluvia reaching his nostrils, here were new flavours caressing his sensitive palate: in a dream, ineffable snipe offered their robust scent to his over-excited senses; the wonderful earth condensed its strong perfumes in adorable white truffles; a celestial roast, pink velvet, butter of tenderness, lay moist before his eyes, flooded with matchless gravy.

He would know these delights no more. He would pass on neither their tradition nor their splendour...

Dodin-Bouffant, suddenly very calm, called her in and said: 'Decidedly, my girl, no. I need someone with more experience. Learn, study, work.... Perhaps later... Leave me your address.'

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Excerpted from The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff. Copyright © 2002 by Marcel Rouff. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.