Choice Cuts : A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History
"Every once in awhile a writer of particular skills takes a fresh, seemingly improbable idea and turns out a book of pure delight." That's how David McCullough described Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, a work that revealed how a meal can be as important as it is edible. Salt: A World History, its successor, did the same for a seasoning, and confirmed Kurlansky as one of our most erudite and entertaining food authors. Now, the winner of the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing shares a varied selection of "choice cuts" by others, as he leads us on a mouthwatering culinary tour around the world and through history and culture from the fifth century B.C. to the present day.
Choice Cuts features more than two hundred pieces, from Cato to Cab Calloway. Here are essays by Plato on the art of cooking . . . Pablo Neruda on french fries . . . Alice B. Toklas on killing a carp . . . M. F. K. Fisher on the virility of Turkish desserts . . . Alexandre Dumas on coffee . . . W. H. Auden on Icelandic food . . . Elizabeth David on the downward march of English pizza . . . Claude L�vi-Strauss on "the idea of rotten" . . . James Beard on scrambled eggs . . . Balzac, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Chekhov, and many other famous gourmands and gourmets, accomplished cooks, or just plain ravenous writers on the passions of cuisine.
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July 17, 2012
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Excerpt from Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky
Gourmets and Gourmands
Mark Kurlansky on Gourmets
No one ever knows when he is well-off. Whenever I was called a gourmet, I suspected I was being accused of something at least slightly unpleasant. But that was before I heard the term "foodie." I am still not sure that a gourmet is a good thing to be, but it must be better than a foodie.
Although I cannot say exactly what a gourmet is, like Justice Stewart said of pornography, I know it when I see it, and I am slipping into contemplation of the meaning of the word "gourmet" because I am clearly in the company of a couple of them. The two gourmets who have invited me to lunch in a rural Basque restaurant in the green mountains of Vizcaya province are a small, red-faced, and energetic author of a popular Spanish food guide and an enormously round and well-fed man of unclear profession whose business card labels him as "gastronomic adviser."
The enthusiastic author rates all his food from one to ten. He wants all of us to do the same. He gives the lomo, the thinly sliced burgundy-colored prime cut of cured pork, only an eight. The gastronomic adviser had ventured a nine, and so they turned to me, the indecisive Hamlet of the group, who requested clearer definitions of both eight and nine.
A gourmet, according to Webster's dictionary, is "a judge of choice foods." It comes from an old French word for a wine-tasting servant and is generally confused with the word "gourmand"--an old French word meaning glutton. From this it appears that medieval Frenchmen knew the difference between a judge--someone guided by intellect--and a glutton--someone guided by appetite. But contemporary Americans are somehow getting the two notions confused. In French, by the way, the two words are still distinct. When I wrote for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, the French accountant who processed my expenses used to delight in pointedly calling me "Monsieur Gourmand."
Is it a lingering Puritanism that causes Americans to suspect the analysis of a physical pleasure? In 1901, Picasso depicted in blue paint a little girl reaching up to a table to scrape a bowl. It is usually labeled by its French title, le gourmet. But at a recent show in New York it was translated into English as The Greedy Child. Is a gourmet greedy? In truth, most people who are labeled gourmets, like my two lunch companions, go beyond the act of judging and analyzing. They are arriving at their judgments by eating a lot of food. Is the discussion an excuse for the real act, which is eating? Picasso's little girl did eat all the contents of the bowl.
My gourmets are discussing the lobster. The red-faced author has given it a ten and is trying to get me to concede that these tough little clawed creatures shipped from northern Europe are far better than the lobster that come from what he does not realize is my native New England, which in fact they are not.
Plato would not have thought much of these two. He mistrusted any interest in the preparation or presentation of food. In The Republic he states that the enjoyment of food is not a true pleasure because the purpose of eating is to relieve pain--hunger. To turn it into more than that through culinary skills, to him, was the use of artifice to disguise the true nature of food and eating. In Gorgias he states that cooking "is a form of flattery . . . a mischievous, deceitful, mean and ignoble activity, which cheats us by shapes and colors, by smoothing and draping. . . ." Was Plato right that gourmetism is morally and intellectually suspect or was he simply one of those unfortunates with a rubber palate incapable of appreciating food's pleasures? Or both?
Gourmet is a word with dangerous boundaries. In itself it may be a worthwhile pursuit. Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture. Shouldn't someone be examining it? But the discipline risks perilous proximity to both physical and intellectual overindulgence. In his 1996 novel The Debt to Pleasure, John Lancaster toys with our suspicion of gourmets. The narrator of the book is a man who, as the character himself puts it, is engaged in "the application of intelligence to pleasure." While telling the story of his life he rambles on about soups, stocks, and curry. Discussion of the perfect vinaigrette leads to analysis of the perfect seven-to-one martini. The perfect everything must be espoused, declared, and examined. By instinct, the reader does not like this rambling dilettante full of unsolicited opinions. The beauty of this novel is that the writer makes the readers doubt themselves. At first we struggle to like him and the book, but we find him pompous, then unbearable. Just as we are growing angry with this book and its smug narrator, we start to realize that he is obsessive. The fault is not with the book nor with the reader. There truly is something "not right" about this man. His gourmetism is not about a universal pleasure, the common human experience of eating, but about setting himself apart, eating special foods, having special pleasures, being answerable only to special laws. Finally we realize that we were right to have suspected this gourmet, that he truly is deranged, in fact, a dangerous psychopath.
My tablemates don't like the monkfish, and only give it a five.
What should a gourmet look like? I'm afraid most Chinese would not accept my friend the fat gastronomic adviser as a gourmet. A true gourmet--a judge--has the wisdom to know when to stop eating. From Confucius to Mao, most Chinese philosophy has contended that excess is unnatural, wasteful, and alien to proper dining. Chinese food writing emphasizes the healthiness of gourmets and their choices. Otherwise gourmetism is suspect. The contemporary Chinese writer Lu Wenfu in his novella "The Gourmet" writes: "The word gourmet is pleasing to the ear, perhaps also to the eye. If you explain it in simple everyday language, however, its not so appealing. A gourmet is a person who is totally devoted to eating."
Karl Friedrich von Rumohr, an early-nineteenth-century gourmet, known in his language as a feinschmecker, literally a fine taster, not only separated gourmands and gourmets but perhaps shed some light on Plato when he wrote in 1822, "Dull witted brooding people love to stuff themselves with quantities of heavy food, just like animals for fattening. Bubbly intellectual people love foods which stimulate the taste buds without overloading the belly. Profound, meditative people prefer neutral foods which do not have an assertive flavor and are not difficult to digest, and therefore do not demand too much attention."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer, politician, and self-declared gourmet, also insisted that a true gourmet was health conscious. It is interesting to note that in France, gourmets, like intellectuals, are often self-declared. Curiously Brillat-Savarin rejected any distinction between the words "gourmet" and "gourmand," consistently calling the epicurean judges of food gourmands but denying that it had anything to do with gluttony. He did not have the American awkwardness about celebrating physical pleasure.
But plump men were of little appeal to Brillat-Savarin and so he denounced overeating by men while stating that women gourmets "are plump, chubby, pretty rather than beautiful, with a slight tendency to fullness of figure." In another work he wrote, "Gourmandism is far from unbecoming to women," and so we have a good idea of how Brillat-Savarin liked his gourmets.
Having finished and rated a light fruity young Basque Rioja, my well-fed, arithmetical lunch-mates opened a big imposing garnet-colored Rioja just as a thick, rare, salted, and grilled steak, a chuleta, is brought to our table. After giving it a ten, the food guide author placed the bone on my plate. "Take that," he says. "It's the best part, but you have to pick it up with your hands and gnaw on it." And he was right. A gourmet knows that the best part is not always the expensive part, and he will find that part, and then he will share it. A gourmet should want to share. Brillat-Savarin insisted on gourmets sharing.
I took the bone in my hands.
Judging foods without regard to price is a rich man's game, and yet poor people can be gourmets able to discern a good potato from a bad one. As though to underscore this point, the steak was followed by an oxtail stew, and this black-sauced peasant dish met with the double-digit rating as well. But not everyone could afford to be so tested. Only the rich can follow a thick, aged, choice steak with a stew from the tail. And so I sometimes wonder if it does not behoove those who have that luxury to talk less about it. It comes back to Plato's point. Fundamentally, gourmetism, unlike judging the fine points of art or
music, is focused on a biological need designed to ease the pain of hunger, and lifting it above this level implies overlooking the sad fact that some people do not have the means to assuage that pain.
Dessert arrives, a white mousse with a berry sauce, and my two friends are engaged in lively discourse over whether it contains queso de filadelfia, which further descends into competing eulogies in praise of cream cheese.
I wonder: Are people who spend all their time meticulously dissecting a physical pleasure far from needing a twelve-step program? In 1997 the American Academy of Neurology announced the discovery of something called gourmet syndrome: "a new eating disorder in which some patients with right anterior brain lesions suddenly become compulsively addicted to thinking about and eating fine foods." In this study of 723 patients with brain lesions, 36 were observed becoming gourmets, and of those, 34 were found to have lesions in the right anterior part of the brain. A businessman who preferred a good tennis match to dinner suffered a brain hemorrhage and afterward "couldn't stop talking or writing about food." One patient had been a political journalist until a brain hemorrhage led him to become a food writer. Maybe I should go to a doctor now for my scan.
Things are getting worse at the table. Over brandy and Cuban cigars they have turned from the cream cheese debate to the rating of Cuban versus Brazilian woman. I notice by the physical descriptions offered to bolster their arguments that they both like their women pretty much the way Brillat-Savarin did. That must be what gourmets like. Or is it gourmands?
--based on an article from Food & Wine magazine, October 1999
Ben Sira Against Gluttony
In the second century b.c., according to legend, Simeon Ben Sira was born already speaking and with his teeth fully formed. After reaching a more acceptable age he began writing a series of maxims and proverbs. --M.K.
If you are sitting at a grand table, do not lick your lips and exclaim, "What a spread!"
Remember, it is a vice to have a greedy eye.
There is no greater evil in creation than the eye; that is why it must shed tears at every turn.
Do not reach for everything you see, or jostle your fellow-guest at the dish; judge his feeling by your own and always behave considerately.
Eat what is set before you like a gentleman; do not munch and make yourself objectionable.
Be the first to stop for good manners' sake and do not be insatiable, or you will give offense.
If you are dining in a large company, do not reach out your hand before others.
A man of good upbringing is content with little, and he is not short of breath when he goes to bed.
The moderate eater enjoys healthy sleep; he rises early, feeling refreshed.
But sleeplessness, indigestion, and colic are the lot of the glutton.
If you cannot avoid overeating at a feast, leave the table and find relief by vomiting.
--The Wisdom of Ben Sira,
second century b.c.,
translated from the Hebrew
Le Mesnagier de Paris on Gluttony
This sin of gluttony has two aspects and is divided into five types. The first type is when someone eats sooner than is appropriate, that is to say too early in the morning or before the hour of praying, or before going to church, before having heard the words and commandments of God. Every creature should have the good sense and discretion to know that you shouldn't eat before the hour of tierce, except in cases of sickness, weakness, or some such constraint.
The second type of gluttony is eating more often than one should or when there is no need to eat. The Scriptures say, "To eat once a day is angelic, eating twice a day is human, eating three, four, or more times a day is living like an animal and not a human being."
The third type of gluttony is eating and drinking so much during the course of a day that it makes one sick, so ill as to be bedridden.
The fourth type of gluttony is eating so greedily that one doesn't stop to chew the food but swallows it whole and soon becomes, as the Scriptures say of Esau, the first born of his brothers, that he ate with such haste that he nearly choked.
The fifth type of gluttony is the search for delicacies, no matter what the price, when one could do with less and thereby afford to help one or a few people who are in need. We read of this sin in the Gospels--the evil rich man, dressed in purple, who ate copiously every day but had nothing to give to poor lepers. It is said that he was damned for having lived too delicately while refusing to share in the name of God as was his duty.
--from Le Mesnagier de Paris, 1393,
translated from the French by Mark Kurlansky
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin on Gourmets
I have thumbed every dictionary for the word gourmandism, without ever being satisfied with the definitions I have found. There is a perpetual confusion of gourmandism in its proper connotation with gluttony and voracity: from which I have concluded that lexicographers, no matter how knowing otherwise, are not numbered among those agreeable scholars who can munch pleasurably at a partridge wing au supreme and then top it off, little finger quirked, with a glass of Lafitte or Clos Vougeot.
They have completely, utterly forgotten that social gourmandism which unites an Attic elegance with Roman luxury and French subtlety, the kind which chooses wisely, asks for an exacting and knowing preparation, savors with vigor, and sums up the whole with profundity: it is a rare quality, which might easily be named a virtue, and which is at least one of our surest sources of pure pleasure.