The gastronomical week has been active indeed, to the point of utterly complicating the already difficult task I have of choosing a subject. What should I address, with what angle and to what point? Worse than figuring out what to cook tonight. So the solution I am proposing is a salade Niçoise with a number of tasty ingredients combined though not mixed, shaken not stirred.
The international situation at hand requires though a conciliatory forward, which has found inspiration in the one written by Marcel Rouff in 1920 as the ashes of WW1 were still simmering with its griefs. How, indeed, asks the author introducing his novel on the Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, could he be so bold as to present such a light subject amidst such somber mourning?
Because he thinks that «...the art of gastronomy, like any other art, includes a philosophy, a psychology, an ethic, that it is an integral part of universal thought, that it is linked to the civilization of our land, to the culture of our taste, and thus to the higher essence of humanity. I've always believed that art is the effort of genius to rediscover and express the profound and absolute harmony hidden beneath the disorderly and chaotic appearances of nature.(1) »
Thus, gastronomy is a collective quest to discover the beauties and secrets of nature and to share them around a table, thus paving the ground to riskier subjects upon which it will be easier to find common ground. If the best way to attain a goal is to start with a step, then the first step-stone to any higher endeavour is to share a meal and search together this « higher essence ». Gastronomy, as a unique articulation between matter and mind, between needs and aspirations, occupies a privileged position to further the chances of peaceful coexistence.
And, conveniently, sharing a joyous meal would be the adequate circumstance to passionately discuss the new movie inspired by this very same book. In a few words, taking from various perspectives, the cinematography is fantastic - I strongly encourage you to dine before lest you choke from salivation - with excellent actors such as Benoît Magimel who renders with eloquence the excessive gravity given by Dodin-Bouffant to the art of gastronomy. The religious zeal expressed by the Napoleon of the table, as they call him, siphons away all the light-heartedness Brillat-Savarin had strived to infuse into this ultimately social event. If the dishes presented to the creme de la creme guests make you want to lick the screen, the conversations inspire drudgery and even the contemplation of a noose to end these incredibly boring sequences. How, but how, can one enjoy an afternoon-long meal without a pleasant conversation? The best of dishes looses all savour in bad company. But when you read the novel, that is what you find: excessive gravity, and in this respect, the movie if well done.
Put shortly, if you are passionate about the whole subject, you will appreciate it; if you like long French movies, you’ll love it; if you are a foodie, you’ll most likely enjoy it. If you like a light hearted jovialy-paced movie, you'll hate it. Also bear in mind, it is the French contender for the Oscars!
This visual articulation of the written word taken from Marcel Rouff’s book serves as an appropriate introduction to a two day event I attended last week, organised by la Villa Rabelais in Tours around Media & Gastronomy. This 19th edition by the Open University of Gastronomical Sciences reunited journalists, influencers, researchers and other actors of this fantastic field, with a focus on the impact of the changing media on gastronomy.
If there is one word which could summarise the current situation, it is the Mediamorphosis of gastronomy. With influencers, with the prevalence of images and videos, the directness and immediacy of information, short-cutting the traditional journalists - who during the event invited students in the auditorium NOT to start their career in this field - culinary practice is gnawing at the heals of gastronomy, sustained by fleeting and shallow amateurs. Indeed, as Gastronomy is the « intellectualisation » of eating and cooking practices, the disappearance of food interpreters, thinkers and knowledge bearers is evaporating the thought through gentle digital simmering.
The invention of the press in the middle of the 15th century marked a turning point in the history of mankind, culminating in erudite writing and reading about the Table with all its subtleties and joys. The digital age is changing this and if gastronomy can be measured by the love of reading, I am afraid bleak days lie ahead and the soldiers of Gastronomy will need to redouble their efforts to promote this art of living, lest they discover that it is for them that the dinner bells toll.
It became clear with the various sessions of the event prepared with great professionalism that a good part of the new Media is not inclined to address the spirit of gastronomy. Though some new « shows » such as C’est meilleur quand c’est bon, using new channels like Youtube, provide insight into the love, science and passion of this heavenly practice, most others will have difficulties detailing what can only be experienced in literature such as with Dodin-Bouffant. TikTok has the patience of a fizzle, Instagram the depth of an influencer’s varnish and X can only serve to nurture a cultural war from which no one survives.
And so, as someone explained during the event, the time for the Revenge of the Chefs had come, after decades of floundering under the ink and the feather. Ubiquitous shows and pictures gave them the limelight that would cast their shadows over the sterile and cosmopolitan prose of stuffy writers.
But this imbalance of power is detrimental. To the point where when asked by Carine, a restaurant management professor from a Dijon school - what of the dinning room, with the waiters, the service and the atmosphere? - a round of applause arose spontaneously, as though a bitter taste had suddenly been unleashed from its chains and the injustice named.
The other potential injustice exposed during the Round tables, to be explored before being swallowed wholeheartedly, is that of gastronomical gentrification. Though Kilien Stengel argued that gastronomy was gaining ground in the population, to the benefit of all, the general insistence of associating gastronomy with Michelin starred cuisine could have the detrimental effect of making those most in need of tasty and healthy eating feel chased away from these gentle buroughs.
Grimod and Brillat both understood the challenge and meaning of the French revolution, that reasoned eating should be accessible to all, and thus they proposed menus adapted to various incomes. Gastronomy should first and foremost be universal, an art that can be accessed above all by effort, even if - obviously my dear pragmatists - money helps, though sometimes it doesn’t.
The oil lamps gave our forefathers gastronomical inspiration, but blessed with electricity, this summoned within me the idea of applying the GINI coefficient to gastronomical disparity. Usually applied to wealth and income, we could use it to identify disparities in wholesome indulgence. Thus identifying the spread in gastronomical exposure, we could underscore the tensions to come within a country.
Should there be any naysayers to my revolutionary words, the good news is that Pernod Ricard, one of the leading spirits companies in the world, has just come out with a fast-food dedicated red wine called Greasy Fingers Luscious Red 2022, unfortunately not available yet in France. This Shiraz and Grenache assembly is dedicated to accompanying your burger or kebab, and probably dip your fingers.
The fundamental question though is what kind of fast-food, bearing in mind even the Romans had fast-food. With my better half, we share from time to time an excellent pizza prepared in GPT-Neapolitan style accompanied by a matured Côtes du Rhône or a Roussillon-Languedoc with just enough body to enrobe the delicate crust, enshrine those firm yet tender artichokes and temper the mostly Emily though a little Romagne grated cheese. When you look at Sara’s burger tour, you better get the heavy artillery! And I am sure that Chris can find a gently aged Spanish wine to accompany some refined tapas.
Hence, associating wine with finger/fast food isn’t all that new. The interrogation lies rather with the colourful name given to this marketing stunt and the type of food it calls for.
Which leads me to a digestive endnote to this nice salad, with a word about a French contest I am not sure to find elsewhere, that of the ugliest Places and Squares of France.
Believe it or not, Paris with a plethora of building-sized adds to hide renovations, can be proud to be part of the top 5. The fact of the matter is that what strikes newcomers in France and with the French is how they shun what is ugly, moche in local terms. It probably explains a strong level of interventionism in municipal affairs to ensure nothing too ugly is built to ruin the sights, and also finds itself applied to greasy concepts.
This witch hunt to which ugliness is subjected, also applies to ideas, often without due process, and probably explains why this idea of Greasy Fingers, though funny, may hardly find any traction in this rabelesian country.
Image by Dall.E, prompt "Niçoise salad, cyberpunk style. No idea why it put a washer in the middle. Let's just say it is the chef.
(1) La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet - Marcel Rouff, 1920. The movie based on this novel is known as The Taste of Things