24 JULY, 2013
By: Maria Popova
“Assuredly it is a great accomplishment to be a novelist, but it is no mediocre glory to be a cook.”
Although literary history remembers Alexandre Dumas (July 24, 1802–December 5, 1870) as the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, he was also, unbeknownst to many today, a formidable gastronome and masterful cook. In many ways, this makes sense — from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to bibliophilic recipes to literary culinary parodies, food and fiction have always gravitated to each other. The Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine (public library), however — one of literary history’s rarest culinary treasures, it is also one of the most glorious — is in a league of its very own. Its story is equally epic: The manuscript was delivered to Dumas’s publisher and friend, Alphonese Lemerre, in the spring of 1870, but just as it was being set in type, the Franco-Prussian War tore Europe apart. Publication was halted. A few months later, Dumas died. Despite the five hundred books he had authored, he considered the Dictionary of Cuisine his masterwork, so once peace was established, his friend D. J. Vuillemot corrected and revised the manuscript, and Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine was published posthumously in 1873. Nine years later, Lemerre published Le Petit Dictionnaire de cuisine, consisting of only the recipes and doing away with all the historical commentary on food and its rituals.
The bibliophile Jacob Paul Lacroix, a Dumas contemporary, captured the singular significance of the Dictionary most memorably:
Assuredly it is a great accomplishment to be a novelist, but it is no mediocre glory to be a cook. Novelist or cook, Dumas is a master, and the two vocations appear to go hand in hand, or, rather, to be joined in one.
Dumas’s epicurean tour of the alphabet, “from absinthe (and how to make it) to zest (and how to use it),” is itself a treasure trove of hundreds of recipes spanning 150 years and delivered with a storyteller’s poise, the most delightful part of the book is Dumas’s preface, titled “A Few Words to the Reader.” In it, amidst meditations on the art, science, and psychology of cuisine, Dumas delivers a taxonomy of appetite:
There are three sorts of appetites:
1. Appetite that comes from hunger. It makes no fuss over the food that satisfies it. If it is great enough, a piece of raw meat will appease it as easily as a roasted pheasant or woodcock.
2. Appetite aroused, hunger or no hunger, by a succulent dish appearing at the right moment, illustrating the proverb that hunger comes with eating.
The third type of appetite is that roused at the end of a meal when, after normal hunger has been satisfied by the main courses, and the guest is truly ready to rise without regret, a delicious dish holds him to the table with a final tempting of his sensuality.
Alexandre Dumas in 1855 (public domain)
He follows this with a parallel taxonomy of the three types of gluttony:
First there is that gluttony which has been raised by the theologians to rank among the seven deadly sins. This is what Montaigne calls “the science of the gullet,” and it is well exemplified by Trimalchio and Vitellius.
The greatest example of gluttony that has come to us from classical antiquity is that of Saturn, who devoured his children for fear they would dethrone him, and did not even notice it was a paving stone he swallowed instead when it came to Jupiter’s turn. He is forgiven, for in doing so he furnished Vergniaud with a fine simile: “The Revolution is like Saturn. It devours its own children.”
Besides this sort of gluttony, which requires a strong stomach, there is what we might call the gluttony of delicate souls. Horace praised it, and Lucullus practiced it. This is exemplified by the host who gathers together a few friends, never less numerous than the Graces, ever more than the Muses, and does his utmost to distract their minds and cater to their tastes.
For a curious epitome of how language and culture co-evolve, Dumas uses the word bulimia, which originates from the Greek boulimia for “ravenous hunger,” to describe the third kind of gluttony. The formal diagnosis of bulimia nervosa as an eating disorder, one of today’s most heartbreakingly prevalent mental-health maladies, was nearly a decade away, but Dumas articulates the tragedy of its grip with remarkable poignancy and even calls it a “disease” long before it was officially categorized as one:
The third form of gluttony, which I can only deplore, is that of those unfortunates who suffer from bulimia, a perpetual and insatiable hunger. They are neither gourmands nor gourmets; they are martyrs. It was doubtless during an attack of this disease that Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage.
Dumas then returns to the question of the perfect number of dinner guests, scouring ancient history for an answer:
Varro, the learned librarian, tells us that the number of guests at a Roman dinner was ordinarily three or nine — as many as the Graces, no more than the Muses. Among the Greeks, there were sometimes seven diners, in honor of Pallas. The sterile number seven was consecrated to the goddess of wisdom, as a symbol of her virginity. But the Greeks especially liked the number six, because it is round. Plato favored the number twenty-eight, in honor of Phoebe, who runs her course in twenty-eight days. The Emperor Verus wanted twelve guests at his table in honor of Jupiter, which takes twelve years to revolve around the sun. Augustus, under whose reign women began to take their place in Roman society, habitually had twelve men and twelve women, in honor of the twelve gods and goddesses.
In France, any number except thirteen is good.
Since literature is the original internet, with each reference or footnote essentially a hyperlink to another work, it’s no surprise that I discovered Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine in the equally wonderful Seducer’s Cookbook, also very much worth a read. Complement it with this magnificent illustrated edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and the favorite recipes of beloved poets.
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