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Gourmet Rhapsody

An insolent critic looks back at a life spent savoring flavors.

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It is a plain fact that if a critic appears in a book or movie, he (it’s almost always a he) will be a pretentious jerk. He may or may not be a fraud, but the pretension and the obnoxiousness are both givens. (He also will inevitably be portrayed as quite wealthy, which is actually pretty funny.)

Meet the Maître. The main character of French author Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, says, quite simply, “I am the greatest food critic in the world.” He is also dying. And before he dies, there’s one elusive flavor he craves one last time, if only he could remember what it was.

Barbery won international acclaim for her philosophical novel, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” which recounted the unlikely friendship between a precocious 12-year-old girl and an elderly French concierge, who took delight in conforming outwardly to her wealthy clientele’s stereotypes, while her rich inner life vastly outstripped theirs. (Renee gets a cameo in “Gourmet Rhapsody,” which made me miss her all over again.)

The Maître, to put it mildly, is a less sympathetic character. He has ignored his wife, Anna, for at least 20 years, and is proud of the fact that he doesn’t love the children “who emerged from his wife’s entrails.” In fact, his relationship with food has been by far the most profound of his life, and, as he lies in his bed, trying to remember what he wants as his last meal, he recounts the most glorious viands of a life full of eating, Interestingly, elaborate, multicourse meals, such as he taught his disciples to extol, don’t figure prominently. Instead, he remembers the “ashy marine aroma” of freshly grilled sardines, the freshness of a chunky orange sorbet, and the perfection of a warm tomato eaten fresh under a linden tree.

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