An insolent critic looks back at a life spent savoring flavors.
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.
While “Gourmet Rhapsody” is unlikely to appeal to as wide a reading swath as “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Barbery’s descriptions should have foodies salivating.
The Maître’s favorite adjective is “insolent,” which is appropriate. Did you know that bell peppers are “unctuous?” No wonder I’ve never liked them. The specificity she brings to the Maître’s sense memories bring them alive. Take a boyhood afternoon in his aunt’s garden: “First of all, the geranium leaves. I would lie on my stomach among the tomatoes and peas and, swooning with pleasure, rub the leaves between my fingers: slightly acid, sufficiently tart with a vinegary insolence, but not so tart that they could fail to evoke at the same time the delicately bitter scent of candied lemon, with a hint of the acrid odor of tomato leaves....”
But there’s no generosity of spirit, such as the one that motivates, say, “Babette’s Feast.” Cinematically speaking, the Maître is a colder version of “Ratatouille’s” Anton Ego, and is just as serious about food as the man whose motto was: “I love food. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” Older film buffs will recognize in his intellectual hauteur shades of Addison DeWitt, the imperious theater critic played by George Sanders in “All About Eve.”
Other characters also briefly weigh in with memories of the Maître. (The chapter starring his cat, Rick, who actually says “purrfectly,” marks the novel’s low point.) His daughter, for example, remembers a disastrous outing when her father bought her Greek loukamades, hot doughnuts trickled with honey. When he asks her what she thinks, and the little girl says, “It’s good,” his scorn is withering. Even Barbery’s choice of confection is infused with meaning: The Greek version of pat-a-cake, “Palamakia,” is all about a doting father bringing home loukamades for his baby.
Some of Barbery’s gastrophilosophical observations could be boiled down into clichés such as “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and “a man’s home is his castle,” but that would be unfair. In the first instance, a young critic is overturning the Maître’s theory that his grandmother’s cooking was so wonderful because of her “simple” nature (grr!), instead building a feminist argument that declared that those meals “prepared in their private laboratories” were an unspoken call of superiority. “Quite simply, those men experienced paradise, and even if they could not admit it to themselves, they knew very well that they were incapable of offering it to their wives in return....” When the Maître interrupts to ask how chefs, who clearly are not oppressed, fit into this analysis, the young critic replies, “No chef can cook, nor has ever cooked, the way our grandmothers did.”
And, remembering one grandmother’s pastitsio and avgolemeno soup and the other’s fried chicken and homemade egg noodles, I would be inclined to agree.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.