… for Martim Avilez …
« The preparation of a simple tomato is more difficult than the solution of the problem of God’s infinitude. »
It has long seemed to me that the pleasure of a meal exists in direct proportion to one’s knowledge of cuisine. By this I in no way wish to suggest that culinary pleasure is necessarily a form of sublimation, nor that erudition need pass through an alimentary desublimation in order to find its ‘flesh.’ Rather, like certain rare authors from Brillat-Savarin to Barthes, I would insist that dining is a practice that recenters quotidian existence around the arts of the table, and that these arts have profoundly discursive implications.
I would like to present this celebration of the issue of Lusitania that I edited, Taste, Nostalgia (1997), under the sign of three transsubstantiations. The first two I recounted in my contribution to that issue, ‘The Ideology of the Pot-au-feu.’ Several years before Taste, Nostalgia took form, I had the pleasure of dining at the Lyonnais restaurant Léon de Lyon with the eminent 18th century specialist Jean-Claude Bonnet (see his ‘Carême, or the Last Sparks of Decorative Cuisine’) and Chantal Thomas (see her ‘Blancmange with Amond Milk,’ which was the basis of her subsequent book, L’Ile flottante, which in turn was transformed into the play of the same title, directed by and starring Alfredo Arias). Jean-Claude and I ordered the same dish, but for different reasons : Chou farci aux truffes fraîches, ris de veau, crêtes de coq, dés de foie gras (Stuffed cabbage with fresh truffles, sweetbreads, cockscombs, and foie gras) – he for intellectual reasons, because the ingredients were those of the famed petits soupers of the Ancien Régime (see Rodolphe el-Khoury’s ‘Taste and Spectacle’), and me for nostalgic reasons, since the stuffed cabbage is the national dish of my father’s homeland, Hungry. (This choice, as I will elaborate, became the core of the first volume of my culinary autobiography.) Chantal, looked on with some bewilderment at our curious choice, as she ordered the most traditional dish on the menu, a pot-au-feu. Afterwards, she insisted that this dish was ‘transsubstantial.’
Later in the same article I discuss the culinary symbolism in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ infamous fin-de-siècle novel, Là-bas (1891), where the life-giving Catholic values embodied by the pot-au-feu cooked by the wife of the bellringer of the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris are contrasted to the diabolical horrors of a particularly blasphemous sort of Black Mass: the Mass of Sperm. Here, the transsubstantiation of the host is abjected by its satanic simulacra, symbolizing a sinful eroticism and an unholy death.
There is a third version of the transsubstantiation that I would like to consider, which I just presented in the Feeding Frenzy colloquium at New York University (September 2008). The most bizarre still-life I have yet to see is a photograph taken by the greatest poète maudit of the twentieth century, Antonin Artaud, while incarcerated in the psychiatric asylum of Rodez in 1943, reproduced in Nouveaux écrits de Rodez (Paris, Gallimard, 1977, intercalated after page 23). This photograph depicts a cane transformed into a cross, planted in the earth, dressed with immense cabbage leaves and covered by Artaud’s jacket. Artaud – the man who at one point during his madness consumed 144 hosts, whether in the service of mysticsm, exorcism, or heresy it is hard to tell -- explains this curious image:
The occult tradition teaches that the cabbage is the form that nothingness [le néant] takes in order to manifest itself to human consciousness ... it would appear that Satan, chance born from inexistence, used this form to compose the feminin sexual organ ... well beyond these pernicious, derogatory and depressing libidinous images, the esoteric books teach us that the cane is the will of God, and that the woman he had conjured up before him is Nature, before all else... As for the cabbage leaves, they represent the void [le Néant] , that is to say nothing at all, since it is with nothing at all that God had made everything. (Lettres écrites de Rodez 1943-1944, in Œuvres complètes Vol 10; Paris, Gallimard, 1974, p. 297).
The cabbage as nothingness, the cabbage as vagina; the cabbage as theological, the cabbage as erotic: yet one more symbol of the ontological antinomy that ruled Artaud’s last years those of a man caught between nothingness and infinitude, yet wishing to become nothing other than himself, desiring nothing more than to be his own origin. The strangest stuffed cabbage, a cabbage stuffed with the cross, the promise of a heretical transsubstantiation. The cabbage as theological allegory, a strange tabernacle to protect a gnostic and blasphemous cross, the chapel of madness. A heartbreaking cabbage, one that expresses the infinite pathos of Artaud’s existence.
It seems that these three anecdotes might well offer a hint to finding the path that leads from God’s infinitude to a cooked tomato, or, in metaphysical terms, from the transcendent to the contingent. In fact, I tend to agree with Artaud: while the greatest minds have reduced the proofs of Gods existence to but a few axioms (to the four proofs enumerated in Descartes’ Méditations, I have, in Mirrors of Infinity, suggested an ‘optical’ proof of the existence of God), the great chefs of the world are far from classifying all the manners of cooking a tomato. Far from it. This problem might be approached in more general terms. If we consider the lexical complexity of the word taste, we find a parallel declension from the corporeal to the metaphysical: (1) the gustative sense; (2) the flavor of a foodstuff; (3) a particular culinary preference; (4) a discriminative gastronomic activity; (5) the aesthetic sublimation of certain value judgments. Gastronomy thus offers, a fortiori, a direct link between the sensual and the transcendent. Consequently, taste is neither subjective nor solipsistic, as it always implies intersubjective imperatives and discursive activity. The famed claim that ‘there is no disputing taste’ is patently false, as taste is always dialogical, anchored in culture, history, biography. It is for this reason that I found it necessary to elaborate my gastronomic insights in terms of the three modalities that constitute the structure of our psychic mechanism: the symbolic (‘The Ideology of the Pot-au-feu,’ as elaborated in Taste, Nostalga); the imaginary (Comment cuisiner un phénix); the real (Autobiographie dans un chou farci). Only by considering all the facets of cuisine can one approach its aesthetic implications and, for that matter, the depths of the pleasure it offers.
To put the matter in other terms, I have always sought to grasp the preconditions for considering cuisine as one of the ‘fine arts.’ A very schematic bibliographic overview should clarify the problem. In the introduction to the cookbook Dons de Comus (1739), Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant and Pierre Brumoy, two Jesuits, refer to cuisine for the first time as an art. Though they certainly mean something closer to métier (craft), the lexical choice set the stage, however equivocally, for the debates that followed. The key moment in this history when the celebrated gastronome Grimod de la Reynière invented gasronomic journalism with his Almanach des gourmands (1803), followed by the Manuel des Amphitryons (1808), which unabashedly celebrated the aesthetic value of cuisine. Subsequently, in what remains the most famous gastronomic tract, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût (1826), cuisine is for the first time unequivocally given its place among the arts, and its muse is finally named: Gasterea. But the specifically philosophical arguments were still decades away, finally formulated, however tangenally, first by Charles Baudelaire in Les Paradis artificiels (1860) and ‘Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris’ (1861), and later by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1871) and Twilight of the Idols (1888). What is extraordinary, as I have attempted to show in Feast and Folly (2002) is that these two major aesthetic theories at the origins modernity were based on the shock and revelation of hearing Wagner’s music, and that both theories are couched in terms of the intoxication caused by that music. This led both Baudelaire and Nietzsche to establish aesthetic theories based on what would come to be termed synaesthesia and the Gesamtkunstwerk, that is to say on the interrelations between on the one hand all the senses, and on the other between all the arts. For the first time, at least potentially, the conception of the fine arts implied: an art form corresponding to each sense; a reversibility between the senses; and an interconnection between the arts. However, despite Baudelaire’s sublime poems about wine in the Fleurs du mal, and despite the fact that in the famed passage of Twilight of the Idols entitled ‘Toward a pschyology of the artist,’ Nietzsche mentions feasts among the forms of frenzy leading to aesthetic creativity, it would take over a century for the specifically culinary implications of these theories to be elaborated, i.e., for cuisine to finally be conceived as a form of art – l’art de la bouche conceived in the full spectrum of the aesthetic field.
One might well ask about precisely what point in the history of modern art gastronomic issues self-consciously entered the aesthetic problematic. Of course, ever since the Renaissance culinary iconography was common to, and often at the center of, still life, vanitas, and genre painting. And it of course played a crucial role in the development of architecture and design, as Rodolphe el-Khoury reveals in ‘Taste and Spectacle.’ But when precisely did culinary matters considered as part of the creative process begin to enter artistic consciousness? Any carefully researched genealogy will point to such events all through the history of post-Renaissance Western art, but it is clear that something radically changed from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s: at the moment that New York established itself as the financial center of the art world, it also saw the beginnings of not only a growing gastronomic consciousness, but also a new discourse about a specifically American cuisine, the epiphenomenon of which was the creation of The Four Seasons restaurant, which not only featured haute cuisine versions of classic American recipes, but whose famed decor over the years featured works by Picasso, Miro, Pollack, Lichtenstein, Stella, Rauschenberg. The new prestige value of food didn’t escape the aristic field, where, for example, in the mid-60s Daniel Spoerri – who at that time opened a restaurant in Düsseldorf, and in 1968 opened the Eat-Art Gallery -- created an infamous series of works based on the leftovers of his meals. The excerpt of his annotated menu, ‘La fain du C.N.A.C.’ published in Taste, Nostalgia reveals the extraordinary depth and breadth of Spoerri’s gastronomic passion.
Thus while both French Nouveau Réalism (of which Spoerri was a part) and American Pop Art both expanded iconography by spurring the use of icons, including culinary ones, from everyday life, I would argue that the key moment in the conceptual and symbolic transformation of our sense of food was the beginnings of the nouvelle cuisine in France, which motivated a vigorous and often vicious polemic about culinary styles. While for at least two centuries gastronomes and culinary critics had touted the creative genius of the great chefs, the rhetoric and was always couched in a highly traditional discursive system, exemplified by Escoffier’s codification of the thousands of recipes of French haute cuisine around the beginning of the 20th century, and the reality existed in a totally hierarchical system of culinary apprenticeship, centered on rote learning rather than innovationn. What changed with the nouvelle cuisine was the self-conscious desire to create new dishes never before imagined, with the consequence that an entirely new vocabulary was established. Dishes were no longer bound to traditional recipes but were experienced as creations in their own right, and chefs functionned in a manner parallel to contemporary artists, utilizing new and exotic foodstuffs, working with foreign and experimental techniques, and inspiring each other to create variants on variants of variants of new dishes. A sign of this change in mentality is the fact that it was in 1975 that for the first time that salads (the ‘laboratory’ of cuisine) were listed among chefs’ specialties in the Guide Michelin: Alain Chapel’s ‘Salade de homard’ and Jacques Pic’s ‘Salade de pecheurs au xérès.’ In short, one went to a nouvelle cuisine restaurant not to partake in the time-tested perfections of a tradition, but to risk the experience of creativity, much as one does in a modern art gallery.
Taste, Nostalgia, published by Lusitania in 1997, was one of the first attempts to reveal the vast breadth of both the influence of cuisine on the pictorial imagination and the role of aesthetics in constituting gastronomic discourse. And one should note its historic precedence over the French art magazine Beaux Arts, which in 1998 established the first gastronomically oriented column in a major journal dedicated to art, followed soon after by my ‘Ingestion’ column in Cabinet (2000) and the founding of the journal Gastronomica by Darra Goldstein (2000). One need only peruse the table of contents and the illustrations of Taste, Nostalgia, as well as the works presented in the Food Matters exhibition coordinated with the publication of the issue, to sense the continued dedication to the perennial role of culinary iconography in the fine arts, and more radically, the unequivocal acceptance of cuisine as a form of art. Just a few examples of the art chosen by Martim Avilez and Saul Ostrow will give a sense of the extraordinary culinary vitality behind this issue of Lusitania: Larry Miler’s A Cross (1969) made of bittersweet chocolate, or his A Cross, Melting (1969-70) might in other times have caused a public scandal; art-historical spoofs like Cody Choi’s scatological The Thinker (1996) -- depicting the nude artist in the pose of Rodin’s famed sculpture, beneath a Pepto-bismol colored toilet-paper version of the same work – revitalized old icons; Gay Outlaws’ Mille Feuilles (1992) makes a statement on culinary vocabulary by placing a shelf of mille feuille (thousand leaves) pastry among shelves of books in a library; Lothar Baumgarten’s The Orgin of Table Manners (1971) – where feathers replace cutlry in a table setting – poks fun at what is probably the single most influential culinary theory, that of Lévi-Strauss. The articles are no less amusing, outlandish and inspiring: George Bauer’s ‘Regendering the Fig,’ an investigation of the erotic symbolism couched in a foodstuff; Chantal Thomas’ ‘Blancmange with Almond Milk’ and Jeff Weinstein’s ‘White Toast and Butter,’ and Terri Kapsalis’ ‘Yiayia’s Hands,’ all plunging into the bittersweet depths of nostalgia to disclose the diverse sources of the culinary passion.
But to continue this enumeration would be to detail the gastronomic imagination in the infinitude of its contingency, of which Taste, Nostalgia exists as one subset among many other possible ones. Part of its continuing richness, creativity and provocation stems from the mode of its production and the complex relations between image and text. The issue contains three regimes of imagess: those chosen by the authors to illustrate heir articles; the full-color dossiers of artists’ works chosen by Martim Avilez and Saul Ostrow; and the selection on black-and-white historical culinary images placed throughout the issue at critical junctures, so as to offer a sometimes symbolic, sometimes ironic, sometimes mysterious commentary on the categories and texts that articulate the issue. But perhaps most crucial is that Taste, Nostalgia was not conceived and produced by ‘committee’: the criteria of the editorial choices of texts and images – the former by me, the latter by Martim and Saul – were completely eclectic and idiosyncratic. The consequent correspondences, interferences and even contradictions all contribute to a richness both conscousness and unconscious, one which continues to enrich the culinary field.
And today? Perhaps the most symbolically extraordinary culinary event of the epoch is the project initiated by the Institut européen d’histoire et des cultures de l’alimentation (IEHCA) to have French gastronomy named to UNESCO’s immaterial cultural heritage list. Often mistaken for the list of endangered cultural monuments, the notion of immaterial cultural heritage implies neither a hierarchisation, momumentalization nor museification of French cuisine, neither a classification of great restaurants nor an inventory of classic dishes or endangered products. Nor does it argue for the superiority of French cuisine. Rather, it is a motivation for considering French gasronomy as an integral and ineluctable part of the country’s cultural heritage, one of the keys to French identity. As such, gastronomy is grasped in its broadest range: as social practice, cultural artefact, art form; expression of history, memory, and national identity; nexus of beliefs, customs and traditions. Such would be the apotheosis of cuisine, the validation of its status among the arts, the worldwide celebration of its muse.
Yet a decade earlier, the editors and writers of Lusitania already took all this for graned. Emblematic is the cover of the Taste, Nostalgia: on the left, Caravaggio’s sublime Bacchus; on the right, the photo, unappetizing and somewhat ridiculous, of a German sausage-tasting competition, showing two bald heads bent over piles of steaming wurst. From sensory experience to aesthetic judgment, from tomato (or sausage) to God, there is no longer any obstacle to speaking, once and for all, of the arts of the table.