Thursday, June 4, 2015

Goethe and cuisine

Ludwig Passini, Caffe Greco (1855)
My interest in cooking since Rick's death has also led me to reading a lot about "food culture," in particular the history of cuisine and of cooking. Last year I subscribed to the journal Gastronomica. The subtitle should have warned me: The Journal of  Critical Food Studies, which is published out of the University of California. I had thought the depths of academic inanity could go no further until I started skimming (reading was out of the question) the issues that arrived quarterly in my mailbox. De-masking is the rule. The current issue, for instance, contains a "research essay" entitled "Toward Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy," in which one learns that practitioners and proponents have "mythologized [Japan's] high-end cuisine," thus misleading consumers from the environmental insult of this cuisine. One's heart sinks when reading such stuff. The piece "Red Meat: American Political Banquets and Partisan Culture" begins by describing a political banquet featuring Joseph McCarthy. Come on, guys! McCarthy is so old news!

Picasso, The Frugal Repast
Yet the current issue does have one piece of interest, which includes a translation from the 1846 work Paris à table by Eugène Briffault. The author and translator is J. Weintraub, who seems not to be an academic at all, but a writer from Chicago. Weintraub begins by mentioning that Paris à table is among the "seminal works" for the study of 19th-century gastronomy: Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du goût (1825) and Dumas's Grand dictonnaire de cuisine (1873). The main part of the article is a translation of the section "Dinner in the Current Age," which describes how the high and mighty and the lowly eat and all the grades in between.

I have posted before on Goethe as gourmand and his fondness for food and drink, but until I read this piece it had never struck me that Goethe probably never ate in the kinds of restaurants that were frequented by the rising bourgeoisie in Paris in the early part of the 19th century. Rick once pointed out to me the absence in The Italian Journey of discussions of Italian food. Goethe was in Berlin and Rome, but not in Paris or Vienna; and since he was in a courtly capacity in the former, the customs of the rising bourgeoisie in these cities were not something he experienced. He no doubt ate some well-prepared meals, especially at home, and he certainly favored freshness, but did he experience "cuisine"? Did Weimar have a concept of cuisine? You can learn a lot of about Goethe when you discover what he did not partake in, especially when it concerns customs that have become integral to la vie moderne. By the way, the Caffe Greco, which Goethe does mention in The Italian Journey, has a website featuring photos of interior and exterior.

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Last Crumbs
Even from a distance, however, Goethe was able to discern the features of modern life as this new age was coming into being. In the excerpt from Paris à table, Briffault mentions that the French venture everything when it come to food: "We take openly from foreign lands whatever we find to be good and pleasing in their practices. The special character of our table is a cosmopolitanism unknown to others." Discussing the effects of tourism and travels, he writes: "Manners have intermingled; thanks to living together and speaking all languages, we become familiar with all traditions, and each brought home the best of what had become seen among others."

Does this not sound like Goethe talking about world literature?

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