April 4, 2011 | by Mark Gimein
Images by Charlotta Westergren.
The story repeated most often in the gastronomical canon is Plutarch’s anecdote about the Roman patrician Lucullus. Asked if he might want a simple dinner on a night with no guests, the great gastronome orders up a feast, telling his steward that he is entertaining the most important guest of all: “Tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus.”
What always gets left out in the retelling is that Plutarch’s compliment to Lucullus’s table is a backhanded one. “The daily repasts of Lucullus,” writes Plutarch, “were such as the newly rich affect … With his arrays of all sorts of meats and daintily prepared dishes, he made himself the envy of the vulgar.” The misgivings about the gourmet are as old as Roman times: what if the endless expenditure on luxury signals not sophistication, but just plain gluttony?
What elevates the gourmand above your everyday glutton? Both rave about the same three-star Michelin experience, the first because it was rapturous and the second because he wants to make sure you know he had it. Maybe for an old-fashioned stoic there’s no difference, but nowadays things are laxer, and we don’t call the honest gourmet a sinner.
But can you always tell the one from the other? I’m not sure if it’s polite to ask these days, now that cooking is right up there with art and music and literature, but let’s just put it out there anyway.
The questions come to mind now thanks to Modernist Cuisine, the epic six-volume cookbook published by Nathan Myhrvold, a man of grandiose talents (physicist! paleontologist! billionaire!) and appetites. But I’ve been thinking about this for a while, since reading, at my girlfriend Charlotta’s prodding, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, the great nineteenth-century work of culinary science to which Modernist Cuisine gets compared.
I read Brillat-Savarin to understand the inspiration behind a series of Charlotta’s paintings, a group of still lifes that seemed to perplex dealers and magazines and galleries. They were detailed and richly textured and, unlike Charlotta’s installations, making them didn’t require climate-controlled galleries or armies of assistants.
Still, the paintings made people uncomfortable. They would search for adjectives and come up with luscious, then in the next breath wonder whether they were too big or too shiny, or if they wanted to live with paintings of dead things. The more notes Charlotta would give to explain them—“the pig is a symbol of gluttony, butterflies mark the transcendence of the soul”—the more awkwardly people approached them.
In this, by design, the paintings echoed their source material. In The Physiology of Taste Brillat-Savarin lays out a series of banquets—“gastronomical tests,” he calls them. Each of the three tests includes the most extravagant dishes the wealthy gourmand can afford, from the breast of veal accessible to the merchant with an income of five thousand francs a year to the truffle-stuffed fowl and ortolans for the awesomely rich. The meals are the height of culinary achievement, but—this is where the “test” comes in—few guests, and maybe even fewer hosts, will fully appreciate them.
Brillat-Savarin’s grand meals are supposed to test the ability to experience the sublime, but they are also grievously expensive. Even the guest who can’t tell truffles from Cocoa Puffs notices that. The promise of the banquet is transcendence, but its subject is the patron’s wealth.
In this, Charlotta offers, the Brillat-Savarin banquet is like the classic still life. It’s not for nothing that the Flemish still lifes of masters like Jan Davidsz. de Heem are filled with lemons—the priciest exotic fruit of the time. With the still life the patron shows off his possessions. Or, more subtly, he shows off the richness of his material life while also alleging his indifference to it, as with the hanging fowl in Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (they’re the bounty of the hunt, Charlotta points out to me, but also the patrons killing themselves off). Either way, the invitation of the still life is to transcend luxury by contemplating a luxuriously painted canvas.
The still life and Brillat-Savarin’s banquet are traps for the viewer or guest—and even more so for the patron. The more elaborate the banquet, the more the guests will worry about whether they are appreciating it enough, and the more the host himself will ignore the food to better spend his time showing off his money. The fancier the meal, the harder the test.
In the many interviews that have been published with Nathan Myhrvold, my favorite quote is one that he gave to Time magazine: “I want to empower people to make a better roast chicken.” While Modernist Cuisine does have instructions on how to cook a chicken (with a sous vide machine), this seems to me roughly like a Northern Renaissance burgher insisting that he is just commissioning an illustration of how to polish a goblet or slice an orange. Does anyone believe this?
Some of the most successful still lifes include an element of satire. To hang De Heen’s “Breakfast with Glass of Champagne and Pipe” (or, for that matter, Charlotta’s La Nature Morte Au Cochon, with its dead pig) is to wink at the guests at your banquet and tell them that, yes, you too know that you are indulging in something sinful. I think this would feel foreign to Myhrvold. He plays things straight, demonstrating his greatness as a gourmand with a comprehensive catalogue of elaborate recipes almost no one but he has the resources to make.
Both Brillat-Savarin and Myhrvold are authors of unapologetic guides for the rich, but I am so much readier to forgive Brillat-Savarin his faults. I ask Charlotta why this is so. She e-mails back that it might be because Myhrvold seems to have such a naive confidence in the powers of ownership and classification, like those early collectors who displayed their most exotic possessions in the wunderkammers, the first museums. “It’s like owning the sand from the Sahara,” she writes, “or the unicorn tusk, or the water from the Black Sea.” None of those give you the powers of the thing itself.
Strangely, no matter how much I read about Myhrvold, I don’t find myself envying him, and I’m really very prone to envy. With all his equipment, Myhrvold can replicate a meal at any level of transcendence. Certainly he can make truffled chickens better than Brillat-Savarin’s chefs ever could. But I try to imagine eating with him, and the sensation on my tongue tastes like disappointment.