Images by Charlotta Westergren.
Charlotta Westergren, Victory, 2010, oil on linen, 58 in. x 58 in.
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.