Epicurean Epistles is a blog about food writing past as well as present, so it’s more than time I turned my attention to some food history. It may never have occurred to you, but back in the 19th century a restaurant critic by the name of Grimod de la Reynière was so struck by the noble characteristics of fish, that in passing through the fish market, he was moved to pen some lyrical prose about them. His words are so eloquent it puts the inhabitants of our oceans in a whole new light. Even someone as indisposed towards fish as I am could almost be moved to a new level of piscatorial admiration.
Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (to give him his full and fulsome name) is recognised as the world’s very first restaurant critic. Credited with also having founded the genre of the gastronomic essay (along with Brillat-Savarin), he has a lot to answer for. If he’d foreseen the armies of gimlet eyed reviewers who would follow in his footsteps, flocking to restaurant tables across the world armed with notebook, pen and mobile phone, palates and powers of discernment keenly poised to pass judgement, he might well have kept his views to himself.
Born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1758, la Reynière established what was known as the Jury des Dégustateurs, an elite group that met weekly at the Rocher de Cancale restaurant to review food. In an essay called “The Claw at the Table: the Gastronomic Criticism of Grimod de la Reynière“, Cathy K. Kaufman gives a detailed account of what went on. The weekly dinners were advertised to caterers, purveyors and restaurateurs in advance, inviting them to submit dishes for review. The subsequent deliberations took place “in camera”, however in a much more generous spirit than is typical of today’s reviewers, suppliers who were found wanting were offered a chance to resubmit their offerings for re-evaluation. While perhaps evidence of an intent to be fair and above board, the juridical proceedings sparked such competitive fervour among food suppliers that the members found themselves overwhelmed with freebies and goodies of all kinds. Even the most rigorous of ethical standards may have wobbled a bit under such pressure.
In his book “All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present”, Stephen Mennell tells us that la Reynière extended his critical career by founding the “Almanach des gourmands”, an annual guide for gourmands first published in 1803, the first Zagat guide, if you like. It was, if not de rigueur, certainly expected that appropriate and frequent rewards for praise would be forthcoming from the establishments featured. Times have changed since then and now it’s expected that publications promoting themselves as restaurant guides are impartial and objective. (The arena of online reviews is considerably more murky and practices, shall we say, vary).
While it could be construed that la Reynière was an opportunist with a hankering after the finer things in life, it was accepted behavior back then and in any case his contribution to gastronomy extended well beyond his arguably biased reviews. In 1808 he published the “Manuel des amphitryons” and then a monthly “Journal des gourmands et des belles” from 1806 to 1808, a predecessor to magazines of our day such as Gourmet, Epicurean and so on. His publications were groundbreaking in the field of gastronomy, covering, in addition to restaurant guides, a nutritional calendar of foods by season, an “itinéraire nutritive” which provided information about Parisian food suppliers of all kinds, (a David Lebovitz of our day?) social commentary and advice about “matters of gastronomic savoir-faire”. His writing has influenced many subsequent studies and articles, a good example of which is the website Almanach des Gourmands by Carolin C. Young.
La Reynière was also somewhat of a rogue who delighted in outlandish pranks such as sending out invitations to his own funeral dinner to see who would turn up. Cathy Kaufman describes how for this dinner he extended the funereal theme to his menu, serving a range of sombrely hued dishes such as tortoise soup, caviar, olives, game in a sooty coloured sauce, truffles, chocolate, plums, blackberries and raisins. Family relations were tense at times chez La Reynière, Cathy Kaufman also tells us, and these would not have been improved by the dinner at which Grimod outfitted a live pig in his father’s clothes and seated it at the head of the table.
To return to the passage about fish, which originally sparked my curiosity about this figure of history, the following is taken from the Almanach des Gourmands. A full English edition of the work has not yet been published, so this translation has been kindly provided by Professor Barbara Santich of the University of Adelaide.
“All the denizens of the Ocean, large and small, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews, children even, meet here every morning throughout the year except on days of excessive heat when business hours are reduced. Here the proud salmon, the imperious sturgeon and the majestic turbot find themselves alongside the unassuming whiting, the suave mackerel and the humble herring; in this place they are united, not as they might have been in the sea, but as we will all be one day in the realm of the dead, in other words, within a perfect equality.”
I’ll never look at the proud salmon in the same way again, let alone the suave mackerel.
by Anne Green