An extravagant paean to the import of dining, cast as historical reports of memorable meals.
First is an account of a grand gathering of clerics held in the church at Cluny in 1132, at a time when monks were supposed to eat only one meal a day in silence, and no meat at all. Nevertheless, according to Young (Culinary Historian/Sotheby’s), the vegetable fare had grown so rich and varied that abbot Peter the Venerable chided the diners to return to a more ascetic regimen. Asceticism has no place in the 11 chapters that follow, including the wedding banquet (sans groom) in Florence of Maria de’ Medici and Henri IV of France. The groom was not much missed amid the fantastic entertainments, which featured a chariot drawn by peacocks descending from the ceiling. Peacocks were also among the 30 dishes served as a first course. In time, table settings grew more elaborate, with services of Sévres and Meissen, and dining habits more refined, with the increasing specialization of knives, forks, and spoons—as at, for instance, a dinner for Louis XIV so beautifully lit that “the heavens were jealous.” Casanova’s intimate dinner with a nun offered only eight exquisitely prepared dishes, so as not to sate other appetites. Talleyrand’s elegant fête in honor of Josephine Bonaparte and even the surrealist picnic attended by Max Ernst, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and others in 1932, where lobsters were devoured with bare hands, serve to support Young’s rather grand thesis that “the soul of dining lies in its ability to express our humanity”—bad as well as good. Digressions into the history and politics surrounding each event are often as diverting as descriptions of the meals, the latter often speculative when the menus haven’t survived.
Still, readers will salivate as they glimpse tables set with roasts and game birds, sauces and soups, fruits and ices, extravaganzas of pastry—and plenty of wine. (b&w illustrations)