Books

Fiddling While Rome Burns: 'The Perfect Meal'

John Baxter, an Australian writer living in France, is distressed at the death of haute cuisine, and thus sets out to discover France's remaining "real" foods. It's an onerous task.


The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France

Publisher: HarperPerennial
Length: 382 pages
Author: John Baxter
Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-02
Amazon

John Baxter, an Australian living in France, wrote The Perfect Meal in response to what he sees as a decline in authentic French food. To read his unhappy description, French restaurants and cafés are serving customers foods bought prepackaged, requiring only a warm-up in the microwave, while the bouillon cube has replaced genuine broth. Determined to get to the bottom of this terrifying trend, he undertook planning a classic repas, or fine French in meal in the old style, the food of not of grandmére but of the haute cuisine, wherein a battalion of cooks, ranging from the plongeur, or dishwasher, to the saucier, prepared elaborately complex meals with meticulous care.

A concern like Baxter’s could exist nowhere but in France. That isn’t to say there isn’t genuine concern about the decline of artisanal, local foods—see the Slow Food movement, with their Ark of Taste -- but to undertake an invented banquet, drive around the country sampling the supposedly dying gastronomic traditions, and then get a book out of it could only happen in France. That Baxter is Australian matters not; he’s lived in Paris for two decades.

The result of this onerous effort, The Perfect Meal, is a well-written, amusing book that suffers from a problem inherent in all food writing: seriousness. I'm not speaking here of cookbooks, but narrative books about food where recipes, if given at all, are an afterthought. All writing genres have their challenges. Food has at least three: decent writing (a problem not limited to food writing), the adjective problem, that is, how best to describe what is eaten without resorting to tired descriptors like “velvety” or “ethereal”, and the seriousness problem.

The best food writing is tied to the people who consume it, for no matter how aromatic the truffle or juicy the chicken, reading about it is nothing like eating it. What attracts readers, lending meaning, nuance, feeling, are the eaters themselves. Hence timeless books like M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf or Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking, which another great food writer, Laurie Colwin, calls “magisterial”.

Here’s the gist of The Perfect Meal: Baxter, in a moment of l’espirit d’escalier, literally, the inspiration on the staircase, decides, after a pretentious meal based on molecular cuisine, to create “a fabulous banquet”, a repas on a grand scale, something out of a lost, mythical France that American readers, living in a far younger nation, with a less-storied cuisine, cannot truly comprehend. An excellent historian, Baxter provides the UNESCO definition of a true repas: an apéritif, then four or more courses, including appetizers, soup, fish, meat, cheeses, salad, desserts, sweetmeats, and a digestif, or concluding liqueur. The sheer amount of food is astounding.

The Perfect Meal is structured in chapters titled “First Catch Your…” menu, mentor, fungus, lamprey, etcetera. The mentor is the first-name-only Boris, an ascetic character Baxter meets in various out-of-the way cafés, a sort of culinary Deep Throat to Baxter’s Fox Mulder. Boris is never caught with so much as a crumb in his mouth. Instead, perhaps alarmingly, he is sighted playing chess against himself and reading Lacan. Nonetheless, he sends Baxter on several productive journeys across France, culminating in an ox roast in a tiny French village.

Baxter’s skills as an historian save his book from complete silliness, lending gravitas. He gives the history of Les Halles, onion soup, the animals the starving French populace resorting to eating during wartime, which included elephant, donkey, and the recently contested horse. We learn precisely why authentic caviar is a luxury food, even as most of us realize we are unlikely ever to taste it, the sturgeon population now endangered and its eggs exorbitant.

In this manner, readers are also educated about racasse, a fish unavailable outside the Mediterranean, and truffles, which rank with caviar as one of the most expensive foodstuffs on the planet. A goodly amount of cookery history in the French Court is worked in, which, like the discussion of caviar, can only lend the reader a sense of amazement. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though current events may lead some readers to conclude history has taught us nothing.

And therein lies the rub. The Perfect Meal, at its best, is pleasant diversion. Most of us lack the time and income to pursue, as Baxter did, the history of anchovies, Proust’s madeleine (which might actually have been toast), or the best ways to eat caviar or deal with truffles. We cannot afford to worry about the death of the kind of meal, that, while a true testament to culinary skills, bears limited relevance to contemporary life. This makes The Perfect Meal as escapist as a Harlequin Romance. In fairness, Baxter is a fine writer and excellent host. But his concerns are shared by an elite few, making The Perfect Meal little more than diversion for the unwashed, ramen-slurping masses.

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