Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Gourmet Rhapsody

Before the French publishing sensation The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there was Gourmet Rhapsody.  We in English-speaking North America were not aware of such a delicacy until after the translation of Hedgehog was introduced to us.  Too risky to sell to a different palate?

As a first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, the 156-page collection of short chapters, is like an appetizer to the main dish that is Hedgehog.  It is a foretaste of the more meaty philosophical pondering of the latter.  Now that we have savored the main dish first,  might as well treat Gourmet Rhapsody as the dessert.  Does the cover not make you think of a raspberry sorbet?

If food is a metaphor for life, then the food critic is almost at the status of divinity, especially ‘the greatest food critic in the world’.  That self-ascribed praise is the egotistic utterance of none other than Pierre Arthens, the celeb resident on the fourth floor of the luxury apartment at 7 Rue  de Grenelle, the setting for Hedgehog.

Pierre Arthens’ pen is indeed mightier than the sword.  The knowledgeable and merciless food critic, the ‘true genius of the food world’, is feared from all corners of the world, ‘from Paris to Rio, Moscow to Brazzaville, Saigon to Melbourne and Acapulco’.  He holds the power to exalt a chef and restaurateur to stardom or crush their ego and future like eggshells.

Between these two extremes — the rich warmth of a daube and the clean crystal of shellfish, I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game — but always one heart behind.

But what use is the allure of fame and power when one is on deathbed, at 68, given only 48 hours to live.  Alas, from the years of Epicurean pursuits of cream and butter, oil and sauces, games and other culinary delights, the world renowned food critic is dying not from liver or stomach ailments, but cardiac failure.

Gourmet Rhapsody is a collection of Arthens’ own reminiscence of a life with food and his final quest.  The vividly evoked memories are interspersed with poignant commentaries by those who have come into the path of his life, including his wife, children, nephew, granddaughter, restaurateurs, his doctor, his concierge, his mistress, and even his cat.

And alas, what pity it is to find that none of the entries from these people is positive.  His daughter Laura stays in the stairway, refuses to go into his room to see his last.  His son loathes his ego and his ruthless destruction of theirs.  His wife Anna, whom he had loved as an object of possession, is ever more ambivalent at his deathbed.

And what irony, the only positive review of his life comes from his cat Rick:

… here I am, nineteen years I’ve knocked about as head tomcat on the Persian rugs of my abode;  just me, the favorite, the master’s alter ego, the one and only, to whom he declared his thoughtful, undying love…

So, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses the love from his wife and children, or respect from those who have crossed his path?  This ultimate question belies the enticing and delicious offering described throughout the chapters.  As in Hedgehog, Barbery has cleverly created a philosophical concoction without appearing didactic.  Here in Gourmet Rhapsody, food is the delightful sauce bringing up the taste of such rumination.

As a lover of sushi and sashimi, my favorite chapter is ‘Raw’, in which Arthens reminisce on his first taste of these Japanese culinary delights:

It was dazzling… True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue.  It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture… sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.

But the powerful food critic has but one final quest on his deathbed.  There is one particular food that he wants to taste most before his imminent demise, but which he fails to name.  No, not the coq au vin, or the extravagant pots-au-feu, or poulets chasseur, or the grilled meat of Tangiers, or the Moroccan kesra, or the velvety, melt-in-your-tongue sashimi.  Should I reveal it here?  Alright, Spoiler Alert.

It is the chouquettes, cream puffs, but not from fancy patisserie.  Pierre Arthens wants to taste those chouquettes that are stuffed in plastic bags from the supermarket.  After a life of bourgeois elegance and Epicurean odyssey, it is the mundane, ordinary thing that Arthens seeks on his deathbed.  In the face of mortality, every single moment of mundaneness is something to devour.

If only he had savored that sooner, not just food, but the people in his life, and everything else.

~ ~ ~Ripples

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 2009.  156 pages.         

To read my review of  The Elegance of the Hedgehog, CLICK HERE.