1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets, C-E

Originally Published January 1949

C is for cautious …

… the kind of dinner at which there is an undercurrent of earnest timidity, of well-meant and badly directed eagerness to do well, and absolutely no true feeling for what can best be described as Fun at Table.

A complete lack of caution is perhaps one of the true signs of a real gourmet: he has no need for it, being filled as he is with a God-given and intelligently self-cultivated sense of gastronomical freedom. He not only knows from everything admirable he has read that he will not like Irish whisky with pineapple chilled in honey and vermouth, or a vintage Chambertin with poached lake perch; every taste bud on both his actual and his spiritual palates wilts in revulsion at such thought. He does not serve these or similar combinations, not because he has been told, but because he knows.

But there are some would-be gastronomers who can live only by the book. Most of them are happily unconscious of their basic loss. Many of them acquire a basic knowledge of the pleasures of the table which is often astonishingly broad, and which gives them countless fine moments of generosity and well-being: what is much better in life than to be hospitable and to know by your guests' faces that you have proved a noble host indeed?

But then again there are some men who never, in a century of Sundays, can hide their underlying confusion and caution. They subscribe to GOURMET and its satellites and even submit incredibly complicated recipes to the subeditors, which are discreetly rearranged before publication. They belong to local food-and-wine groups or their reasonable facsimiles, and bring back packages of musty filé powder from New Orleans, and order snails (packed as a special inducement with the shells wrapped separately) from a former maître d'hôtel who lives next to the airport in Lisbon. They have Grossman's Guide on their shelves, and Saintsbury and Schoonmaker, and they serve the proper wines at the proper times and temperatures. They know Escoffier's basic sauces. Their dinners march formally from start to end, with a fillip of savory if they are Anglophilic enough …

And over everything, over all the thought and the earnest planning, lies a weight of uncomfortable caution. It is invisible, of course, and cannot even be identified except by the gastronomically wary, but it shows with damning clearness in the polite faces of the guests, and in the genteelly labored tempo of the conversation, and above all in the well-bred avoidance of any direct mention of the pleasures of the table.

The guests eat well and drink like kings, and make their separate ways unsatisfied … and the tired host lies puzzled on his bed, unable to tell himself why he has had no fun, no fun at all, in spite of the thought and effort that went into his little celebration. Why do other people give such amusing dinner parties, he wondered … I tried, and did just what they all do …

That is the thing: the cautious diner's need to follow, to rely on other people's plans. That is what spreads such faint but inescapable vapors of timidity and insecurity over his fine plates and glasses and whatever lies upon and in them. He does not trust himself, more often than not with some justification!

The modern art of dining has settled upon a basically sound pattern in the last hundred years or less, so that in an instinctive progression of textures and flavors a good classical meal goes from hors d'oeuvres through soup and fish and meat and cheese to the final “sweet conceits” of some dessert designed to amuse, rather than excite, appetites already more than satisfied. Anyone who wishes may follow this traditional pattern, and his success will be the greater if he is willing to admit, as are present-day princes of gastronomy, that they may occasionally slip into an heretical habit which must be corrected. A delightful example of this was the decision, made in Paris late in 1947 at the Third International Congress of Gastronomy, that foie gras must henceforth be served in its proper place at the beginning of a meal, and not later with the salad as has increasingly become the custom! It shows no caution, no lack of self-assurance, to lean on this classical schedule, for it is the most natural one in modern living.

Damning timidity, which can dampen any fine gastronomical fires at table, arises, I suppose, from the fact that the cautious host is incapable of enjoying himself. I know one nationally famous “gourmet” who has absolutely no innate good taste, whose meals are incredibly and coarsely and vulgarly overelaborate and rich, but who presents them with such contagious high spirits and delight that they are unfailingly delightful.

I also know at least four people who have plenty of money for the more Lucullan tidbits of cookery, as well as a devouring desire to be good hosts, whose banquets are dreaded and, more often than not, bluntly shunned. I sit through them now and then because I admire the dogged earnestness of their amphytrions (and love that Oxford-donnish term as well!). Always I wish desperately, compassionately, that my host could summon enough gastronomical courage to turn his back on rote and plan a meal dictated by no matter what faint glimmer of appetite within him, rather than by the borrowed rules of other men.

A supper of two or three ample and savorous courses, with two honest wines to be honestly enjoyed, would do more to kill caution in a good host's soul than all the elaborate menus indelibly engraved in gourmets' history books because of their extravagance and preciosity. I have never met anyone who dined with George Saintsbury, but I am confident that one of his meals could be duplicated, except of course for the same years of the wines, by almost any eager would-be gourmet with enough money, and that it would be a ghastly ordeal for everyone concerned if it were not served with the good Professor's zest, his joy of living … and eating and drinking and talking in good company.

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