Friday, February 04, 2005

Architectonics of Lard

From Yi-Fu Tuan's book on the aesthetics of the environment, Passing Strange and Wonderful, is this description of Antonin Carême's physical vision of food.
After the French Revolution, France led Europe in transforming cooking into an art in the grand style and an honored profession, with its own literature and roster of famous names. The most distinguished chef of this time was Antonin Carême. In the creation of dishes he strove, paradoxically, for both ostentation and simplicity. Trained in patisserie, an art that encouraged creative leanings, he extended the architectural style to cooking generally. For a grand dinner, he might erect picturesque ruins made of lard and Greek temples in sugar and marzipan so that the gastronome's mind, and not just his palate, could be pleasurably stimulated. Carême's creations were also architectural in that they had a "built" character: they were made of purees, essences, and sauces that were themselves complex creations and yet were listed simply as ingredients along with a piece of celery or a chopped onion. A dish, in other words, was the culmination of a long and elaborate process.

Carême achieved simplification by eliminating medieval survivals such as trimmings of cockscombs and sweetbreads. More important, he established the principle of garnishing meat with meat, fish with fish. His culinary aesthetic is caught in Lady Sydney Morgan's description of a dinner at the Baron de Rothschild's: "no dark-brown gravies, no flavour of cayenne and allspice, no tincture of catsup and walnut pickle, no visible agency of those vulgar elements of cooking of the good old times, fire and water. Distillations of the most delicate viands, extracted in silver dews, with chemical precision . . . formed the fond of all. Every meat presented its own natural aroma—every vegetable its own shade of verdure." Even in Carême's elaborate achievements, his aim was not to superimpose and confuse flavors, but rather to isolate and throw them into relief.

Despite his own success in creating "simple" and distinctive flavors, in general Carême's approach encouraged ostentation and, with it, the sacrifice of savor for grand visual effects. Master cooks had yielded to this temptation since at least Roman times: thus Petronius described a feast in which a hare was tricked out with wings to look like a Pegasus, and roast pork carved into models of fish, songbirds, and a goose.


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