Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dinner to die for.

October 23rd

The eighteenth century French gourmand Grimod de la Reynière hosted a most unusual dinner party in 1783 which has gone down in history as “the Mortuary Dinner’. Grimod was known to be eccentric, but even for him, this dinner was a little over-the-top. The invitation to a “collation-supper” was in the form of an obituary notice, and guest were advised “The arrival is fixed for 9 o'clock and supper will take place at 10 o'clock. You are requested not to bring neither dog nor lackey as there will be enough servants. Neither pig nor oil will be missing from the supper. You are requested to bring this invitation, without which admittance will be refused.”

There were in fact two levels of “invitation” - 17 guests were invited to take part, but a further 300 were to be spectators. After an elaborate checking of their credentials by guards, and the correct answering of the question “are you visiting Monsieur de la Reyniere, the opressor of the people, or Monsieur de la Reyniere, the defender of the people ?”, guests were taken to an ante-room where they were “judged” as to their merits. They were then led by Grimod first into a completely dark room (just long enough to get a little nervous) and then to a taper-lit room draped in black, with incense wafting about and a grand central funeral catafalque. Some descriptions say that there was a coffin behind each guest’s chair, and indeed, it is difficult to know for certain what is truth and what is embroidery. The three hundred spectators watched the proceedings from the balcony, and were probably grateful that they had not received the more prestigious invitation to actually participate.

There are a lot of theories as to Grimod’s motives: if he was intending to embarrass his parents (the antagonism was mutual) or annoy his guests (whom he had locked in so they could not escape), he succeeded. Alternatively he may have been making a pre-Lenten statement about the proximity of death when we are in life (an ancient theme), or he may have been paying homage to a recently deceased paramour (or would-be paramour). He may have simply wanted to play a practical joke.

It is most frustrating that no menu for this dinner survives: the food was “self-service” from side-tables, and there was, apparently, plenty of pig and oil. That is all we know. Where history leaves off however, literature comes to the rescue. Grimod’s dinner was used as inspiration for a similar event by a character in the novel Against the Grain, by J.K.Huysmans in 1884. The character in the book, called Des Esseintes, is also an eccentric known for his parties, and he hosts this particular event in memory of his (temporarily) lost virility. All the décor is black, the outside garden also being strewn with charcoal; the tablecloth is black, and the plates black-rimmed; the food is served by naked negresses. Between them, Des Essientes and his creator come up with some good ideas for an “all black” menu.

“ … turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from dark-tinted glasses, - wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.”

It seems appropriate today to give a recipe for pig, from Grimod’s time.

To make a Ragout of Pork Chops.
Cut a loin of pork into chops, and stew it with a little broth, a bunch of sweet herbs, pepper, and salt: have ready a veal sweetbread, parboiled, and cut into large dice; put it into a stewpan, with mushrooms, the livers of any kind of poultry, and a little butter; set it over the fire, with a little flour, a glass of white wine, some gravy, and as much broth, adding salt and whole pepper, a bunch of parsley, scallions, a clove of garlic, and two cloves; let the whole boil, and reduce to a strong sauce, and serve it over the chops: or do the chops in the same manner as the ragout, and when half done, add the sweetbread, livers and mushrooms.
[The French family cook; Menon; 1793]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Devil’s Dung Sauce.

Quotation for the Day …

Everything in a pig is good. What ingratitude has permitted his name to become a term of opprobrium. Grimod de la Reyniere.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I think I would respectfully send my regrets ...

Unknown said...

I'd love to know your source. This is fascinating and I'd like to read more about this man.