The Artistry of Eating
“Mais oui! But you Americans don’t know anything about eating,” said M. Morisot who had reported to my company the day before as Liaison Officer. As I had not known what to do with him, I gave him a tin hat, a mess-kit, and a horse, and treated him like a pal.
His remark that the Americans did not know anything about eating had been prompted by a cup of bilge-water coffee from the company kitchen in the little farm house where we were billeted close by the Marne.
“You must let me cook you a meal,” continued Morisot. “Lieutenant Elkins has told me that tomorrow is your birthday. Why not have a little fete, and I will be the chef?”
“I doubt if you can do much in the way of a fete with the army rations,” I laughed.
“Possibly I surprise you. What do you say?”
“I’m on. Elkins, tell the mess sergeant to issue Lieutenant Morisot raw rations, and send the orderly to Viffort for some good wine.”
The next evening we sat down around our packing-case table in the court-yard of the farmhouse to sample Morisot’s creations. I have eaten filet de barbue a la Mornay at Prunier’s, and a perdreau en casserole at Larue’s; I have dined in many corners of France, along the Champs Elysees, on the Quai at Marseilles, in quaint Norman inns, or under the brooding shadow of the Strasbourg cathedral, but never have I tasted such a succulent meal as Morisot prepared that evening on the fringe of the distant booming of German guns.
“This is the best meal I’ve eaten since I left Topeka,” remarked Lieutenant Elkins, emptying his tin cup of Chambertin, and filling the cup to the brim again.
“Go on, you never tasted a steak like this in Topeka—I’ve eaten there,” said a flea-bitten lieutenant who had just joined the company,
I marveled at the delicious food Morisot had prepared with the crude materials at hand. He had transformed the army issue into ambrosial creations. To him, obviously, cooking was an art, and he had taken all the care and pains of an artist to produce a masterpiece.
“Cooking should rank as one of the fine arts,” I said. “A fine cook should be just as much applauded as a painter, or a pianist, or an actor.”
“Ah, you think so!” laughed Morisot.
“I know it. Cooking is one of the oldest of the arts, and surely the one which produces more physical satisfaction than any other—except perhaps drinking. The savage did not cook; he ate herbs and fruits and nuts, or went hungry. Only when one ascends the scale does eating become more varied, is fire used, and is food shared with others in conversation and in gay spirits.
“Xerxes introduced the luxuries of the East into Greece, and by the time Alexander was welding the civilized world, cookery, touched by Attic wit and taste, had become a high art. Why, otherwise, did the Romans vie with one another in obtaining Greek cooks? The Romans made the error, however, of keeping their cooks enslaved. Thus the art of the gourmet in the Italian peninsula never reached the peaks of the Attic Symposia. After passing through the ostentatious displays of Lucullus, Roman cookery degenerated into extravagant orgies, only to die out entirely with the inroads of the barbarians. Who was it made the remark that he salted a piece of raw meat, placed it between the saddle and the horse, and after riding for a certain distance on the horse, claimed he had a dish fit for the gods? Things culinary have changed—thank God!”
“Ah, those were sad days for the stomach, my friend,” remarked Morisot, “Mais voyons, I see the sergeant bringing more bottles. … So! What you say to some Benedictine with the coffee?”
“We have a good deal to thank the monks for besides Benedictine,” I continued glancing across the table to where Elkins and the newly arrived officer, whose name I could never remember, had both passed quietly out of the picture. “Literature is not the only art that the monks preserved for us. The best food in the middle ages was found in monasteries. In those turbulent times, the monastery was a church, a hospital, a school, and a hotel where the traveler could spend the night in safety, and get probably the only meal in the countryside fit to eat.
“After the wars in Italy, Francois Premier brought back not only artists like DaVinci and Cellini to adorn the chateaux of France, but he brought also the first secular cooks. Who knows, perhaps while in the great hall above Leonardo was mixing his oils and pigments into colors for an immortal canvas, Antonio was in the kitchen below mixing his spices and cream into an immortal sauce.”
“Ah, Capitaine! I see you have made a study quite serious of what you say. You are right, we French were once the pupils of the Italians, but soon we became their masters.”
“Yes, Morisot, you are good soldiers in the field, but you are generals in the kitchen. Even your clergy did not neglect their kitchens. The rich mayonnaise we are enjoying on these crisp lettuce leaves we owe to Richelieu. And did not Madame de Pompadour persuade Louis XV to grant the order of Saint Esprit to her cooks? After that, the celebrated ribbon was thus awarded many times. And today we can pay no higher tribute to the cuisinier than to say he is a veritable Cordon Bleu . . . like yourself.”
“Mille remerciements, mon ami, mais comment done . . . how do you know them to have so much eloquence?”
“C’est my business.”
“It’s my business. For the past five years I have been the head cook at the Plaza.”
Selections from the book “Tipple and Snack. Good Things to Eat And Better Things to Drink by Dexter Mason, Author of “The Art of Drinking”. Farrar & Rinehart, Incorporated, Publishers, New York, 1931.”