If reading is analogous to eating (“I devoured that book”), and I thought I was starving for something big and filling, I’ve been happily surprised by the modesty and sweetness of Gourmet Rhapsody. Maybe I wasn’t hungry. Or not in the way I thought.
“No one was the least bit hungry anymore, but that is precisely what is so good about the moment devoted to pastries: they can only be appreciated to the full extent of their subtlety when they are not eaten to assuage our hunger, when the orgy of their sweetness is not destined to fill some primary need but to coat our palate with the benevolence of the world.” (Gourmet Rhapsody, p. 35)
Maybe I just wanted a really good pastry.
Gourmet Rhapsody, similar to Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is told from several characters’ points of view, a few of whom are also in Elegance. It’s a simple story of a world-famous food critic’s last 24 hours interspersed with short monologues about the great man, Pierre Arthens, from his estranged daughter, the concierge (our beloved Renee from Elegance), the homeless man on the street, one of Pierre’s disciples, and many others. Half of the book is Pierre’s as he uses his last 24 hours to reminisce about his affair with food and search through his past for one elusive flavor he yearns for before dying.
I love reading about food, even about dishes I know I wouldn’t eat. And Barbery writes about food as a metaphor for living and the small but satisfying pleasures of life. I don’t long to be eating the sardines that Pierre describes but I am invited into the delight it brings. In the meantime, I long for a cup of tea or bowl of sorbet while reading. While I think eating/drinking and reading are good partners (and believe I’m in good company; think of ice-cream sticky, or tomato-sauce splattered keyboards or the lone diner at the counter, book in one hand, fork in the other) chefs and writers might think otherwise, desiring that all attention be focused on the dish or book. But I bet Barbery isn’t one of the writers. Food is sustenance, as are stories. And put the two together and mmm, mmm!