La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.
My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.
As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste — le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.
The gastronomy of the eye
Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.
Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.
Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.
The cook as artist
If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.
Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.
Back at Picasso’s palace
The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.
The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.
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The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.
I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.
I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table — salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris