Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Question of Food by Adam Gopnik

In the early morning –six-forty, precisely – of May 24, 1942, a young professor of German, a resistant who had taken the name of Jacques Decour (his real name was Daniel Decourdemanche) and who taught before the war at Lycee Henry IV in Paris, wrote a letter to his parents:

You know that for the past two months I have been expecting what is to happen to me this morning; so I have had time to prepare myself for it: but since I have no religion, I have not given myself up to any meditation on death. Here are a few requests. I was able to send a word to the woman I love. If you see her – soon I hope – give her your affection. This is my dearest wish. I also wish that you could keep an eye on her parents who need help badly. Give them the things that are in my apartment and which belong to their daughter. The volume of PLEIADE, THE FABLES DE LA FONTAINE, TRISTAN, LES QUATRE SAISONS, two water colors, the menu of the inn LES 4 PAVES DU ROY.

All these last days I have though a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free. You will eat them without me, all the family together – but not sadly please! I don’t want your thoughts to dwell on the good times we might have had but on those that we really have shared. During these two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals I have eaten. I even composed the outline of the novel. I had an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with Pierre and Renee. Questions of food, you see, have taken on great importance.

Three hours later, what was going to happen to Decour happened to him. He was shot by the Nazis in the courtyard of the prison. Yet there he was, in the last hours of his life, thinking about sending a menu from a little inn near Versailles to his girlfriend’s parents. His last thoughts turned to his best loved meals. Of course, he’s nobly trying to ease the horror of his parents, but he’s also trying to find something to hang on to. Questions of food, you see, have taken on great importance.

Well, today, the Auberge des IV Paves du Roy turns out to have a whole Web page, a menu, a brief history – the works. It is a nice place, a very nice place, in that half-in-the-country, half-not-in-the-country way of French inns. Madame had a table for us in the garden. We sat and waited, at first a bit awkwardly – what were we doing here, after all?- and then, comfortably, as the commis, right out of Marcel Pagnol, brought us bread, which reassured the children, and then Sancerre rouge, nicely cold, which reassured the parents. I doubt that anyone can completely despair when menus appear (in movies and television shows, when they want to create a mood of absolute alienation they always set the thing in a cafeteria.)

So we ordered and then we talked, naturally enough, about the Resistance. Luke, now sixteen, asked me if “in the big picture” the Resistance had made any difference. I tried to explain. No, they hadn’t really done much, spending a lot of time on guard against one another’s betrayals and fighting among themselves, socialists against Christian Gaullists and communists, who were courageous but committed to Stalin, against everyone else. And the were victims of horrible retaliations by the Germans, satanic cruelty even in a relatively placid occupation zone like France. So, no, they hadn’t really made much difference to the outcome of the war.

But in another way they had made all the difference. They had saved the honor of France, which was not just an abstraction but a living reality; you could hold your head up after the war and say, Some people didn’t submit, and that was true, too. They had acted with so much courage – courage for its own sake, courage because you could be courageous and couldn’t live with yourself without it – that they had supplied a kind of moral pattern for the rest of the country. Their fiction had become a feeling. Any country that could produce men and women as brave as Jacques Decour didn’t have to feel lost, or ashamed of itself. So it depends on what you mean by difference, I said, and then I realized that it didn’t depend on what you mean by difference so much as on what you thought the big picture was.

Then, at Olivia’s insistence, I narrated, rather lamely, a history of the French Revolution, getting half of it wrong, but the essential point – that what started in glory ended in chaos, and what began in a declaration of all the rights of man ended in a denial of every one; but that the articulation of what was right was either no help at all or a constant source of hope – was there. It depends on how you see it. Brillat-Savarin’s eternal point was that at some level it didn’t matter, that the hub-bub of the Palais Royal created a series of values – of which the restaurant we were sitting in now was a modest but real microcosm – that endured whatever squalid mess the politicians made of things, and that that was the right point to make.

How was the food? The food was fine. Sixty years ago it would have seemed very good. Seventy years ago, Decour’s time, it would have seemed like the best food in the world. We had filets of beef with green peppercorn sauce, and sautéed potatoes – they used to do pommes soufflees at these places, but no more. I know why – and green beans. The deserts were really good. Luke said that the profiterole were the best he ever had. I had an old classic, apple sorbet doused with Calvados, the kind of thing that’s so hard to find these days. With the tastes of Barcelona still sharp on my lips –gingered scampi and smoked ell and brains – I knew it was old fashioned. Still, it was the fashion that I, too, had loved of old.

I reread Decour’s last letter when I got home to Paris, and I realized then that I had missed something essential. In a way, as Huck Finn would say, I missed the whole blame point, missed it a thousand miles. Decour was a communist, a Marxist, and buried in the letter is the clear cool claim that he is talking about food because he refuses to talk about God. “You know that I’ve been waiting for two months for what’s going to happen to me this morning, and that I have had time to prepare myself, but, as I have no religion, I have no fallen into a meditation on death; I consider myself a little leaf who falls from the tree to make the soil. The quality of the soil depends on that of the leaves.” It is a non-believer’s claim, quietly defiant. As I have no religion, I don’t think of death. The questions of food rise from that context.

I don’t believe in a good God, and I don’t believe, as Decour must have, in History. But I believe in the inn of the four seasons: that Decour went there with the girl he loved, that he left her the menu when he knew the Nazis were going to kill him, that it has moved, and not moved, been rebuilt and is still the same, so that we can eat there now. They could walk in now and be happy again in the garden. It would all be different but they would still be at home. We walked under the sign, and contemplated the connections. He had thought about that in his last moments. That the table came last to his mind is another way in which the table always comes first.

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

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