At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 7

Dinner and Thoughts on Food

We found in the dining-room a table laid for three, where M. d’Asterac made us take our places.

Criton, who acted as butler, served us with jellies, and thick soup strained a dozen times. But we could not see any joints. As well as we could, my kind tutor and myself tried to hide our surprise. M. d’Asterac guessed it and said:

“Gentlemen, this is only an attempt, and may seem to you an unfortunate one. I shall not persist in it. I’ll have some more customary dishes served for you and I shall not disdain to partake of them. If the dishes I offer you today are badly prepared, it is less the fault of my cook than that of chemistry, which is still in its infancy. But they will at all events give you an idea of what will be in the future. At present men eat without philosophy. They do not nourish themselves like reasonable beings. They do not think of such. But of what are they thinking? Most of them live in stupidity and actually those who are capable of reflection occupy their minds with silly things like controversies and poetry. Consider mankind, gentlemen, at their meals since the far-away times when they ceased their intercourse with Sylphs and Salamanders. Abandoned by the genii of the air they grew heavy and dull in ignorance and barbarity Without policy and without art they lived, nude and miserable, in caverns, on the border of torrents or in the trees of the forest. The chase was their only industry. After having surprised or captured by quickness a timid animal, they devoured that prey still palpitating.

“They also fed on the flesh of their companions and infirm relatives; the first sepulchres of human beings were living graves, famished and insensible intestines. After long fierce centuries a divine man made his appearance: the Greeks call him Prometheus. It cannot be doubted that this sage had intercourse in the homes of the Nymphs with the Salamander folks. He learnt of them and showed to the unhappy mortals the art of producing and conserving fire. Of all the innumerable advantages that men have drawn from this celestial present, one of the happiest was the possibility of cooking food, and by this treatment, to render it lighter and more subtle. And it’s in a large part due to the effect of a nourishment submitted to the action of the flame that slowly and by degrees mankind became intelligent, industrious, meditative and apt to cultivate the arts and sciences. But that was only a first step, and it is grievous to think that so many millions of years had to pass before a second step was made. From the time when our ancestors toasted beasts’ quarters on fires of brambles in the shelter of a rock, we have not made any true progress in cooking, for sure, gentlemen, you cannot put a higher value on the inventions of Lucullus and that gross pie to which Vitellius gave the name of Shield of Minerva than on our roasts, patties, stews, our stuffed meats and all the fricassees which still suffer from the ancient barbarity.

“At Fontainebleau, the king’s table, where a whole stag is dished up in his skin and his antlers, presents to the eye of the philosopher a spectacle as rude as that of the troglodytes, cowering round the smoking cinders, gnawing horse bones. The brilliant paintings of the hall, the guards, the richly clad officers, the musicians playing the melodies of Lambert and Lulli in the gallery, the golden goblets, the silver plate, the silken tablecloth, the Venetian glass, the chased epergnes full of rare flowers, the heavy candlesticks — they cannot change, cannot lend a dissimulating charm to the true nature of this unclean charnel-house, where men and women assemble over animal bodies, broken bones and torn meats to gloat greedily over them. Oh, what unphilosophical nourishment! We swallow with stupid gluttony muscle, fat and intestines of beasts without discerning in those substances such parts as are truly adapted to our nourishment and those much more abundant which we ought to reject; and we fill our stomach indiscriminately with good and bad, useful and injurious. That’s the very point, where a separation is to be made, and, if the whole medical faculty could boast of a chemist and philosopher, we should no more be compelled to partake of such disgusting feasts.

“They would prepare for us, gentlemen, distilled meats, containing nothing but what is in sympathy and affinity with our body. Nothing would be used but the quintessence of oxen and pigs, the elixir of partridges and capons, and all that is swallowed could be digested. I do not give up all hope, gentlemen, of obtaining such results by thinking somewhat deeper over chemistry and medicine than I have had leisure to do up till now.”

At these words of our host, M. Jérôme Coignard, raising his eyes over the thin black broth in his plate, looked uneasily at M. d’Asterac, who continued to say:

“But that would still be quite insufficient progress. No honest man can eat animal flesh without disgust, and people cannot call themselves refined as long as they keep slaughter-houses and butchers’ shops in their towns. But the day will come when we shall know exactly the nourishing elements contained in animal carcasses, and it will become possible to extract those very same elements from bodies without life, and which will furnish an abundance of them. Those bodies without life contain, as a fact, all that is to be found in living beings, because the animal has been built up by the vegetable, which has itself drawn the substance out of the inert ground.

“Then people will feed on extracts of metal and mineral conveniently treated by physicians. I have no doubt but that the taste of them will be exquisite and the absorption salutary. Cookery will be done in retorts and stills and alchemists will be our cooks. Are you not impatient, gentlemen, to see such marvels? I promise them to you at a very near time. But you are not able at present to unravel the excellent effects that they will produce.”

“In truth, sir, I do not unravel them,” said my kind tutor, and had a long draught of wine.

“If such is the case,” said M. d’Asterac, “listen to me for a moment. No more burdened with slow digestions, mankind will become marvellously active, their sight will become singularly piercing, and they will see the ships gliding on the seas of the moon. Their understanding will be clearer, their ways softer. They will greatly advance in their knowledge of God and nature.

“But it also seems necessary to look forward on all the changes which cannot fail to occur. Even the structure of the human body will be modified. It is an uncontradictable fact that without exercise all organs flatten and end by disappearing altogether. It has been observed that fishes deprived of light become blind. I myself have seen in Valais that shepherds who fed on curdled milk lost their teeth very early; some of them never had any at all, When men feed on the balms I have spoken of, their intestines will be shortened by ells and the volume of the stomach will shrink considerably.”

“For once, sir,” said my tutor, “you go too quickly and risk making a mess of it. I never considered it to be disagreeable when women get a little corporation, especially if all the remainder of her body is well proportioned. It’s a kind of beauty I’m rather partial to. Do not transform it inconsiderately.”

“No matter, we’ll leave woman’s body and flanks formed after the canons of the Greek sculptors. That will be to give you pleasure, reverend sir, and also in due consideration of the labours of maternity. It is true, I intend in that case also, to make several changes of which I’ll speak to you on a future day. But to return to our subject. I have to acknowledge that all I have till now predicted is nothing but a preparatory measure for the real nourishment, which is that of the Sylphs and all aerial spirits. They drink light, which is sufficient to give to their bodies marvellous strength and subtility. It is their only potion, one day it will be ours also. Nothing more is to be done than to render the rays of the sun drinkable. I confess that I do not see with sufficient clearness the means to arrive at it, and I do foresee many encumbrances and great obstacles on the road. But whensoever some sage shall be able to do it, mankind will be the equal of Sylphs and Salamanders in intelligence and beauty.”

plate03
It is their only potion

My good tutor listened to these words, folded in himself, his head sadly lowered. He seemed to contemplate the changes to himself from the kind of food imagined by our host.

“Sir,” he said after a while, “did you not speak at yonder cookshop of an elixir which dispenses with all kinds of food?”

“True, I did,” replied M. d’Asterac, “but that liquor is only good for philosophers, and by that you may understand how restricted is the use of it. It will be better not to mention it.”

One doubt tormented me. I asked leave of our host to submit it to him, certain that he would enlighten me at once. He allowed me to speak and I said:

“Sir, those Salamanders, who you say are so beautiful, and of whom, after your relation, I have conceived a charming idea, have they unhappily spoiled their teeth by light drinking, as the shepherds at Valais lost theirs by feeding only on milk diet? I confess I am rather uneasy about it.”

“My son,” replied M. d’Asterac, “your curiosity pleases me and I will satisfy it. The Salamanders have no teeth that we should call such. But their gums are furnished with two ranges of pearls, very white and very brilliant, lending to their smiles an inconceivable gracefulness. You should know that these pearls are light-hardened.”

I said to M. d’Asterac that I was glad it was so and he continued:

“Men’s teeth are a sign of ferocity. Once people are properly fed, their teeth will give way to some ornament similar to the pearls of the Salamander. Then it will become incomprehensible that a lover could, without horror and disgust, contemplate dogs’ teeth in the mouth of his beloved.”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53