Gourmand Trickery and Grimod de La Reynière’s Supper of 1783

Max Shrem

To Cite this Article

Shrem, M. (2016). Gourmand Trickery and Grimod de La Reynière’s Supper of 1783. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 3.


Grimod de La Reynière’s cultural significance could arguably be explained more by the transgressive trickster he has come to embody than by the inventor of the restaurant review, which he indeed created in the eight volumes of his Almanach des gourmands (from 1803 to 1812). Writings from the late 18th century to today depict him not only as the original gourmand aesthete and proto-dandy but also as a base buffoon. Nowhere does this amalgam of opposing notions come across more clearly than in the renowned mock funerary feast of 1783, referred to throughout the 19th century as the “famous supper.” By examining late-18th-century accounts of the meal and correlating them with 19th-century retellings, this study uncovers the ways in which Grimond used the performativity of the meal to violate social boundaries, create temporary power reversals, and ultimately produce aesthetic inquiry. In this paper, I study the degree to which its performance was mythologized into the French cultural imaginary due to the figure of the trickster. Throughout my analysis, I borrow from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s understanding of the trickster to explore the role that this archetype plays in mediating the semantic transformation of the word “gourmand,” from being perceived as lowbrow to highbrow, from being characterized as a boorish glutton to a civilized professional.


Food history, black meals, funerary meals, trickster, gourmand, culinary trickery,
meal as performance art, decadence, Trimalchio’s feast, Satyrica, Restif de La Bretonne,
Alexandre Dumas, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Marcel Rouff.

At the heart of the gourmand’s transition into a gourmet and gastronome resides a flamboyant trickster, sitting on his thrown with a mischievous grin. The figure of the trickster mediates the progression of the gourmand from being perceived as lowbrow to highbrow, from being characterized as a buffoon to a civilized professional. Those binary concepts have become the foundation of artistic debates in gastronomy, at times leading to a culture of culinary decadence and dandyism.

These correspondences can be explained by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s accounts of the trickster as a mediator of change, along with work by Lewis Hyde that associate this archetype with the creator of culture. It is hardly surprising that the trickster would materialize through the medium of gourmandise during the period right before, during, and just after the French Revolution, because this timeframe corresponds with the juvenile stages of French gastronomy, the phase when it grew into a profession, as seen in the emergence of gastronomic journalism. Gourmand trickery is therefore the key to understand gastronomy’s inception.

This article examines Grimod de La Reynière’s legendary mock funerary feast of 1783 as a performance which drew from the folkloric trickster and established an aesthetic sensibility of gastronomic trickery. By analyzing retellings of the feast, this study explores the extent to which Grimod helped construct a modern-day mythology of the gourmand through reenactments of the trickster, ones which situate the figure within a resonant symbolism of death. The identity of the gourmand, which Grimod assumed at this meal, provided literary inspiration for writers of fiction. These include: Restif de La Bretonne, Alexandre Dumas, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Marcel Rouff. His treatment of the dining table as the site of demonic seduction continues moreover to resonate contemporary French culture, as seen in Emmanuel Giraud’s performance “Devenir Gris” (2009). In essence, the tales about Grimod transcend his own writings. Even Grimod wanted to write his own fictionalized version of the meal. Almost twenty years after the renowned supper set off countless rumors and seemingly fictitious erotic and culinary tales, Grimod decided to provide his own rendition in a picaresque novel that he claims would have either been entitled Roman Véritable or Vie et Aventures d’un vieux Célibataire.[1] Although the book was never published, his meal had already been immortalized in Restif’s Contemporaines and Nuits de Paris.

Examining gourmand trickery through Lévi-Strauss’s theory on symbols and the trickster would suggest that it functions as a means to reconcile opposites. In his study on the trickster he suggests that the figure facilitates periods of transition: “Since his [the trickster’s] mediatory function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality – namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.”[2] In a sense, the trickster seems to serve as a societal survival mechanism, a way to move toward a new beginning, a new life. And, as Robert Pelton argues, the trickster’s violations of boundaries ultimately have a normalizing effect.[3] This fact, in addition to its functioning as both a mediator and facilitator of change would explain the trickster’s prevalence in communal ceremonies involving rites of passage such as carnival and marriage.[4] These studies demonstrate the great extent to which moments of trickery depend, to some degree, on the psychic reality of the feast; that is to say on food as an agent of intoxication and transformation, food as a point of entry into illicit spaces of transgression and temporary power reversals.

Bacchanalian celebrations of Carnival and Saturnalia show that ceremonial inversion (life/death, nature/disguise) is an integral part of the imagery of festivals. In addition to the invitation’s wording (“convoi & enterrement” and “Souper-Collation”), Grimod’s scheduling of the funerary meal on February 1st and the invitation’s emphasis on the appearance of pork and oil are evocative of the morbid feasts and danses macabresmemento mori – performed at Carnival.[5] Most likely influenced by the Mémoires secrets’s retelling, which describes the event as a diabolical affair, Nichola Fletcher refers to the meal as the “banquet from hell.”[6] This is quite different from Gustave Desnoiresterres’s much more neutral label: the fameux souper.

Beginning with 18th-century interpretations of the meal, I will explore Grimod’s parodies of religious and social ritual to examine his undermining and reconfiguring of ceremonial hierarchy. I will then study the aesthetics of transformation and intoxication which 19th-century writers have linked to this meal. The first anecdotes about the event develop a cultural narrative of a decadent monde à l’envers, which would eventually influence Huysmans’s repas de deuil in À rebours (1884). Grimod’s legacy could be attributed more to this staged meal than to his Almanach des Gourmands. Ultimately, this article explores the rich symbolism of the fameux souper, uncovering its mythology and transformation into a legend.

Initiations and Rebellions at the Table of Grimod de La Reynière fils

At the Reynière residence, the evening of February 1, 1783 was one of ritualistic opulence, derisory laughter, and gastronomic decoy. Apart from a few minor details pertaining to the exact number of dishes and guests, 18th-century accounts – the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondence littéraire – characterize the event as an over-the-top carnival-like procession of initiations. Indeed, the invitation functioned as an accessory, a ticket allowing the guest to go through a series of four checkpoints leading up to the macabre dining room: the entrance, a room disguised as a guardroom, a masonic space with a frère terrible, and finally an assembly room. At the front door, guests were greeted by a Swiss Guard who asked them if they were there to see Grimod the “oppressor of the people” or “defender of the people.”[7] After they replied with the latter, the guard folded a corner of the invitation and directed them into a guardroom. In Ancien Régime France, the Swiss Guards were hired to protect the monarchy, not the aristocracy.

Poking fun at his aristocratic lineage on his maternal side, Grimod’s humor lies in his ironic staging of the Swiss Guard to ensure that the guests intended to dine with the gourmand du peuple. In 1783-Paris, it is highly unlikely that the aristocracy would be associated with anything but self-interest and cynicism.[8] In fact, according to the Correspondence littéraire, the satire of the social order was even more obvious. Rather than use the terms “oppressor” and “defender,” as the Mémoires secrets indicate, the guard allegedly asked if they would like to see M. de La Reynière the “leech” (“sangsue”) of the people or his son Grimod the “bleeding heart.”[9] The Correspondence littéraire’s retelling thus gives the impression that while parodying the formality of the Swiss Guard, Grimod also poked fun at the corruption of the fermiers généraux, tax collectors, through the guard’s mean-spirited reference to his father, who was a prominent fermier général, “le sangsue du peuple.”[10] In French, the term “sangsue” also refers to someone who makes money through underhanded practices.  Through these orchestrated dialogues, first with the Swiss Guard, and then with men dressed up as Savoyard heralds with halberds, Grimod subjected his guests to a number of tests that represented miniature parodies of the established social structure.

The Mémoires secrets states that a catafalque was located on the dining room table, as a replacement of a surtout de table.[11] Grimod’s morbid rendition of the surtout epitomizes the social scandal of the overall feast and the mockery of aristocratic dining mores. Ivan Day explains, “The surtout de table, originally used for holding condiments and dragées, evolved into a full-length plateau of looking glass, on which [flower-beds of coloured sugar, gravel walks made from dragées, trees of candy and sugar paste figures] were arranged.”[12] Grimod therefore supplanted this container of artificial edible morsels of nature with a funereal structure holding an inedible deceased person made-up with clothes and makeup for the purposes of looking alive, presentable, and visually digestible in the interest of ritual. Whereas the surtout is intended to disguise synthetic material as organic, the catafalque does precisely the opposite.

The spectacle of the pre-meal initiations became the site from which Grimod was able to manipulate his social standing and dominate the hierarchy of power. His social capital (aristocratic ancestry from his maternal side) and economic capital (the wealth of the fermiers généraux from his paternal side) exceeded those of his guests. He ironically used this symbolic authority to distinguish himself from his ancestral origins. That is to say that he lured in his guests with the prestige of the Reynière lineage only to treat them as pawns in his scheme to viciously attack his family name. Based on the esteem of the Reynière household in late-18th-century France, his guests most likely did not expect such unorthodox protocol, even if Grimod had a reputation as an eccentric. Known for its traditional decorum, his mother’s salon received some of the most prominent figures of the day, such as the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia on June 14, 1782.[13]  Unlike his mother’s usual guest list, this, according to Mme Vigée-Lebrun, included distinguished people from the court and the city (the Comte d’Adhémar, the Comte de Vaudreuil, and the Baron of Besenval), Grimod’s visitors that evening comprised of deputies who aspired to work for the counts in Mme de La Reynière’s milieu.[14]

By using metatheatrical devices, as we have just seen with the sequence of interactions leading up to the dining room, Grimod adopted the baroque trope of theatrum mundi, in which the microcosmic reality on-stage exposes the theatrical artifice of the social sphere at large. The dynamics between the guests and hired actors could even be viewed as a series of embedded realities evocative of mise en abyme. In this way, Grimod transformed his home into a social laboratory in which he experimented with high society pomp, opening it up to men of merit, apart from aristocratic lineage, and even democratizing it for the commoners’ delight.

Three hundred letters were sent to Parisians inviting them to attend the supper as members of an audience. From a balcony surrounding the dinner table, these designated spectators were permitted to walk just once around the balcony to get a glimpse of privileged society, permitting as many people as possible to relish in Grimod’s eccentric proto-reality entertainment. I emphasize “proto,” because it precedes the systematic use of current events in mass consumption that developed in 19th-century Paris, as Vanessa R. Schwartz locates in the morgue, panoramas, cinema, and popular press.[15] Indeed, Schwartz’s term “spectacular realities,” which she describes as democratized shared visual experiences, can be used to qualify the invited spectators’ viewing.  The audience’s restriction to the balcony – their voyeuristic participation – ironically put them in a position of authority, reversing the traditional hierarchy.

Typically the role as guest would have been preferable to that of spectator. But in this case, even for the men of letters, that would have been like choosing to submit oneself to a lengthy succession of social experiments, rather than watching from above, safe and sound. Although they were restricted to the balcony, members of the audience, who M. Barth claims were given refreshments and sweets, were not the ones being mocked.  They knew from the start what their role would be. In other words, at least on their end, there was a certain amount of mutual consent pertaining to their role.

By placing his guests on stage, Grimod maliciously played with the reputation of the salon as a place of entertainment, where the aristocracy could see premieres of operas, concerts, and plays. Hellegouarc’h states that in addition to being an intimate place of conversation, the salon functioned as an exclusive auditorium: “The home of Mme de La Reynière, among others, held an important place in the literary and artistic life of the period. One could experience Mme Vigée-Lebrun’s concerts, hear the latest music of composer André Grétry, and attend exclusive premieres of operas.”[16]  In his memoirs, the Comte de Ségur defines the salon as an ideal gathering of aristocrats and artists: “This mix of hommes de Cour and hommes lettrés gave some more intellect and others more taste.”[17]  Grimod’s conversion of supper into theater undermined this relationship by subjecting the guests, the aspiring hommes de cour, to the gaze of hundreds of passersby. As if he were explicitly satirizing and rejecting the exchange described by the Comte de Ségur, Grimod gave priority to the common spectator.

An affront to the salon’s intimacy and a challenge of its exclusivity, the audience incited horror among the guests who became the laughingstock of the evening. Bonnières, an up-and-coming young attorney, who had just been appointed as the solicitor of the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s youngest brother and future king Charles X, was so disturbed by the presence of spectators, and worried about his reputation, that he asked Grimod if he wasn’t concerned that they would all be sent away to the Petites-Maisons, an insane asylum.[18] 18th-century accounts classify Grimod’s use of the audience as an attack specifically against the stuffiness and artificiality of his mother’s salon. Indeed, according to Mme Vigée-Lebrun, Mme de La Reynière intentionally served with such a high level of dignity so as to remind her guests of her noble birth: “As one once asked the painter Gabriel François Doyen, who had just dined at the Reynière home, what he thought of Mme de La Reynière: ‘She is an excellent host, but I think she feels that her nobility has been attacked.’”[19] Grimod is purported to have insulted his mother’s aristocratic pride during her grands dîners, by reminding the guests of the Reynière family’s working-class roots with stories about an uncle who was a grocer and a cousin who worked as a perfume salesman.[20]

Aesthetic Transformations, Combinations, and Dualities: 19th-Century Readings of the Fameux Souper

Gérard de Nerval’s Les Illuminés (1850) and Paul Lacroix’s Histoire des mystificateurs et des mystifiés : Histoires Comiques (1856) link Grimod to an archetypal character evocative of the trickster; the first as an illuminé and the second as a mystificateur. Nerval situates his retelling of the fameux souper in a work which contains biographies of eccentrics whom he characterizes through a culinary metaphor: “At a very young age, I absorbed a lot of this indigestible and unhealthy food for the soul, and even later, my judgment had to defend itself against these primitive impressions.”[21] He reveals that these “primitive impressions” were elicited by mystical readings from his uncle’s library. They strike a raw nerve for him personally, and in a sense, they represent a relic of his childhood unconscious. Despite the authors’ alleged derangement and vulgarity, they reveal something inherent about human nature at large; hence, the necessity to recount their biographies. Similar to the trickster whose folly exposes some truth, the coarseness of Nerval’s illuminé reveals profound insight: “These reflections led me to develop an especially amusing and perhaps instructive ability that could present the life and characteristics of my eccentrics. – To analyze the streaks of the human soul is a work that entails a moral physiology – this is well worth the work of a naturalist. […].”[22] As such, Nerval categorizes the overabundance and illicit behavior of Grimod’s legendary meal as enlightened. Rather than describing the meal’s references to Trimalchio’s feast from Petronius’s Satyrica as a lewd satire of antiquity, Nerval calls it “a great philosophical affair.”[23]

Situating Grimod’s feast within his biography of Restif, Les Confidences de Nicolas, Nerval links Grimod to a philosophical and literary milieu, including Mercier and Chénier. It’s clear that by the time that Nerval wrote his account of the event, Grimod’s reputation preceded him. Accordingly, Nerval’s anecdote mixes elements of Grimod the troublemaker with Grimod the gastronomic writer and host of the déjeuners philosophiques. In the end, he produces an image of a cultural prankster. Resituating the coffee drinking from the déjeuners philosophiques to the 1783-event, Nerval replaces the initiations described by Grimm in the Correspondence littéraire with decadent caffeine-induced hazing: “The modernity of the event was represented by an extraordinary abundance of coffee. To be eligible, you had to commit to drinking twenty-two cups of coffee at lunch.”[24] This significant change in the story upholds Grimod as avant-garde, accentuates the sense of intoxication, and emphasizes the feeling of complete metamorphosis. Furthermore, Nerval creates an image of Grimod as a mystical wizard using his feasts as a means to conjure up the voluptuousness of antiquity: “A procession of cooks and pages accompanying the dishes served in huge silver plates, and pretty maids in Roman costumes, placed near the guests, presented them with their long hair in order for the guests to wipe their fingers.”[25] Employing a lexicon of luxurious quantity (“extraordinary abundance” “huge silver plates”) and situating the Ancient Roman tradition of using the hair of slaves as napkins, he adds an erotic and decadent dimension to the meal. And more importantly, Nerval hones in on the table as the realm of fantastical makeover and flamboyant folly.

Lacroix’s interpretation of Grimod is more overtly linked to the trickster myth. According to Lacroix, Grimod is the 18th-century embodiment of an age-old national figure – the fool, the mocker, and the cheat. He defines the mystificateur as a vital part of the French identity: “The national figure is essentially gay, clever, and derisive; he was like this in the good old days. He has been like that until today when he has become serious, solemn, and morose, by way of Anglomania.”[26] Lacroix views the literary 18th-century mystifications as manifestations of a larger French tradition of hoaxes, and he links it to the image of the bon vivant: “By speaking about man, Rabelais that above all about his reader, who couldn’t be anything but French, Gallic, and Welsh, in other words bon compagnon, a term which we have incorrectly changed to bon vivant.[27] As such, he shows that this legendary meal gave the guests an opportunity to intellectually live out the lowbrow character of the gourmand – the bon compagnon – through a highbrow aesthetic experience. Reading Lacroix’s retelling of the feast suggests that the reason it seeped into the collective imaginary had more to do with its evocative symbolism rather than it being a succès de scandale. The explicit social satire of 18th-century France did not give this meal iconic status. It became legendary, because it sparked off a series of cultural associations, located within the collective unconscious, all relating to the transformative powers of the bon vivant and the gourmand. Building upon myths of saturnalia, Grimod revealed the site of the feast to be theater par excellence.

Rather than highlight crude festivities, 19th-century renditions of the fameux souper construct a labyrinth of cultural symbols – vanitas, the Vestal Virgins, nymphs – through which to navigate Grimod’s bizarrerie. It is as if Grimod were simultaneously elevating the cultural status of farce and cuisine by steeping them in sophisticated grandeur and ideology. Indeed, what Monselet finds remarkable is the concurrence of farce and splendor: “The fact is that ridiculousness and sumptuousness were equally involved.”[28] From a grand salon gleaming in velvet, satin, and gold to a hot-house full of rare fragrant plants, water-jets, fountains inhabited with gold fish, and cages with exotic birds brought over from Brazil, Lacroix reveals detailed spatial descriptions of Grimod’s coup as Roi du festin. He depicts the constantly shifting décor of the meal as alluring, and yet sickening and nauseating. In fact, according to his rendition, Grimod’s violence toward the guests, the mystification, is expressed through the fluctuating opulence of the interiors. Polymorphism, a magical power associated with the trickster, is reflected in these metamorphoses. It’s worth pointing out however that rather than transform himself into a mare, like the Scandinavian trickster Loki, or into a bird like the raven from Eskimo mythology, Grimod converts the manmade domestic sphere of the house into other fabricated realms of reality. The connection to the natural world and the anthropomorphism of the traditional trickster are replaced with technological advances in culture. That is to say that artifice has become an extension of the 18th-century trickster; his polymorphous powers are contingent on his cultural surroundings. Lacroix’s emphasis on décor shows that Grimod’s self-transformation into the “king of gourmands” occurs by shaping and dictating cultural ritual.

A close analysis of Lacroix’s imaginative version of the meal reveals ambivalence and duality to be at the core of the dining room’s hallucinatory polymorphous interiors. Lacroix takes the image of a room lit with hundreds of candles from the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondence littéraire. Referencing antiquity and evoking the dramatic lighting in medieval cathedrals, he turns this scene into a romanticized funerary room: “This room, completely draped in black, like a funeral, was lit by antique lamps and a gigantic candelabra loaded with candles, one might call it a fiery chapel.”[29] Despite this picture of solemnity, Lacroix indicates that after the consumption of succulent dishes and exquisite wines the atmosphere became festive and merry. He explains furthermore that the room’s interior design displayed ceremonial gravity at the same time as lighthearted play. Juxtaposing the attributes of love and death, skull and crossbones were painted and embroidered on walls next to images of bows and quivers, rose wreathes, and fiery hearts.[30] Through his use of hyperbole and a lexicon of extravagance, Lacroix constructs a dreamlike atmosphere abounding with prophetic ritualistic symbols including a catafalque, funerary cups, and crystal glasses cut in the shape of lacrymatories, Ancient Roman vessels in which mourners’ tears dropped.[31] It’s by curating the dining table with these cultural objects that Lacroix references the theme of vanitas. He communicates this philosophical message with an alleged quote from Grimod: “This feast is the image of life: we are happy, we love, and death is there.”[32] And, as with many still-like paintings, Lacroix’s depiction of the table communicates a contrast between sensual pleasure and religious gravity.

According to Lacroix, the thematic décor coupled with a phantasmagoria, a hidden orchestra, smoke, and an excess of food had physiological and psychological effects on the guests, putting some of them in a state of delirium. In this version of the fameux souper, Grimod took his guests on a gastro-psychological rollercoaster of morose dark lows and jocund bright highs. In the presence of the “mortuary device,” the invitees lost their appetite, but soon after drinking wine, this heavy funerary tone gave way to a lighthearted “friendly sloppiness.”[33] After he served eight courses, Grimod invited the notorious audience into the room. And at this point, an orchestra slowly played a Requiem Mass at the same time that a chorus sang joyous airs à boire: “This mix of gay and sad, religious and secular, was not made to favor the guests’ digestion. They made a grimace and stopped on the last limits of their appetite.”[34] Lacroix locates Grimod’s brilliance precisely in his ability to convey this contrast of aesthetic qualities through a cultural synthesis, suggestive of a Romantic total work of art. For Lacroix, the fameux souper, which he calls a “mystification gastronomico-philosophique,” seems to reach the sublime. Grimod’s fusion of the arts activates intense feelings of horror and delight that ultimately bring about a pleasurable experience:

Almost all the guests of the dinner party were sick, some for having eaten and drunk too much, others for having experienced too strong emotions, several of a weaker and more timid mind had hallucinations and delirious episodes. The amphitryon was at the height of his wishes: he occupied the hundred voices of fame and he became a fashionable character. He succeeded too well in this attempt at a gastronomico-philosophical mystification to stick to his first success.[35]

Even though Lacroix does not use the word “sublime,” he draws on many of its qualities and effects. First of all, he emphasizes the duality of the grotesque and the beautiful that Victor Hugo links to the sublime in his preface to Cromwell (1827). He even seems to accredit Grimod’s success to his guests’ relinquishing of rationale, their mental and corporal submission to the feast. There is no question that Lacroix’s rendition of Grimod’s mystification is seen through the lens of mid-19th-century Romanticism, namely the aesthetics of the sublime and Hugo’s glorification of the grotesque.

In his elevation of the grotesque, Hugo creates an image reflective of the trickster highlighting his function as an intermediary between lowbrow (folk culture, “popular medieval traditions”) and highbrow (scholarly culture, “the severe genius of Dante and Milton”). Hugo’s grotesque hero activates creativity and inspires the imagination:

In modern creations, on the other hand, the grotesque plays an enormous part. It is to be found everywhere; on the one hand it creates the deformed and the horrible; on the other hand, the comic, the buffoon. It surrounds religion with innumerable original supersistions, it surrounds poetry with innumerable picturesque fancies. [36]

What’s more, the displacement of the grotesque from the realm of imagination to that of the real produces parodies of humanity, and thus, they function as carriers of knowledge:

If from the ideal it passes to the real world, it there unfolds an inexhaustible supply of parodies of human foibles. Creations of its fancy are the Scaramouches, Crispins, Harelquins, grinning silhouettes of man, types altogether unknown to the stern-faced ancients, although they had their origin in classical Italy.[37]

It is interesting to note that, according to Hugo, the grotesque originates in the space of fantasies and possibilities. In other words, it belongs to the inner world, l’intériorité. And therefore, by acting as a foreign force in the outer world, “real world,” its parodies appear to have objective universal truths. Similarly, make-believe, otherworldliness, and parody are reoccurring themes in all retellings of the fameux souper. Is it not this very same quality that contributes to its legendary status?

Applying Hugo’s conception of the grotesque to understanding the fameux souper’s adaptability, in terms of themes and narratology, and to examining its overall legacy suggest a deeper connection with the collective folklore. And, to follow-up this conclusion one would have to examine the extent to which Arnold Van Gennep’s extensive study on funerary feasts and rites corresponds to the meal’s many renditions and reenactments. I am not arguing that authors and performance artists are consciously structuring their retelling or curating their reenactment to reflect certain cultural ceremonies. I am however pointing out that the meal’s longevity can be attributed to its wide-ranging use of ritualistic symbols. Its connection to death and funerary rituals makes it an ideal point of reference and source of inspiration for decadent writers of the late-19th century. Indeed, Huysmans’s rendition accentuates the morose descriptions from Lacroix’s account, by enumerating dishes all of which are black, and by leaving out the joyous singing and references to love:

In a dining room draped in black, opening out onto the garden of the house, now transformed with its paths powdered with charcoal, its little pond filled with ink and bordered with basalt and its shrubberies laid out with cypresses and pines, dinner had been served on a black tablecloth adorned with baskets of violets and black scabias, lit by candelabra from which green flames blazed, and by chandeliers in which wax tapers flared. While a hidden orchestra played funeral marches, the guests had been waited on by naked black women wearing slippers and stockings of a silvery material sprinkled with tears. From black-bordered plates they had eaten turtle soup, Russian rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, salted mullet roes, smoked black pudding from Frankfurt, game birds covered in sauces the colour of liquorice and boot polish, truffle gravy, chocolate-flavoured cream, plum-puddings, brugnon musqué peaches, fruit preserves in grape juice, mulberries and black-heart cherries; from dark glasses they had drunk wines from Limagne and Roussillon, from Tenedos, Vadepeñas and Oporto; and after coffee and walnut brandy, they had savoured kvass, porter and stout.[38]

The most original aspect of Huysmans’s retelling is undoubtedly the enumeration of dishes. This is the first account, which I have come across, listing dishes in this great amount of detail.  And, it clearly reflects the decadent dandyism of des Esseintes. From an aesthetic perspective, Weiss states, “Perhaps the combination of these two positions defines the gastronomic art, which is as much an intellectual as a sensual practice, one where decadence – in the form of extreme, even baroque sophistication – is often a key factor in culinary creativity.”[39]


Gastronomes from around the world come to savor a cuisine built around memories and emotions, in a place where dreams and pleasures are a reality.

– Eric Fréchon[40]

18th and 19th-century renditions of Grimod’s supper of 1783 read as if they were pieces of historical fiction. Blending reality and dreamlike states, these storytellers and historians turn our attention to the very act of staging and experiencing a feast as the site of cultural metamorphosis. And as such, it serves as a possible point of entry into the early-19th-century socio-psychological transformations of the gourmand. As early as the publication of his Nuits de Paris, Restif intellectualizes Grimod’s satirical meal describing it as a fantastic tale packed with cultural references ranging from Virgil to Petronius. However, the most drastic shift in the storyline takes place thanks to Nerval, Monselet, and Lacroix. They view this theatrical spoof, not merely as the attempt of a rebellious adolescent to overthrow his parents’ authority, but also as an aesthetic and philosophical experience. Instead of being perceived as base, the bodily process of intoxication and ecstasy are perceived as an art. As such, they emphasize the meal’s transgression of art and life, the fusion of music, theater, interior design, and food through synesthesia, phantasmagoria, and hallucinogens.

From its first accounts, which are the least symbolically charged, to ones recounted by 19th-century writers, the narrative increasingly builds upon previous interpretations creating a multilayered constantly mutating myth. Those who recount Grimod’s meal highlight the use of the dining table as a platform for delving into the realm of make-believe. One might argue that this development had its origins in the salon, a space in which books were read aloud. However, Grimod’s meal challenged the very sociability associated with the salon, and in so doing shifted the attention to the materiality and theatricality of the table itself. In other words, for Grimod, the dining table – gourmandise – does not merely provide a space in which to tell tales, but it also carries a magical storytelling authority of its own. When contemporary Michelin-starred restaurants, including Epicure and Lasserre, claim to transform fantasy into reality, they are following in Grimod’s footsteps. His notion of the Amphityron-trickster suggests that haute cuisine is built on artifice, that it creates a different verisimilitude and entails a momentary suspension of disbelief. Interpretations of the 1783-supper clearly show that its historical significance derives from the fact that it provided an aesthetic model of gourmand trickery; one that continues to exist in French restaurants worldwide. 


[1] Desnoiresterres, Gustave. Grimod de la Reynière et son groupe. Gallardon : Menu Fretin, 2009. P. 89.

[2] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. By Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest. London: Schoepf, 1968. P. 226.

[3] Pelton states that the trickster’s role as mediator or intermediary involves a “healthy commerce between what is above and what is below, between male and female, between apparent and hidden order.” Elsewhere, he points out that the trickster not only perpetuates the existing order, but also solidifies it: “He moves past society’s circumference to ensure the permanent rediscovery of its center.”

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight.   Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Pages 2-3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fletcher, Nichola. Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Page 152.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Extrait des Mémoires secrets de la république des lettres, et mis en ordre. (Paris, 1808), 48.

[8] Let’s not forget that the meal took place just one year after the publication of Les Liaisons dangereuses. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos depicts his aristocratic characters as being the antithesis of altruism.

[9] Correspondence littéraire in Desnoiresterres, Gustave.  Grimod de la Reynière et son groupe. p. 90

[10] Ibid.

[11] « Au milieu de la table pour surtout était un catafalque : du reste, des lampes à l’antique, des devises et une illumination superbe de 300 bougies environ. » Mémoires Historiques, Littéraires et Critiques (Extrait des Mémoires secrets de la république des lettres, et mis en ordre). Paris : Léopold Collin, 1808. , page 50

[12] Day, Ivan. “The Eighteenth-Century Garden Dessert” in Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1998. Devon: Prospect Books, 1999. P. 60.

[13] Hellegouarc’h, Jacqueline. L’Esprit de société : Cercles et “salons” parisiens au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 2000. P. 367.

[14] Ibid., 365.

[15] Vanessa R. Schwartz states, “The visual representation of reality as spectacle in late nineteenth-century Paris created a common culture and a sense of shared experiences through which people might begin to imagine themselves as participating in a metropolitan culture because they had visual evidence that such a shared world, of which they were a part, existed.”

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris. Berkley, 1998. P. 6.

[16] “Les concerts de Mme Vigée-Lebrun, chez qui on put entendre Grétry et assister à des avant-premières d’opéras, de Mme de La Reynière, où se produisit Piccinni, du comte d’Albaret, les théâtres de La Popelinière, de Mme de Montesson, du comte de Vaudreuil, et bien d’autres, ont tenu une place dans la vie littéraire ou artistique de leur époque.”   Hellegouarc’h, page 290. All translations are mine.

[17] Ce mélange des hommes de Cour et des hommes lettrés donnait aux uns plus de lumières, aux autres plus de goût. Ibid.

[18] Extrait des Mémoires secrets de la république des lettres, et mis en ordre. Paris : Léopold Collin, 1808. , page 51

[19] “Comme on demandait un jour à Doyen le peintre, qui venait de dîner chez elle, ce qu’il pensait de Mme de La Reynière : ‘Elle reçoit fort bien, répondit-il, mais je la crois attaquée de noblesse.’” Hellegouarc’h, page 366.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “J’ai tout jeune absorbé beaucoup de cette nourriture indigeste ou malsaine pour l’âme; et plus tard même, mon jugement a eu à se défendre contre ces impressions primitives.” Gérard de Nerval. Les Illuminés : Récits et Portraits. Paris : Victor Lecou, 1852. P. VI.

[22] “Ces réflexions m’ont conduit à développer surtout le côté amusant et peut-être instructif que pouvaient présenter la vie et le caractère de mes excentriques. — Analyser les bigarrures de l’âme humaine, c’est de la physiologie morale, — cela vaut bien un travail de naturaliste […]” Ibid., page VII

[23] “[…] une grande fête philosophique.” Gérard de Nerval. Les Illuminés : Récits et Portraits. Paris : Victor Lecou, 1852. Page 217

[24] “L’élément moderne était représenté par une abondance extraordinaire de café. Pour être admis, il fallait s’engager à boire vingt-deux demi-tasses au déjeuner.” Ibid.

[25] “Un cortège de cuisiniers et de pages accompagnait les mets servis dans d’énormes plats d’argent, et de jolies servantes en costumes romains, placées près des convives, leur présentaient de longues chevelures pour y essuyer leurs doigts.” Ibid.

[26] “Le caractère national est essentiellement gai, malin et narquois; il l’était, du moins, au bon vieux temps; il l’a été jusqu’au notre, où il s’est fait sérieux, grave et morose, en passant par l’anglomanie.” Lacroix, Paul. Histoire des mystificateurs et des mystifiés : Histoires Comiques. Brussels : Alphonse Lebègue, 1856. Page 6.

[27] “En parlant de l’homme, Rabelais pensait surtout à son lecteur, qui ne pouvait être que Français, Gaulois et Gallois, c’est-à-dire bon compagnon, que nous avons assez mal changé en bon vivant.” Ibid.

[28] “Le fait est que le ridicule et le somptueux s’y mêlèrent à égale somme.” Ibid. , page 203

[29]“Cette salle, complètement tendue de noir, comme pour des funérailles, était éclairée par des lampes antiques et des candélabres gigantesques chargés de bougies ; on eut dit une chapelle ardente.” Lacroix, page 112

[30] Ibid.

[31]“La table représentait un immense catafalque, sur lequel brillaient aux feux des bougies les plus belles pièces d’argenterie et d’orfèvrerie. Le couvert des convives avait été préparé, en vue de cette bizarre orgie : les verres de cristal étaient taillés en façon de vases lacrymatoires et de coupes funéraires ; les assiettes de porcelaine peinte et dorée offraient pour sujets un ingénieux mélangé d’attributs galants et funèbres, avec des devises qui tenaient aussi des deux genres.” Ibid.

[32]“Ce festin est l’image de la vie: on est heureux, on aime, et la mort est là.”Ibid., page 113

[33]“[…] aimable laisser-aller.” Ibid. page 116

[34]“Ce mélange de gai et de triste, de religieux et de profane, n’était pas fait pour favoriser la digestion des convives. Ils firent la grimace et s’arrêtèrent sur les dernières limites de leur appétit.” Ibid.

[35]“Presque tous les convives du Gueuleton avaient été malades, les uns d’avoir trop bu et trop mangé, les autres d’avoir éprouvé des émotions trop vives ; plusieurs, d’un esprit plus faible et plus timoré, eurent des hallucinations et des accès de délire. L’amphitryon était au comble de ses vœux : il occupait les cent voix de la Renommée et il devenait un personnage à la mode. Il avait trop bien réussi dans cet essai de mystification gastronomico-philosophique, pour s’en tenir à son premier succès.” Ibid., page 120

[36]Hugo, Victor. Oliver Cromwell. Trans. I. G. Burnham. Philadelphia, 1896. Page 29-30

[37] Ibid.

[38] Huysmans, J. K. Tans. Brendan King. Against Nature. Dedalus: 2011. Page 14.

[39] Weiss, Allen S. Feast and Folly: Cuisine, Intoxication, and the Poetics of the Sublime. NY: SUNY Press, 2002. P. 104.

[40]“Les gastronomes du monde entier viennent savourer une cuisine de mémoire et d’émotions dans un lieu où le rêve et le plaisir sont une réalité.” Fréchon, Eric. Epicure à l’hôtel le Bristol. < http://www.eric-frechon.com/eric-frechon/epicure-a-lhotel-le-bristol/>.

Works Cited

Correspondence littéraire de Grimm et de Diderot. Tome onzième. Paris, 1830.

Day, Ivan. “The Eighteenth-Century Garden Dessert” in Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the 

Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1998. Devon: Prospect Books, 1999.

Desnoiresterres, Gustave. Grimod de la Reynière et son groupe. Gallardon : Menu Fretin, 2009.

Extrait des Mémoires secrets de la république des lettres, et mis en ordre. Paris : Léopold Collin, 1808.

Fletcher, Nichola. Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Fréchon, Eric. Epicure à l’hôtel le Bristol. < http://www.eric-frechon.com/eric-frechon/epicure-a-lhotel-le-bristol/>.

Gérard de Nerval. Les Illuminés : Récits et Portraits. Paris : Victor Lecou, 1852

Hellegouarc’h, Jacqueline. L’Esprit de société : Cercles et “salons” parisiens au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 2000.

Hugo, Victor. Oeuvres Complètes. Tome 1erCromwell. Paris: Alexandre Houssieux, 1827. P

Huymans. À rebours. Ed. Marc Fumaroli. Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

Lacroix, Paul. Histoire des mystificateurs et des mystifiés : Histoires Comiques. Brussels : Alphonse Lebègue, 1856.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. By Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest. London: Schoepf, 1968.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris. Berkley, 1998.

Weiss, Allen S. Feast and Folly: Cuisine, Intoxication, and the Poetics of the Sublime. NY: SUNY Press, 2002.

Biography of Max Shrem