The Reluctant Gourmet

Accused of being a gourmet, a writer tries to understand why it's so wrong to care about food.

No one ever knows when they are well off. Whenever I was called a gourmet, I suspected that I was being accused of something at least slightly unpleasant. But that was before I heard the term foodie. I am still not sure that a gourmet is a good thing to be, but it must be better than a foodie.

I may not know what a gourmet is, but like Justice Stewart said about pornography, I know it when I see it. I am contemplating the meaning of the word gourmet because I am clearly in the company of a couple of them. Two gourmets have invited me to lunch in a rural Basque restaurant in the green mountains of Vizcaya province: the small, red-faced and energetic author of a popular Spanish food guide and an enormously round man of unclear profession whose business card labels him a gastronomic adviser.

The enthusiastic author rates all his food from one to ten, and he wants the well-fed gastronomic adviser and me to do the same. He gives the lomo, a thinly sliced, burgundy-colored prime cut of cured pork, only an eight. The gastronomic advisor has ventured a nine, and so they turn to me, the Hamlet of our group, who can't make up his mind and requests clearer definitions of eight and nine.

A gourmet, according to one dictionary definition, is a judge of choice foods. The term comes from an Old French word for a wine-tasting servant. Gourmand, on the other hand, comes from an Old French word for glutton. From this it appears that medieval Frenchmen knew the difference between a judge, who is guided by intelligence, and a glutton, who is guided by appetite. But Americans, I've observed, always get gourmet and gourmand confused. Indeed, being called a gourmet in the States is as likely to be an accusation as a compliment.

In French, by the way, the two words are still distinct. I used to write about food for a French-staffed publication and the accountant who processed my expenses would take enormous delight in pointedly calling me Monsieur Gourmand.

Can it be a lingering puritanism that makes Americans dislike gourmets? In 1901, Picasso depicted a little girl reaching up to a table to scrape the last bits of food from a bowl. The painting is usually labeled by its French title, Le Gourmet. But at a recent show in the United States, the name was translated into English as The Greedy Child. Is a gourmet greedy? Is all that judging and analyzing really just an excuse to eat as much as possible? Picasso's little girl did finish off the contents of her bowl.

My gourmets are discussing the lobster. The red-faced author has given it a 10 and is trying to get me to concede that these tough little clawed creatures from northern Europe are far better than the lobster from what he does not realize is my native New England, which in fact they are not.

Plato would not have thought much of my lunch companions. He mistrusted any interest in food. In the Republic he writes that the enjoyment of food is not a true pleasure because the purpose of eating is to relieve a kind of pain--hunger. And in Gorgias he indirectly compares cooking to "a form of flattery...a mischievous, deceitful, mean and ignoble activity, which cheats us by shapes and colors, by smoothing and draping...."

A 1996 novel, The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, plays on our aversion to gourmets. The narrator is a man who applauds "the application of intelligence to pleasure." In telling the story of his life he rambles on about soups, stocks, curry, the perfect vinaigrette, the perfect martini. The reader instinctively dislikes this pompous dilettante. And just as we are growing angry with his smugness, we begin to see that there is something truly abnormal about him. His interest in food is not about a shared human experience; it's about setting himself apart. Finally we realize that he is deranged,that he is, in fact, a psychopath.

My tablemates don't like the monkfish, and give it a five.

What should a gourmet look like? I'm afraid most Chinese would not consider the fat gastronomic adviser to be a gourmet. A true gourmet, they would say, has the wisdom to know when to stop eating. From Confucius to Mao, most Chinese philosophers have contended that excess is unnatural, wasteful and alien to proper dining. Chinese food writing emphasizes the healthfulness of gourmets and their choices.

Karl Friedrich von Rumohr, an early 19th-century Feinschmecker (literally "a fine taster"), concurred. He wrote in 1822 that "dull-witted, brooding people love to stuff themselves with quantities of heavy food, just like animals for fattening. Bubbly intellectual people love foods that stimulate the taste buds without overloading the belly. Profound, meditative people prefer neutral foods, which do not have an assertive flavor and are not difficult to digest, and therefore do not demand too much attention."

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 19th-century French lawyer, politician, food writer and self-declared gourmet, also insisted that a true gourmet was health conscious. But, curiously, Brillat-Savarin rejected any distinction between gourmet and gourmand, denying that gourmandism had anything to do with gluttony. Still, plump men were of little appeal to him, and so he denounced overeating by men while stating in his book, The Physiology of Taste, that "gourmandism is far from unbecoming to the ladies."

My companions order an imposing, garnet-colored Rioja as a thick chuleta (a rare, salted grilled steak) arrives at our table. After polishing off his portion and giving it a 10, the enthusiastic author places the bone on my plate. "Take that," he says. "It's the best part, but you have to pick it up with your hands and gnaw on it."

I take the bone in my hands.

A gourmet knows that the best food is not always the most expensive food. Although poor people can be gourmets, able to discern a good potato from a bad one, judging foods without regard for cost is a rich man's game. Only the wealthy can follow a thick aged steak with a black-sauced peasant stew, as my lunch companions do. The stew earns a double-digit rating as well.

Dessert arrives, a white mousse with berry sauce, and my two friends engage in lively discourse about whether or not it contains queso de Filadelfia, which leads into competing eulogies in praise of cream cheese.

Isn't anyone who spends all his time talking about food in need of a doctor? In 1997, the American Academy of Neurology announced the discovery of a syndrome in which sufferers suddenly become compulsively addicted to thinking about and eating fine foods. In a study of 723 patients with brain lesions, 36 became gourmets, and of those, 34 were found to have lesions in the right anterior part of the brain. A businessman who suffered a brain hemorrhage "couldn't stop talking or writing about food." One patient had been a political journalist until a brain hemorrhage led him to become a food writer. Maybe I should go to a clinic now for my scan.

But maybe not. Being called a gourmet, I've decided, isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's the same kind of compliment-insult as being called an intellectual. I have to learn something about the prejudices of the person who is using the label before I can decide how I feel about wearing it.

Things are getting worse at the table. Over brandy and Cuban cigars, my companions turn from praising cream cheese to rating Cuban versus Brazilian women. I notice by the physical descriptions offered to bolster their arguments that they both like their women the same way Brillat-Savarin did--well-fed. That must be what gourmets like. Or is it gourmands? As I listen to my tablemates, I don't feel much inclined to be either.

Mark Kurlansky is the author of the award-winning book Cod and, most recently, The Basque History of the World, which was published this month by Walker & Co.

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