We can usually say that if you like one book by an author, you will like others by that same author. I’m not sure that’s the case with Gourmet Rhapsody, written by the author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. While it’s an entertaining read, Gourmet Rhapsody will not have the wide appeal of Hedgehog, a book that was on best seller lists. However, Gourmet Rhapsody is worth a read, especially for Francophiles. It’s a mere 156 pages, so no huge investment of time.
Given the French obsession with fine food, someone probably had to write a book such as this.
The gourmet of the title is Pierre Arthens, who declares with the utmost confidence that he is the greatest food critic in the world. With the stroke of his pen he has made and broken restaurants and the careers of chefs. He is fawned over and catered to everywhere he goes, often striking terror in the hearts of restaurant owners. Even his family dislikes this vain, self-indulgent snob.
We find Arthens with only 48 hours to live as his doctor has just pronounced his cardiac demise.
Surely there will be death bed confessions and apologies? No. Arthens’ one final ambition is to recall the taste that has mattered most to him; the one he describes as the first and ultimate truth of his eating career. But alas, the flavor and the food have slipped his mind and he makes a last desperate effort to recall it. He does so by going through the tastes of his life as the book alternates short chapters between his reminiscences and the observations of those who know him — and in most cases do not like him; some even revile him. There are thoughts from his wife, children, the concierge of the apartment building, and even the family cat. Self-centered as the gourmet is, what’s important to him in these dying hours is making a sort of peace with himself — by retrieving that magical, lost taste — rather than others.
It is an interesting little morsel of a book, combining humor, culinary thoughts and character study. I kept thinking it must be satire or parody. Maybe food represents philosophical ideas? But then, it is a French book and we know they take food very seriously.