May 17, 2004

It is one of the few things in my lifetime about which I agreed with the Vatican.  In 1975, Craig Claiborne, the food editor of the New York Times and arguably the most influential food writer of the day, made the high bid at a charity auction for a dinner for two, donated by American Express, at any restaurant the winner chose.  He chose his business partner, Pierre Franey, as his dining companion; for the restaurant, they chose Chez Denis in Paris, where they ordered 31 dishes and nine wines, ringing up a $4,000 bill.  Claiborne’s “review” of Chez Denis ran on the front page of the November 14, 1975 Times, and was met with swift and vigorous disapproval.  The Vatican newspaper called it a deplorable display in a world where people were starving; Claiborne’s colleague Harriet Van Horne called it a stunt calculated to stimulate outrage; French newspapers noted that the night’s tab represented a year’s wages for many French workers.  Even their host at Chez Denis had suggested to them that their bill of fare would feed 10 people, and they could still dine splendidly without sampling every single dish.

After Claiborne’s death in 2000, the Chez Denis stunt was duly noted in his obituaries, and in tributes that poured in to the Times.  In hindsight, many writers expressed admiration for Claiborne, some grudgingly, some enthusiastically, for having had the moxie to pull this off.  I was not one of those people, and still am not.  I won’t even pretend to any sort of journalistic equivocation:  I thought that this was a disgusting thing to do, not because there were people starving around the world on that November night, but because it was a profoundly antigastronomic thing to do.  Claiborne wrote that he found the last of his three soups “anticlimactic.” Of course it was!  When you have that much food spread before you, at what point does each dish lose its individual integrity, its singularity?  When does it become an undifferentiated mass of food?  At what point are you no longer eating, but feeding instead?

I have mentioned before that I am not a fan of faux populism, the idea that haute is automatically inferior to bistro, which is automatically inferior to home.  (Granted, I *do* tend to favor home-cooked food, particularly the kind known in France as “cuisine de mere;” it is what I’d prefer to eat and certainly what I’d prefer to cook, but I believe that you can love your grandma’s beef stew without spitting all over the daube at your local four-star.) But if I don’t like faux populism, I absolutely, positively hate faux gourmandism, the idea that a high price tag justifies splashing about expensive ingredients hither and yon without considering basic principles of taste and balance.  If my Italian local is lucky enough to procure fresh white truffles in season, I have no problem with ordering a plate of spaghetti dressed with nothing but butter and a few shavings of those white truffles, and I understand that those shavings are going to put some serious additional change on the bill.  But I don’t want those truffles on every damn dish on the menu.  Nor do I need foie gras in a burrito, or ground Kobe beef in a hamburger.

Most of all, I don’t need caviar in a frittata.  I haven’t had too much exposure to caviar, but I’ve had enough to know that if you’re shelling out big bucks for beluga or sevruga, you don’t want to gunk up those little pearls with cream or meat or vinaigrette or chopped hard-boiled egg.  (Why this compulsion to serve egg with egg?  Why?) Apparently, though, someone at the Parker Meridien, one of the most expensive hotels in Midtown, has decided that what their frittata special really needs is caviar.  And lobster.  And cream sauce, plenty of cream sauce.  Thus it is that the P-M openly, freely and without shame, invites you to order this on your next visit.

The hotel’s general manager, Steven Pipes, has admitted that he doesn’t anticipate too many takers on this frittata, that he and the executive chef came up with this dish as a way to keep the menu from getting too “stale” (I still dream of the day when this sort of food fashion, “is it in or is it out?,” falls out of fashion), and that the whole thing is just a bit of a joke.  I agree that it’s a joke.  But it’s not funny.  What it is is a waste:  a waste of a good lobster, a waste of almost ¾ pound of caviar, a waste of butter and heavy cream, a waste of six eggs, all in pursuit of a stunt we should have got over playing 30 years ago.

Edit:  In my haste to get this post up, I neglected to mention that while I was able to track down the original Claiborne piece in the New York Times, I found both Harriet Van Horne’s comments and the remarks by Denis of Chez Denis in John and Karen Hess’s The Taste of America, a book that gets more and more useful to me with each passing day.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:00 PM in anger is an energy • (3) Comments
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