Feast Your Eyes

To feast is human. It is nearly always, nearly everywhere the case. Gluts, whether caused by the slaughter of an animal, or by the harvest or some other windfall, are unavoidable, and those who possess the excess capitalize on it by sharing it in some way (surely this is the origin of capitalism). Feasts, therefore, tell us a great deal about a culture. How is food shared? When, where and by whom? How are the occasions for feasting marked? What is eaten? (Consider: the Greeks camped on the shores of Troy for a decade, yet Homer does not feed his heroes fish!) Nowadays, the anthropology and archaeology of feasting are fields of academic inquiry and debate, precisely because they yield such insight into a culture. Yet for much of the early history of printed books, this discussion was confined almost exclusively to Christian feasts, though “feast” is taken in its primary sense: a sacred rite, a metonym for a holiday. Enter Jean (probably) Muret:

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Traité des Festins. Paris: Guillaume Desprez, 1682. First edition.

Like all good thinking minor nobility of the age of Louis XIV, Muret begins by defining his subject:

“Le Festin n’est autre chose qu’un assemblée de diverses personnes, qui sont invitées pour manger ensemble, & se divertir pendant le repas”
the Feast is nothing but a gathering of various people invited to eat together and to entertain one another during the meal (p. 1, A1r)

This may seem banal, but it is novel. Muret sees the feast as a phenomenon that links various kinds of human endeavor, and often the most significant. Although there is considerable attention given to Christian feasts — the entire last chapter, for example — Muret conceptualizes feasting as a category with wide application. He discusses feasts for births and weddings, military feasts, holy feasts, funerary feasts, coronation feasts and so forth. How do these differ? By holding these previously disparate sorts of “assemblées de diverses personnes” up against one another, he uncovers their common traits. The survey is typological but also chronological; it is larded (forgive the pun) with references to classical (mostly Roman) feasts; this gave rise to the title of its second manifestation in 1715 (Dissertation sur les festins des anciens Grecs et Romains…). How wise it is to see continuities in these rituals that might otherwise seem to be paragons of specificity.

For all this the book might be revolutionary enough, but it goes further. From these traverses across types of feast, Muret draws general precepts about feasting itself. There are sections on guest-lists and table-wares, but also on taking exercise before feasts (especially hunting; a nobleman’s adumbration of later anthropological theories of feasting vis à vis slaying a mammoth or a boar), and the all-important pre-feast bath. As such, this stands at the beginning of a vast category of literature — one that we often think of as beginning rather later — on the mores of entertaining and of hospitality more generally. What La Varenne did for the preparation of the food in the Cuisinier françois some thirty years earlier (1651), Muret did for the reciprocal end: consumption.

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Duodecimo (6” x 3 3/8”, 153mm x 86mm): binder’s blank, ā8 b2(–b2) A8 B4 C8 D4 … T8 V4 X6 Y2 (Y2 blank) [octavo $4, quarto $2; –ā1]. 137 leaves, pp. [18], 230, [24], 2 blanks.



French health food

As faithful readers doubtless already know (fun fact: this blog has been going strong for four days!), I am a gastronome. We have several food-related books (including a very sweet pocket-size Physiologie du Gout), and I avoid them, frankly, because I’d just end up reading them. Sometimes I must sacrifice myself on the altar of progress, though, and so I spent much of today working on the Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine, d’Office et de Distillation… Paris: Chez Lottin le Jeune, 1770. Second edition(?). Sometimes it is attributed to François-Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnay des Bois (who, had he not died in 1784, would surely have been beheaded on day one of the Revolution simply for his name) and a couple of his confrères.

This is no cook-book, although it has some recipes. Indeed, some of the recipes (like stewing almonds in caramel for two hours) are most alluring. In the great French encyclopedic tradition, this is nothing short of a(n attempt at a) codification of all aspects of the kitchen, pantry, distillery and dispensary. It places gastronomy in its rightful place as an aspect of medicine. The term “restaurant” comes from Latin restauro, “I restore”; a restorant in Middle French (1405) makes the meaning clearer: any thing (food, drink, medicine) that restores health. The next step after a restaurant was a ragout (Ital. ragù), something to restore the appetite. The story persists that in 1765 a Parisian restaurateur (“restorer”) called Boulanger hung a sign over his shop selling broths that riffed on Matthew 11:28 “venite ad me, omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos”, “come to me, all you whose stomachs suffer, and I shall restore you”. I don’t know if there’s any truth to it but there you are.

Two years later the first edition of the Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine was published in that same city, with most entries ending with an Observation médecinale, a reflection on the nutritive and therapeutic value of the food. Our edition, that of 1700, is what appears to be the second edition of the work. Despite its rarity (only one copy for auction on record, no copies in institutional libraries), the authenticity of the publication is in no doubt: Lottin le jeune (Antoine-Prosper Lottin, 1733-1812) has signed the verso of the title-page to attest to the authenticity of the book in a city where piracy was as common as bouillabaisse.

Signature of the publisher, [Antoine-Prosper] Lottin [le] jeune, A2v.


Octavo (6 7/16” x 4”, 165mm x 102mm). a8 A-V8 V8 X-Aa8 2A-Aa8 [$4; roman minuscule numerals used for signing; from 2A, $1 marked Partie II.; –A3; 2O3 missigned 2Oij; V duplicated]. 400 leaves, pp. i-v vj-viij ix x-xvj, 1 2-320 305-384, 21 22-382, [2].