The Passionate Epicure: La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet

The Passionate Epicure: La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet

by Marcel Rouff, Charles Mozley
In the classic French novel The Passionate Epicure, Marcel Rouff introduces Dodin-Bouffant, a character based loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an infamous bachelor and epicure dedicated to the high arts: the art of food and the art of love. This edition contains a Preface by Lawrence Durrell and a new Intro-duction by Jeffrey Steingarten, the food


In the classic French novel The Passionate Epicure, Marcel Rouff introduces Dodin-Bouffant, a character based loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an infamous bachelor and epicure dedicated to the high arts: the art of food and the art of love. This edition contains a Preface by Lawrence Durrell and a new Intro-duction by Jeffrey Steingarten, the food critic for Vogue magazine and author of the bestselling book The Man Who Ate Everything.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A little masterpiece.”
—from the Preface by Lawrence Durrell

“Some of the finest and most enticing writing about food you’ll ever find.”
—From the Introduction by Jeffrey Steingarten

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.19(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction
Jeffrey Steingarten

This delightful little classic was probably the first gastronomic novel ever written, printed in a tiny edition in 1920, then properly published in 1924. The charming translation by “Claude” is the only one into English. It was first published in London in 1961 and a year later in New York City, and has been out of print for a generation. We are very lucky to have it back.

Our hero, Monsieur Dodin-Bouffant, is a distinguished jurist, now retired and living with one servant in a small, comfortable house in his ancestral town. He has dedicated his life, every waking hour, to the refinements of cuisine, which is to say French cuisine–eating and cooking, thinking and talking about it. Though word of Dodin’s gastronomic genius has spread throughout the world, he remains “unpretentious, kindly, simple; devoting with ever more conscientious gravity and more concentrated ardour, the powers and meditations of his riper years to the subtle and magnificent art to which he considered he owed, for the traditional glory of his country, the best of himself and the whole of his active genius.” For Marcel Rouff, Dodin’s creator, eating is an art, an act of patriotism, and much more.

Dodin-Bouffant (we never learn his given name) is surely the most famous character in gastronomic fiction. He is pleased, though perhaps not completely surprised, when the Crown Prince of Eurasia, vacationing in the Jura to take the waters, invites him to dinner. The Prince’s motive is both to display his own epicurean abilities and to win a return invitation to Dodin-Bouffant’s table. These dueling dinners are the central event of the book, the scenes with which The Passionate Epicure is always identified in France. One passage, a page or two, right in the middle of one of the dinners is surely the most quoted. Why should this be? There are, after all, a multitude of wonderfully mouthwatering eating scenes throughout the book; they draw us from beginning to end like a truffle tied to a pole, even when the plot itself slackens. The book brims over with nice apothegms and culinary word-paintings both sensitive and vivid. And for sheer suspense, satire, and sensual satisfaction, we would surely turn to the scene of Dodin-Bouffant’s covert meeting, toward the end of the book, with a beautiful, young, rich, blond female worshiper who, on top of everything else, proves to be an even greater gastronomic genius than he. Then why the two dinners with the Prince of Eurasia? The reason is simple. The reason is pot-au-feu.

For the French, La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet is about the pot-au-feu Dodin serves the Prince–a common and simple dish, but for centuries very close to the soul of France, the foundation of empires, it has been called. Perhaps that is why several epicurean friends in Paris assigned this book to me ten years ago as required reading. My command of French, once sufficient to subdue Corneille and Racine, had by then become a blunt, corroded tool, and so I limited myself to the famous Chapter 4. And there it was–not only the most inspired description ever written of a boiled dinner, but also a pot-au-feu that dared to include, with the authority of the greatest fictional gastronome who had ever lived, an entire foie gras poached in Chambertin! Devoted readers of this book treat these paragraphs as a recipe that any serious epicure is required to follow, at least once, in his or her continuing, if not lifelong, exploration of the pot-au-feu. My friends and I each prepared Dodin-Bouffant’s pot-au-feu, and we all sort of succeeded.

Then we moved on to the soubise, that fine onion purée Dodin serves to the Prince of Eurasia after the pot-au-feu, a lesson to both the Prince and to the rest of us that the low and humble onion, which would never have been considered fit for royalty, can grow epiphanous in the hands of a Dodin-Bouffant.† You will need an earthenware casserole, a quantity of new onions, the finest, freshest butter, thirty-six hours of free time, and a very low fire.

Who was Marcel Rouff? He was born in Geneva in 1887 and died in Paris in 1936. He was a poet, dramatist, essayist, literary critic, and chronicler of both the mountains and of Parisian society. If you browse library catalogues and the inventory of French dealers in rare books, you will discover: One volume of poetry. Windmills, an early one-act play in rhymed verse about Don Quixote, first produced at the Comédie de Genève, an apparent oxymoron; its first lines are spoken by Sancho Panza, and they concern food. A handful of novels, three now in print–Rouff’s only writings still available. Biographies of Chateaubriand and of Tubeuf, a great industrialist of the eighteenth century, plus a study of French coal mines of the same era. And most notably, a series of delightful and gluttonous guides to the food of France, region by region, with recipes, written with the great and famous Curnonsky, the nom de cuisine of Maurice Edmond Sailland, honored throughout France as the Prince of Gourmets. (Several of the twenty-eight volumes of La France Gastronomique, Guide des merveilles culinaires et des bonnes auberges françaises were published in English by Harper and Brothers as The Yellow Guides for Epicures.) At the height of Curnonsky’s prestige, eighty restaurants in and around Paris held back a table every night in case the Master should decide to show up.

Was the fictional Dodin-Bouffant modeled after a real-life gastronome? The action of the book appears to take place in the 1830s. (Here’s how I figure it: Both Napoleon and the publication of the great Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste [1825], mentioned in the novel, have already happened, but the railroad has not yet arrived [probably 1842]; Dodin travels exclusively by carriage.) The setting is the Jura, a region of France given its title by the modest mountain range that runs along the Swiss border (and which also generously lends its name to the Jurassic Period and all that followed.) Just to the west lie the fertile gastronomic heartland of Burgundy, the city of Bresse, its fabled fowl, and the town of Belley, the seat of Brillat-Savarin himself and later of Lucien Tendret, another distinguished lawyer and author of the brilliant cookbook La Table au Pays de Brillat-Savarin (published in 1892 and reprinted in 1972), which later inspired a great mid-twentieth-century cook in the town of Mionnay, Alain Chapelle, and through him, the young Alain Ducasse, who worked as Chapelle’s chef de cuisine in the late 1970s. Alice B. Toklas, who with Gertrude Stein spent six months a year for seventeen years near Belley, boasts in her own cookbook of possessing and replicating one of Lucien Tendret’s unpublished recipes. The French are proud of Alice and consider her a true disciple in the tradition of Belley and its surrounding countryside.

Brillat-Savarin and Tendret are the usual suspects. But Brillat-Savarin (to whom Rouff dedicates the book) is mentioned in the story as Dodin-Bouffant’s compatriote and, in any event, was less of a homebody than Dodin. (Do you remember Brillat-Savarin’s self-exile from the Terror, his sojourn in the United States, and his famous turkey shoot near Hartford, Connecticut?) Lucien Tendret came too late, and in any event, you will not find one dish in his cookbook that appears on Dodin’s table. Alice B. Toklas has never been suggested. I would guess that it is both the unbroken tradition of Belley and its region, and Marcel Rouff’s own gastronomic refinement and aphoristic skill that make up the person and manners of Dodin-Bouffant.

“I knew Marcel Rouff in the evening of his life,” wrote James de Coquet in his Introduction to the 1970 French edition of La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet. “He was a refined man, courteous, delicate, erudite, of whom one might say that he was the opposite of a gourmand. . . . When he knotted his napkin around his neck, in the manner of Brillat-Savarin, whose memory he venerated, it was to commune with nature, to incorporate her” (translation mine: caveat lector).

This sounds like Dodin-Bouffant himself, except perhaps in the matter of physical size. But Coquet is probably too reverential. For one thing, we remember that Dodin-Bouffant “communes with nature” in the carriage on the way to the Prince’s dinner by turning it into a meal: “The journey was enchanting. . . . There was joy at every turn of the road. Partridges ruffled the cornfields in their crazy race, like a breeze skimming the earth, and Dodin, pointing to a hare diving between a cow’s muddy legs, beside the grey and tumbledown stones of a little vineyard wall, exclaimed: ‘What admirable country! Look, Rabaz, at the marvellous combination: the creature, the cream, the wine: a complete jugged hare!’ ” For another, when we read Rouff’s description of Dodin-Bouffant’s apparent refinement at table, we understand that Rouff has concealed from Coquet his own obsessive gourmandism: “He [Dodin] was one of those men whose delicacy of manner and gesture, whose lightness of touch, whose distinction at table have so much charm that they conceal the extent of their appetite.” Besides, everybody knows that truly delicate and ascetic men do not knot napkins around their necks.

Could you or I have won a place at Dodin’s table? Frankly, I doubt it. Years ago, we read, Dodin “had welcomed to the succulence of his cuisine all those who craved the honour of tasting it.” But as he grew older, his judgment became increasingly severe. “How many unworthy and inept false gourmets and vile flatterers had he seen trooping into his home!” So, he secretly began subjecting his guests to pitiless tests, and nearly all of them failed. One guest had taken an impeccable Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a Beaujolais, another failed to recognize “in the cream of a cauliflower sauce the exotic caress of a pinch of nutmeg,” a third could not tell the difference between beef from Nivernais and beef from Franche-Comté, and a fourth “emptied a glass of Pommard after his coffee-cake”! Others were rejected for not having perceived a superfluous pinch of salt in a purée of cardoons, or for having mistakenly praised the badly buttered toast “under a partridge of the wrong age.”

Meet the Author

Marcel Rouff was born in Geneva in 1877. He is the author of The Psychology of Taste and had a distinguished career as a gourmet writer, poet, dramatist, essayist, literary critic, chronicler of rural as well as Parisian society, and historian, collaborating with such luminaries as Jean Jaurès. He died in Paris in 1936.

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