Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

To the Health of Martin Lister

Ah yes.  Gay Paris.  For centuries, Englishmen have viewed Gallic comestibles with a mixture of longing and suspicion.  Throughout the 18th century, the English decried French cooks in public whilst French cookbooks sold like hotcakes.  Throughout the 19th century, English tourists journeyed to Paris specifically to dine in restaurants such as Véry’s or the Rocher de Cancale.  (Their letters, however, often discussed the restaurant’s luxurious ambiance more than the food.[1])  By the 1950s, Elizabeth David lauded Paris as a foodie haven from the tinned peas and oversized, over-salted olives that typified London’s abysmal culinary scene.  Even today, Paris remains a site of gastronomic pilgrimage.  
Martin Lister:
Foodie Virtuoso

Permit me to add Dr. Martin Lister to the ranks of English-born culinary Francophiles.  Lister was your early modern jack-of-all-trades: a physician, a botanist, and an antiquarian rolled into one.[2]  He wrote and published prolifically on a smorgasbord of exigent 17th century intellectual matters.  The anatomy of a scallop.  A boy bit by a rabid dog.  The flavor of a “very peculiar mushroom.”

The anatomy of a scallop?  You might be rolling your eyes right now, Reader, at the apparent superficiality of Lister’s scholarly interests.  (And if you are rolling your eyes, be assured that you are in good company; neither Jonathan Swift nor Alexander Pope could stand the guy.)  To them, Lister was a narcissistic fool who liked to talk and write just for the sake of being heard, regardless of whether his so-called “research” was totally useless and imbecilic.

But let’s not dismiss Lister’s schemes too quickly.  At the dawn of the Enlightenment, many regarded these studies as critical and cutting edge gateways to new and modern knowledge.  How were we to understand the decline of the Roman Empire if we don’t know the historical conditions –– the weird fish sauce, the feasting rituals, the vomitoria –– in which the Romans lived?[3]  How were we supposed to understand the diversity of different cultures and peoples around the world if we don’t consider the ins and outs of their everyday lives? '

So in 1698, Lister set off to Paris.[4]  Did he study French politics?  Nope.  Did he study art or architecture?  Nope – Lister admitted he “had no taste” for those things.  But he did spend a great deal of time studying the diet of the Parisians.[5]  Indeed, according to his published memoir of the trip, Lister was pretty impressed with what he saw.  He was “much pleased” with the French lentils, found French turnips to be “sweeter and “less stringy” than the English kind, and rated the French (Roman) lettuce as superior to the Silesian varieties grown in England.  Hell, he even thought French salt tasted better, finding it “incomparably better and far more wholesome than our white salt, which spoils everything that is intended to be preserved by it.”  I wonder if it's Lister's fault that French sea-salt has such a huge mark-up in stores today?   
Can the inflated prices paid for French sea-salt
be attributed to F.R.S. Lister?
Like many gastronomes, Lister was equally, if not more, excited over the wines he tasted in Paris than he was about the food.  Champagne and Burgundy topped Lister’s list, being “light and easy on the stomach,” and noticed that all the best French taverns sought to serve them.  Some of Lister’s favorites:

Volne (known today as Volnay, in the Cote de Beaune region of Burgundy): Lister described this as a “pale champaigne” made on the borders of Burgundy.  He deemed it “exceedingly brisk upon the palate.”

Vin de Rheims: “Like all the other champaignes, it is harsh,” Lister said.  He describes it as “pale or gray.”

Chabri (Chablis?): “Quick and much liked.”

St. Laurence (Red): The town is situated in Provence, between Toulon and Nice.  This, Lister said, was “the best wine that I ever tasted.”

18th century wine Bottles
Bottoms up!

There you have it.  A 17th century antiquarian tasting wines in the name of science.  But Lister did not think of his Parisian edible experiences as mere vanity projects, or half-assed rationalizations for pigging out.  Lister claimed that access to good food and fine wine were essential measurements of civilization’s progress: 

“Natural philosophy and physick had its origin in the desire to discover a better and more wholesome food than the beasts have, and taught mankind to eat bread and flesh, instead of herbs and acorns, and to drink wine instead of water.  These, an a thousand other advantages, were blessings conferred on mankind by the science of medicine.” 

To reject these comforts, according to Lister, “seems to me the most ungrateful to the author of good.”[6]  Before Brillat-Savarin sung the praises of gourmandise in the 1820s, Lister in 1699 was living it up as a testament to man's ingenuity and God’s infinite benevolence.   

[1] For analyses of 19th century English reactions to Parisian restaurants, see chapter seven in Rebecca Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
[2] J.D. Woodley, “Martin Lister,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
[3] The sketchy boundaries between serious science and frivolous dilettantism are discussed at length in this is Joseph Levine’s Dr. Woodward’s Shield: History, Science and Satire in Augustan England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).  The subtitle speaks for itself, but does not do justice to how acerbic and hilarious this book really is!
[4] Martin Lister, Journey to Paris in the Year 1698 (London, 1699).
[5] Even at the publication of the Journey to Paris, the wits were suspicious of Martin Lister’s foodist proclivities.  William King mocked him in his famous Art of Cookery: in Imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry rhyming “sing that man did to Paris go, that he might taste their soups, and mushrooms know.”
[6] Lister, A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698, p. 108.