The Idler: Pleasure & Taste

Eating is the most basic form of interaction between any living being and its environment. It is the fundamental manifestation of the power of life. The world appears to the living being as food or possible food. The world as food is the expression of the unity of everything, and at the same time, of the subordination of the material world to life. Through assimilation the world becomes alive, and it becomes us. Cultures, forms of cultivation, care, and growth of human life express an infinite variety of ways of this relationship. Preparing food defines the basic way in which we take care of human life. Moreover, “man is what man eats”; it is hard to find a more concrete and less abstract approach to man. One might add, however, “man is how man eats.”

Catholicism goes as far as it can in expressing the most intimate relationship between God and man with an act of eating. Muslims, stricken by the brutality and the concreteness of such cannibalism, cannot understand, and they simply see that we are silly and blasphemous to believe that “we eat our God.” And in fact, along the same line, we even claim “to eat also their God, and the God of every people.”

Italian culture values food and its preparation in a peculiar way, and it considers food one of the purest pleasures of life. This it not in opposition to the seriousness of life; the care for food is a form, maybe the most concrete and basic form, of caring for life and of being grateful for it. Actually being able to enjoy it in the proper way is a test of the seriousness of life. “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” To many it might seem a maxim of some shameless “porcus de grege Epicuri.” Rather, it is the Bible which continues: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun” (Ecclesiastes, 3:13 and 8:15).

Believing that religion is an enemy of life and a friend of death, an enemy of pleasure and a friend of fasting and pain, is one of the most incredible inversions of reality; though, one of the most widely spread and successful. Nietzsche, for example, misunderstood Christianity for certain forms of resentful opposition to life and envious attitude toward pleasure. He understood, however, that most of the spiritual and philosophical problems of the Nordic spirit were problems of digestion — a good digestion would have helped. One who is able to enjoy and give thanks for a good and refined meal expresses gratitude for life; he might say that he is a theoretical atheist, but he is a practical believer. Gratitude, and not ressentiment, defines the fundamental Christian attitude toward life.

What is the humorous attitude of St. Thomas More when in his praying he asks for a good digestion, if not a deep and natural gratitude for life? Immorality? Yes, if by morality we think that morality is what Freud wrote about morality: “The essential element of morality is renunciation.” Or Nietzsche, who thinks castration as the essence of morals: “its conclusion is always: only the castrated man is a good man.” None is more immoral than a Christian, if that is what they mean by morals.

Surely, Italians could learn a lot about a culture of political stability, but Italians, like Frenchmen, care less about who is in charge of the state than about who is in charge of the kitchen. In a recent film, Le Souper, two implacable enemies of the post-Waterloo France, Fouché, Chief of Police and Secretary of the Interior, and Talleyrand, who are forced by political reality to compromise, meet at dinner to discuss the destiny of France. They would have eliminated each other instead, if only it had been politically possible, and their views express a most brutal political cynicism, equal only to their ambition and thirst of political power. Talleyrand, however, speaking about his cook Antoine Careme to Fouche, says: “Regimes pass away, great cuisine does not.” A Platonist, no doubt about it!

It is a difficult thing for many to understand: it is a question of taste, not really a question of ideas — and taste is taste. Here is a unique story which recounts a precious tradition, the tradition of the restaurant “San Domenico.” This is a story of details, not of constitutions, historical battles, or empires. But God is in the details, and in the kitchen, too.

In New York, facing out on the south side of Central Park, an Italian restaurant offers the refined liturgy of the cucine di famiglia that for centuries has characterized the sumptuous hospitality presented by the noble houses to illustrious visitors and guests of genteel heritage. Each family of high-standing had the custom of holding un libro degli ospititi (a book of guests), on which was noted, to the side of each guest’s name, the dishes that were served, and the table linens, silverware, crystal, and china used, in order to avoid embarrassing replications should the illustrious guest again honor the table of the host.

In the kitchen, where the fervent search for new dishes continued without rest and where original combinations of flavor were put to the trial, or where, at least, familiar recipes were enriched with new and subtle nuances, the cooks knew well that they had to perform a difficult duty: that of arousing some emotion in persons fundamentally weary, as nobles typically are. The adage repetita iuvant was banned from the great cucine di famiglia. The imperative was that of continuously inventing, of creating novelty, of constantly transcending previously achieved results, even if crowned with success. Normally the head of the house was powerless in the kitchen, where the head-cook reigned supreme, supported by his legion of assistants. The only concession made to the lord of the house was the possibility of approval or emendation to the daily menu, which the chef wrote for him each morning.

The last heir of this civility, which perished in Italy with the end of the monarchy (1946), was Nino Bergese, the cuoco dei re (the cook of kings), supervisor of the kitchen of one of the residences of the Savoia, on the Ligurian Riviera. “A real cook,” recounted Bergese, “has to know how to make everything in the kitchen, from bread to candies; his task is to find the ways to arouse the poor appetite of the rich men sitting at the table after hours of idleness.” In effect, he possessed a great range of gastronomic secrets — in part stolen from great cooks to whom he was apprenticed, in part discovered on his own — which qualified him to write his own De Re Coquinaria in the 20th century. But he did not wish to do so, for reasons unknown to us.

“With the advent of the republic in Italy,” continued Bergese, “I retired to a private life. I had only one regret: that my art was destined to perish with me, without my being able to transmit it to a school capable of perpetuating its values.” It was not to be so. Gianluigi Morini, a passionate cultivator of high-level restoration, was able to convince Nino Bergese, already aged, to return to his pots and pans. He gave him carta bianca in the kitchen of his restaurant recently opened in the neighborhood of the convent of San Domenico in Imola, near Bologna.

After some hesitation, Bergese accepted, giving birth to a school of high cuisine, from which arose a promising young chef, Valentino Marcattili, who became his favored disciple. After Bergese died, Morini sent Valentino to the most prestigious restaurants in France so that he could graft the sideshoots of the French nouvelle cuisine on to the solid trunk of the cucine di famiglia. Upon his return to the San Domenico, Valentino applied the great patrimony of gastronomic knowledge which he had acquired through his many years of experience. He elaborated and proposed plates which were later celebrated: from the Garganelli imolesi — miniature spinach and egg macaroni al pettine with Beluga caviar and green onion (you are uncertain whether to praise first the patience with which it is made or the delicate balance of flavors) — to the Ravioli alla zucca — an agreeable symphony of sweet and salty; from the Sella di vitello alla Bergese — tender meat in a cream-based sauce, with smoked prosciutto and grappa, accompanied by bittersweet spring onions — to the uovo in raviolo with white truffles; or from the Piemontese — a chestnut mousse in a chocolate sauce — to the Cassata ai frutti secchi di bosco in a strawberry sauce. In creating dessert, Valentino’s fantasy was to indulge in a petite patisserie, that was then, and is now, offered to the client at the conclusion of the meal. It consists in diverse minuscule pastries, for which the Callimachean verse is appropriate: small drop, supreme purity.

In brief, the San Domenico became one of the restaurants that the true connoisseurs of the haute cuisine could not help but visit in their pilgrimage to paradise. The beatitude is not complete if one misses the sublime emotions offered by gastronomy conceived as artistic creation. Overall, the American clientele proved to be the most prepared to appreciate the delights of San Domenico, in the cellars of which was collected an oenological treasure, among the most complete and refined of the world (with wines and liquors even from Napoleon’s cellar).

“The particular sympathy shown by the pilgrims from the United States for my restaurant,” says Gianluigi Morini, “has prompted me to open another San Domenico in New York. I am convinced that the lessons in exactness and style of Nino Bergese could succeed also on the difficult stage of the Big Apple, where other restaurants, French above all, already occupy positions of prestige, consolidated by years of consistent quality. Morini continues, “I have temporarily sent Valentino to New York to establish a staff of cooks, in part Italian and in part North American, with the same professionalism and enthusiasm of the Imolesean cooks.” Morini guaranteed this with his own presence for several months, ensuring the same standard of quality at the new restaurant, as that to which clients were accustomed in Italy. In fact, some people said he would abandon Imola in favor of New York. Fortunately for Italy, it hasn’t yet happened. Franco Lazzari, the alter-ego of Morini, manages San Domenico so well that New York does not regret the absence of the latter. A discreet and omnipresent maitre d’hôtel, ready to advise and clarify, has assimilated courtesy and competence from his teacher. “Who said that ultra posse nemo obligatur?” Lazzari asserts with conviction, “In San Domenico this brocard has no right of citizenship; here the ultra is not synonymous with impossible, but is that which transforms the routine into infinite creativity.”


  • Dr. Guglielmo Vaccari

    At the time this article was published, Dr. Guglielmo Vaccari was a retired professor of Greek literature and Political Science. He lived in Bologna, Italy.

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