Keeping desires in check
Christian leaders declared gluttony a sin in the Middle Ages in order to keep people from indulging their animalistic instincts. Views from this period continue to influence our culinary customs today.
In 1973, La Grande Bouffe caused a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet Marco Ferreri’s film is steeped in references to French gastronomic discourse. Four friends arrange a weekend away, planning to eat themselves to death; four men, just like in the 1924 novel, The Passionate Epicure: La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet. Philippe, who instigated the trip, is a magistrate and studied law, not unlike gastrosopher Brillat-Savarin. As for women, they are absent at the start of the adventure. When plump Andréa enters, Philippe is worried she will ruin their eating pleasure, but she is nonetheless invited to join the group. She is involved in making a tart, her bottom being used to flatten out the pastry: sexual appetite, sweet seductions, culinary incompetence … this portrayal of women reflects the old Christian association of gula – luxuria (gluttony – lust) and contemporary gastronomic misogyny. But the scandal lies elsewhere. It resides in the indecency of an unflinching depiction of the whole alimentary act, from ingestion to defecation, until bursting point – as the film’s poster, designed by Reiser, clearly announces. The malaise that grips the spectator stems from the clash of two Western definitions of la gourmandise that are in opposition to each other despite being embodied by the same characters, who furthermore come from privileged backgrounds: on the one hand, the obscenity of the greedy pig and excesses of the glutton; on the other hand, the art of good eating and the education of the epicure.
This Western duality of food pleasure goes back to the early Christian era. Around 365 AD, Evagrius Ponticus developed a list of the evil thoughts that the devil used to tempt the monks who had withdrawn to the desert. The first of these was gluttony, immediately followed by lust, and thus the gula - luxuria pairing was born; the organ of taste was considered to be the gullet, and its shameful descent to the lower body. Passed on to the communities of the Christian West, this list was revised by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and from the 13th century all Christians were taught to abhor the seven deadly sins. But in monastic life as in the lives of all believers, the ideal of moderation had supplanted that of deprivation.
For Gregory the Great, the sin of gluttony was defined as eating between meals or eagerly anticipating them, eating and drinking more than necessary, eating voraciously and consuming overly refined dishes. Thus one of the most enduring elements against gluttony had already been articulated: the stigmatisation of snacking between meals. As for the reference to voracious eating, it heralded the offensive against gula by introducing good table manners.
The Church may have wanted to curb debauchery and excesses with food and especially drink, but for all that it did not reject the pleasures of good eating. As taught by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, neither the desire to drink and eat, nor the pleasures of eating are wrong; they are natural, that is to say intended by God, unlike an uncontrolled desire for food, which reduces humans to bestiality. A reasonable desire for food is first and foremost a question of moderation, balance and accepted social behaviour in response to the body’s physiological needs, the eater’s well-being and interpersonal relations.
For moralists and pedagogues, the issue is to make the pleasures of good eating acceptable, rather than forbidding them. The reciprocity of good manners being commonly accepted – the principles of morality and the codification of table etiquette became the way to combat gula. This encompassed the desire to de-animalise the enjoyment of food by banishing the spectacle – deemed disgusting – of gluttony and eating like a pig. Stuffing oneself with great morsels of food was indicative of the glutton, tucking into the bread before the start of the meal showed impatience, grabbing the best pieces meant you were ill-bred… Written by clerks and laymen, more and more rules of etiquette were issued in the later centuries of the Middle Ages. To use sociologist Norbert Elias’s analysis, this was a civilising process, beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries before slowly spreading throughout the West, at first only to the tables of the elite. Following the example of Erasmus’s A Handbook on Good Manners for Children: De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus (1530), classic civility has its roots in these early codifications.
Certain attitudes are to be proscribed, others prescribed. Obsessive interest in food betrays the glutton in society. “We should not so much consider what we eat as with whom we eat,” wrote Montaigne. The uprightness of the body is also an issue: sitting up straight, not leaning towards one’s plate, not sprawling on the table. Gestures are particularly codified: how to serve oneself, cut up one’s food and bring it to one’s mouth. Speaking with one’s mouth full is to be avoided, as is making any unseemly noises with the tongue, teeth, lips, or in the throat. Good manners are an attempt to totally mask the natural cycle of ingestion – mastication and deglutition –, digestion, excretion, and all of the mechanical noises that accompany this process.
Down with the stomach! The art of good eating magnifies the palate, the gourmet, those who can judge the quality of a wine, and the connoisseur, the lover of good food. Gustatory pleasure breaks with the vulgarity of the stomach or lower abdomen, and favours the proximity of the palate or brain. The respectable gourmand is an expert in good taste and is not only familiar with choice foods but also has the vocabulary to talk about them. Grimod de La Reynière and his slimmed down, urbane connoisseur of the Almanach des Gourmands (1803-1812) consecrates this metamorphosis. At the other end of the spectrum from the obscene glutton and the dirty hog, la gourmandise is for Grimod first and foremost a social nicety.
Exalted by Grimod, reinforced by Brillat-Savarin, but demythologised by Marco Ferreri, the educated gourmand has come to be known as a gourmet and gastronome in the 21st century. The invention of the gastronome reinforces the intellectualisation and masculinisation of the pleasure of good eating, but devalues the food pleasures associated solely with the realm of the feminine and infantile, with a sugary world of sweets and desserts, the world of Andréa, La Grande Bouffe’s plump schoolteacher.