Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Ortolan and the Omnivore: A Tale of Gluttony

I see by the London Telegraph that France's League for the Protection of Birds hopes to have French authorities pronounced guilty of flouting a European ban on hunting the endangered ortolan (emberiza hortulana), a tiny bobolink-like songbird that – force-fed and drowned in Armagnac — has long been coveted by gastronomes of the Gallic persuasion as an exquisite delicacy; all the more enticing because its trapping is forbidden.

Traditionally, ortolans are eaten with one's head covered by a napkin because: [1.] (sensual) the exotic aroma is thereby captured, concentrated and savored, and/or, [2.] (spiritual) God cannot see you engaging in such flagrant gourmandise (French for gluttony), one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ortolans occupy a storied place in the culinary history of La Belle France (see Mitterrand, François: Last meal of), and – as I am reminded by the Telegraph article — at least once in America as an object of the appetite and pen of the late New York Times restaurant critic, and mid-20th Century doyen of food writers, Craig Claiborne.

Back in 1975, when people were still reading newspapers, Claiborne bid $300 at a public television charity auction and, having won, got his pick of a restaurant meal for two anywhere in the world, with no limit on the cost, courtesy of American Express. He chose to eat (with his friend Pierre Franey as his guest) at the Parisian establishment, Chez Denis. Their 31-course dinner took five hours to consume and was washed down with copious quantities of Chateau Pétrus and other legendary-label wines. Claiborne wrote about the meal in The New York Times of November 14, 1975 under the title, "Just a Quiet Dinner for Two in Paris: 31 Dishes, Nine Wines, a $4000 check"; a paean to conspicuous consumption seldom equaled in the annals of gastronomy.

Ortolan – need I note —was on the bill of fare.

The article ran on the Times' front page and created an instant international sensation, the gist of which was best summed up by Pope Paul VI, who pronounced it "scandalous". But the payoff came four days later when Times columnist Russell Baker wrote a scathing send-up of Claiborne's review called "Francs and Beans". It is near the top of my list of favorite parodies of all time.

So side-splittingly funny was it, that, as I read it on an early morning breakfast flight from LaGuardia to Toronto, tears were rolling down my cheeks and I was choking on my scrambled eggs, much to the puzzlement of the other suits on board who were unused to seeing someone cracking up while reading anything in "the old gray lady", especially at 7am.

You can (and should) read it at http://studentweb.hunter.cuny.edu/~murrayj/humor/francsandbeans.htm.

For a couple of bucks you can also read Claiborne's review in the NYT archives at http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30713F7355D137B93C6A8178AD95F418785F9&scp=6&sq=craig%20claiborne%20chez%20denis&st=cse


1 comment:

  1. Do you think piping plover could be prepared in the same manner as the ortolans?