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Dumas Pere, Chef Extraordinaire

ISSUE:  Summer 1979

Even among the literary giants of the 19th century, Alexandre Dumas père stands out as a writer of astonishing fecundity. His collected works, as published in the Collection Michel Levy Frères et Calmann-Levy, occupy 303 volumes. Nor is this collection complete. Among the works missing from it is the very last which Dumas wrote, Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. The omission is poignant, for it was precisely this book on which the dying author, beset by doubts about the future standing of his plays and novels, thought that his reputation would ultimately rest.

Dumas died in 1870. Now, more than a century later, one may well ask why he should have doubted the permanence of his literary fame; how he could have supposed that such works as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo might fall into oblivion; and what prompted him to think that his dictionary of cookery would prove to be the immortal among his works?

The explanation emerges from the pattern of his life. This began in relative obscurity. Alexandre was the son of a French General, a mulatto with roots in Santo Domingo, who performed brilliantly under the Emperor Napoleon but then incurred the imperial displeasure and died in disgrace and penury. The young Alexandre had to make his own way in the world, aided only by his own remarkable vigor and ambition and by the favor of some few people whose esteem for his late father survived. He moved in his late teens from his native town of Villers-Cotterêts to Paris and quickly achieved a reputation as a dramatist, which was enlarged and consolidated by a series of novels, historical works, and travel books. At the zenith of his fame he built a fantastic mansion, called Monte Cristo, at Port-Marly outside Paris, where he entertained in a style which was almost regal. This building still stands, although empty and visibly crumbling. And nearby, in the process of being restored by the Association des Amis de Dumas, is the small and Gothic Château d”lf, which Dumas built as a literary workshop and which, by its proximity to the main house, symbolizes the two sides to its owner’s character: the extravaganza which made him the talk of Paris, even of Europe, and the hard work and technical skill which enabled him to produce such prodigious quantities of writing.

This zenith was reached in the middle of the 19th century. As the later decades rolled past, Dumas found that he had lost both his touch with the public and the favor of the literary critics. Even his love affairs, once legendary, sank into ridicule. His last such affair was with Adah Menken, an American Jewess from Louisiana who performed daring deeds on horseback in an international circus. His conquest of her, or hers of him, took place when he was 65 and provoked some extremely unkind comments, both in prose and in cartoons. The dashing young lion of Paris society had become a corpulent and ill old man, whose final antics excited, at best, pity.

Thus, when Dumas retreated to the coast of Brittany, near Roscoff, in 1869 to fulfill his long-standing wish to write a major work of gastronomy, he had reason to despair for the fate of his other works and to pin his hopes on this last one, his first in a genre which had been firmly established by BrillatSavarin and Grimod de la Reynière and which was, patently, capable of securing undying fame for an author who could handle it with sufficient skill. Dumas, in his old age, was not such an author; but the book which he produced remains of great interest.

The strange history of the Dictionnaire

The book, in its original form, contained two illustrations (one of Dumas himself and one of Vuillemot, the chef who was his principal culinary adviser) and about 600,000 words. Almost a tenth of the prose was taken up by introductory material, in the course of which Dumas described wittily how he settled down on Cape Finisterre to write the book, how he was speedily deserted by the cook who had accompanied him, and how he was “adopted,” with equal speed, by the local population. He observes that he was ill and that he had been worn out by the effort of writing huge quantities of prose to work off his debts. He states that he took with him very few reference works and that he intended to rely mainly on his memory. He hoped to find, in a quiet place where he could breathe the sea air, the rest and the peace which he needed for the composition of the work which was to be, as he put it, “the crowning achievement” of his literary career.

Dumas died in the following year, in a house owned by his son near Dieppe and at the very time when invading German troops were marching into that port. He had already delivered the manuscript of the dictionary to the publisher, Alphonse Lemerre. However, the book was not published until 1873 (although the copy in the Bibliothéque Nationale at Paris, which I have inspected, was received there in 1872), and there is some evidence that editorial work was carried out on it before publication. On the other hand, the Preface to the book, by “L. T. ,” states that typesetting had begun before Dumas died and that it was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War which caused an interruption in the work of the printers. This would suggest that there had been little time for editorial work. The contents of the book point to the same conclusion. The coordination between entries is poor; there are several instances of needless repetition; and the punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling are all in a state which cries out for the work of what we would now call a “copy-editor.

The explanation of this small mystery seems to be that some work was done on the book after it reached Lemerre but by unskilled hands. Lemerre had some young poets on his premises, and André Maurois (one of Dumas” best biographers) states clearly that two of them, Leconte de Lisle and Anatole France, were charged with the task of reorganizing and completing the book. It was not a task for which they had any obvious qualifications, and it is reasonable to suppose that they took the task lightly. Maurois himself records that Mme. Maurois, when a young girl, had visited Anatole France, by then an old man, and had asked him about his part in the composition of the dictionary. Anatole France replied: “I should have been proud to have written the book. But one must leave to the credit of Dumas what belonged to him. I was only a corrector of proofs—and sometimes a cornmentateur.” The last word is ambiguous, but may help to explain why the book is larded (to use a culinary metaphor) with little pieces of prose which have the air of additions made at the last moment by someone who was not familiar with the book as a whole and who had no particular concern for the logical sequence of the information presented in it.

When the first edition did finally appear, it stayed in print for a phenomenally long time. The house of Lemerre was wound up in the 1950’s. At that time, so I have been informed, there were still unbound copies of the first edition in the cellars. (These copies were then destroyed; an act which paved the way for a series of coffee-table editions of the book, most of which have been shorn of the introductory material and embellished with numerous illustrations. ) Lemerre had brought out, in 1885, a shorter version of the book, called Le petit Dictionnaire de Cuisine and now extremely rare; but otherwise the book was left in its original state for 70 years or more.

Criticism of the Dictionary

This has been conspicuously lacking. French literary critics have ignored the book, since they regard it as a cookery book rather than a piece of literature. French gastronomic writers have made reverent references to it, but none has analyzed its contents or drawn attention to its mistakes and other imperfections. The nearest approach to criticism in France is to be found in a series of comments appended to one of the coffeetable editions by Jean Arnaboldi. However, his comments are generally obsequious in tone (“Is it possible, dear Master, that you have here overlooked. . .?”); and he has managed, by some miracle, to aim several of his “corrections” at passsages where Dumas was in fact right!

Writers outside France have paid some attention to the book. Many references to it can be found in English books on cookery and food in the period from 1875 to the end of the century. Most of these are based on the assumption that Dumas was a great gastronome and that his work should be treated as an authoritative source rather than subjected to critical scrutiny. However, one writer, the highly idiosyncratic Dr. J. L. W. Thudichum, went further in his book The Spirit of Cookery (sub-titled “A Popular Treatise on the History, Science, Practice, and Ethical and Medical Import of Culinary Art,” and published by Frederick Warne and Co. in 1895). He cites Dumas frequently and applies the adjective “great” to the dictionary. But it is clear that he has actually read it from beginning to end (an unusual feat) and his judgment of it is a balanced one.

This work contains much excellent matter, and owing to the technical supervision extended to it by D. F. Vuillemot, a pupil of Carême’s is in the main reliable; but it also contains much irrelevant matter in the shape of inventions of the nominal author, flat anecdotes and shallow observations. Much of this shortcoming is no doubt due to the alleged circumstance of Dumas having availed himself of the assistance of subordinate contributors, whose performance, consisting mainly in abstracting older authors, he did not take the trouble to control. This circumstance also led to many repetitions; but leaving these out of sight, the work is an admirable compilation, and in many parts an enthusiastic picture of French cookery at the beginning of the last quarter of the century now drawing to its close.

It may be that the dictionary, which, by the sheer weight of its recipes and the tidal flow of Dumas” own prose, not to mention the weight of his reputation, is apt to have a hypnotic effect on French readers, lulling their critical faculties to a state of complete quiescence; whereas a foreigner, who has to translate the prose mentally as he reads the book, is more likely to reflect on what is actually being said and to spot at least the most glaring errors. Thus Dr. Thudichum and I were both, independently, startled by Dumas” recipe for Norfolk dumplings, which reads as follows in English:

This dish, which owes its name to the Duke of Norfolk, who had a great affection for it, is made in the following way. You add to a fairly thick dough a big glass of milk, two eggs and a little salt. Cook it for two or three minutes in quickly boiling water. Discard the water, drain the dumpling in a sieve and serve it with slightly salted butter.

Only a moment’s reflection is needed to realize that there is something radically wrong here. A dumpling of the size indicated could not possibly be cooked in two or three minutes. In fact, Dumas has got everything wrong except the title of the recipe. There are indeed such things as Norfolk dumplings; but they are an ancient tradition of the people of Norfolk, and their name has nothing to do with any Duke. They are made as follows, according to the careful observations of Mrs. Arthur Webb (Farmhouse Cookery, George Newnes Ltd, c. 1930):

The farmer’s wife very skilfully divided a pound of dough (remember, just ordinary bread dough) into four pieces. These she weighed, and so cleverly had she gauged the size that they weighed approximately 4 oz. each. She kneaded, and rolled them in a very little flour until they were quite round, then put them on a plate and slipped them into a large saucepan containing fast-boiling water. The saucepan lid was put back immediately, and then, when the water came to the boil once more, 15 minutes” rapid boiling was allowed for the dumplings. . . .

Dumplings in Norfolk are not a sweet. They are a very substantial part of what might be the meat course, or they might serve as a meat substitute. In the villages I found that they were sometimes put into very large pots and boiled on top of the greens; then they are called ‘swimmers”.

When this sort of comparison is made, the reader is left musing over André Maurois” statement that foreign cookery held no more secrets for Dumas than the cuisine of his own mother and grandmother; he is indeed led to speculate about the extent to which Dumas really practiced the art of which he wrote so confidently.

Dumas in the kitchen

In searching for evidence, other than that provided by his own assertions of enthusiasm for cookery, that Dumas really was a cook, I soon realized that a prior question posed itself; namely, how much evidence could one expect to find? The answer seemed to be that there might be very little, even if Dumas had done a lot of cooking. In default of any formal appraisal of his prowess in the kitchen—and why should anyone have undertaken that?—one could only expect occasional references in diaries or correspondence. And this is what one does find. George Sand, for example, recorded in her diary for Feb. 3, 1866, that she had been to dine with the Jauberts and that Alexandre Dumas père and fils were both present. She said that: “Dumas père had cooked the whole meal, from soup to salad! Eight or ten wonderful courses. . . .”

More details are known of a lunch which Dumas cooked two years previously, when he was living in a villa outside Paris with a female opera singer from Naples, a temperamental young woman who made a habit of firing the household staff at inconvenient moments. She did this on Saturday, leaving the house without servants on the eve of a sunny Sabbath which lured many of Dumas” friends to come out of Paris and visit him, in the confident expectation of a good lunch. Gabriel Ferry, in his Les dernières anniées d”Alexandre Dumas (Paris, 1883) describes in detail how Dumas coped with the problem. Although the departing servants had left the kitchen almost bare, he managed to find some rice, butter and fresh tomatoes. With these he confected a dish which fully satisfied the expectations and appetites of his friends.

This last episode seems rather thin as evidence of culinary genius. But Ferry also gives us a glimpse of Dumas acting as the earnest student of cooking techniques. Although he had lived in Italy for a number of years, Dumas had not acquired a taste for macaroni and had never bothered to find out how it was cooked. Later, when he was running a sort of gastronomic column in one of the numerous periodicals which he sponsored, he was embarrassed by his inability to answer questions about macaroni. The result was that he spent some time, with notebook and pencil, in the kitchen of Mme. Ristori, observing in detail how her cook prepared macaroni. This rather simple discovery is presented as a piece of impressive research on his part.

More convincing evidence comes from a book called An Englishman in Paris (published anonymously, but written by A. D. Vandam, 3rd ed. , Chapman and Hall, London, 1892). Vandam devotes a whole chapter of his book to Dumas, whom he knew well and admired greatly; and this chapter includes an account of how Dumas dealt with a rumor, put into circulation by the cook of Dr. Véron, that his vaunted knowledge of cookery was pure sham. The matter hinged on a certain recipe for carp, and Dumas undertook to cook a dinner for Dr. Véron, including the carp dish, himself; and that he would do so in the presence of an impartial witness. Vandam was selected as the witness and went to attend on the writerchef in this capacity.

At three o’clock next day I was at the Chaussée d”Antin, and was taken there by the servant into the kitchen, where the great novelist stood surrounded by his utensils, some of silver, and all of them glistening like silver. With the exception of a soupe aux choux, at which, by his own confession, he had been at work since the morning, all the ingredients for the dinner were in their natural state—of course, washed and peeled, but nothing more. He was assisted by his own cook and a kitchen-maid, but he himself, with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a large apron round his waist, and bare chest, conducted the operations. I do not think I have ever seen anything more entertaining. . . At half-past six the guests began to arrive; at a quarter to seven Dumas retired to his dressing room; at seven punctually the servant announced that ‘monsieur était servi”. The dinner consisted of the aforenamed soupe aux choux, the carp that had led to the invitation, a ragoût de mouton à la Hongroise, rôti de faisans, and a salade Japonaise. The sweets and ices had been sent by the pâtissier. I never dined like that before or after. . . .

It could be argued that this was a single tour de force, rehearsed by Dumas beforehand. Such an argument can be countered by turning to some hitherto unpublished material (from which extracts are quoted in the Folio Society’s book Dumas on Food, 1978) in the possession of M. Robert Landru of Villers-Cotterêt. This takes the form of manuscript notes, entitled Souvenirs sur Alexandre Dumas père, by HenriFrançois Lhote, son of a close friend of the novelist. The notes include not only an account of a specific dish prepared by Dumas (a confection of crayfish, for which he used so much cognac that one of the lady guests, who ate plentifully, became intoxicated and had to be helped from the table) but also a convincing account of how Dumas interested himself in cookery when he came to stay with the family, as he often did, for a week or more at a time. “Once installed, Dumas would set off into town with the maid, buying in this shop and that the things which he was planning to cook with her in the evening; for he was a discriminating gourmet and an excellent cook.”

Other scraps of evidence are to be found, such as the description given by Gustave Geffroy in his book on the life of Claude Monet (Paris, 1922) of how Dumas and the painter Courbet spent some time singing and cooking together at Étretat in 1868; but perhaps enough has been given already to show that there was some real substance to Dumas” reputation as a cook.

An Appraisal of the Dictionnaire

Dumas” ability as a writer of eloquence and verve is legendary and unquestioned. His credentials as a cook, although open to question, have been shown to be plausible. The combination should have produced a great book; and there is no doubt but that Dumas intended it to be a great book. Yet it is not. There are good things in it, but they are embedded in too much padding and flawed by too many errors. What went wrong?

The first thing to be said is that Dumas was an old man and an ill one when he wrote it. Sparks of brilliance still flashed forth, but intermittently; and the writer lacked the stamina and powers of application which would have enabled him to bring his unruly mass of recollections and other material into proper order. Even a day’s work on his ascription of recipes and other material to their sources would have put right many omissions. (One of these had amusing consequences. The Association des Amis de Dumas resolved not so long ago to have a lunch consisting of recipes which the master had bequeathed to the world in his Dictionnaire. One of these was his recipe for kedgeree made with turbot. Alas, it should have been the Amis d”Urbain Dubois who ate and enthused over this dish, for the recipe came straight from a book by the other author, and Dumas forgot to say so!)

However, what is more important in my view is that Dumas was not as well equipped as he fancied to write this particular book. His knowledge of foodstuffs was patchy, his knowledge of foreign cuisines superficial and his command of the associated disciplines of natural history, chemistry, and nutrition elementary or non-existent. His engaging enthusiasm, the extent of his travels and the fact that a largely unjustified but impressive reputation for gastronomic expertise had become attached to him all conspired to give him false confidence. He made little use of reference books because he did not feel the need to do so. Yet even some casual checking would have told him, for example, that the anchovy does have scales, which he denies. Even a few minutes” thought would have made him hesitate to retail as fact the (undocumented) story of the whale which found and traversed an underground waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific in the Isthmus of Panama, before the Panama Canal was built.

Yet, criticize the book as one may, one must admit, even announce with pleasure, that it contains some pure gold, that many of the anecdotes in it have never been more wittily related, that the enthusiasm of the author and the magnetism of his personality still shine through the pages a hundred years later, and that the book he produced, although overshadowed in his own oeuvre by others of more consistent brilliance and overshadowed in the genre of gastronomic writing by better books written both before and after his, does and will remain one enduring monument to his fame.

I allow myself to conclude this article by quoting from one of the best and most happily phrased entries in the book, that on the hermit crab.

A species of crab of which the meat is regarded as a delicious morsel. It is usually grilled in its shell before being eaten. There is nothing more comical than this little crustacean. Nature has furnished him with armour as far as the waist—cuirass, gauntlets and visor of iron, this half of him has everything. But from the waist to the other end there is nothing, not even a shirt. The result of this is that the hermit crab stuffs this extremity of himself into whatever refuge he can find.

The Creator, who had begun to dress the creature as a lobster, was disturbed or distracted in the middle of the operation and finished him off as a slug.

This part of the hermit crab, so poorly defended and so tempting to an enemy, is his great preoccupation; a preoccupation which can at times make him fierce. If he sees a shell which suits him, he eats the owner of the shell and takes his place while it is still warm—the history of the world in microscopic form. But since, when all is said and done, the house was not made for him, he staggers about like a drunkard instead of having the serious air of a snail; and so far as possible he avoids going out, except in the evening, for fear of being recognized.


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