Friday, July 24, 2009

The Literary Gourmet

On this day in 1802, one of the most celebrated French authors was born. His name was Alexandre Dumas. Known as Dumas père, a title distinguishable for the "senior" Dumas, Alexandre Dumas was a prolific writer best known for his perilous historical novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. His son, Alexandre Dumas (jr.) is often referred to as Dumas fils or junior and he too was a writer.

Often referred to as "the father of the adventure serial" Alexandre Dumas wrote more than 300 books. Only one of those books was a combination of encyclopedia and cookbook, Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, which was published posthumously in 1873.

...He was among the first, along with Honoré de Balzac and Eugène Sue, who fully used the possibilities of roman feuilleton, the serial novel. Dumas is credited with revitalizing the historical novel in France, although his abilities as a writer were under dispute from the beginning. Dumas' works are fast-paced adventure tales that blend history and fiction, but on the other hand, they are entangled, melodramatic, and actually not faithful to the historical facts. source

History, Legend or Both?

With the exception of the Literature Network, almost every biography I read online casts a doubt as to whether Alexandre Dumas wrote each and every book that bore his name.

From the book The Count of Monte Cristo By Alexandre Dumas, translated by David Coward in 2008, (limited preview @ google books ) "In 1845 a journalists named Emile de Mirecourt attempted to expose Dumas accusing him of directing a fiction-factory which employed writers to turn out serials and volumes to which he put his signature. Dumas took him to court and won."

From the introduction by A. Lloyd Moote in his book Louis XIII, the just also available @ google books:

As I read about Louis XIII, the ghost of Alexandre Dumas was always at my shoulder. Dumas was not only a prolific writer of historical novels, but also a competent historian who knew the standard sources and even wrote a half-serious history of Henry IV and Louis XIII. Furthermore, his writings were part of an interpretive tradition...

Dumas had at least fifty-two collaborators at different times during his literary career. With the aid of researchers and assistants, he produced hundreds of books, plays, historical novels, biographies, and children's books. He founded his own literary magazines, was a prolific correspondent and a well known and respected travel writer. One of Dumas' chief collaborators was Auguste Maquet. In 1844 he produced, with Maquet's help, that most famous of "cloak and sword" romances The Three Musketeers. Before 1844 ended, Dumas completed a second great romance in 12 volumes, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo; (The Count of Monte Cristo) in which he had help from Fiorentino as well as from Maquet.

In The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas Spurr vows to tell the general reader—"the man in the public library"—"who Dumas was, what he did, which books he did write and which he did not write, and finally, what his confreres and the great critics had said of him." (the book is fascinating:)

...It is almost impossible at this date for any one, particularly an Englishman, to take the circumstantial allegations of these gentlemen and refute them in detail. It is now over sixty years since they were made: they had their source in admitted enmity, and their medium was equally contemptible. Dumas ignored them; his colleagues in the higher ranks of literature discredited them; his enemies accepted them willingly, without demanding proof. "M. de Mirecourt" was sentenced to imprisonment for publishing his statements; but their improbability is still stronger proof of their falseness...

As his fame grew, Dumas employed more collaborators, (Auguste Maquet, Paul Lacroix, Paul Bocage, and P.A. Fiorentino, to name only a few), but it was undoubtedly with Maquet that he produced his best novels. He had assistants who supplied him with the outlines of romances whose original form he had already drawn up; then he wrote the work himself. The scale of his "fiction factory" has often been exaggerated. Although at least a thousand works were published under his own name, most were due to his own industry and the amazing fertility of his imagination. Dumas grasped at any possible subject; he borrowed plots and material from all periods and all countries, then transformed them with ingenuity. The historian Jules Michelet once wrote admiringly to him, "You are like a force of elemental nature." Encyclopedia of World Biography

Dining with Dumas

Dumas' Paris bustled with gastronomic exploits. "The dinners at his apartment in the Boulevard Malesherbes were worthy of Soyer or even of Brillat-Savarin himself in his best days." From Dumas' Paris (1908) by Francis Miltoun:

Dumas' reputation as an epicure must have been formed early; he describes in his "Memoirs" how, on a certain occasion, when he had first become installed in Paris, he met a gentleman, Charles Nodier, in the stalls of the Porte St. Martin, who was reading a well-worn Elzevir entitled "La Pastissier Francois." He says, "I address him. . . . "Pardon my impertinence, but are you very fond of eggs? "Why so?" "That book you are reading, does it not give recipes for cooking eggs in sixty different ways?" "It does." "If I could but procure a copy." "But this is an Elzevir," says my neighbour."

The Elzevirs were a family of Dutch booksellers, publishers, and printers, which were in business between 1587 and 1681. They were best known for their books or editions of the Greek New Testament and the classics.

Of all Elzevirs the most famous and the most expensive is an old cookery book, Le Pastissier Francois. [François Pierre de La Varenne] Wherein is taught the way to make all sorts of pastry, useful to all sorts of persons. Also the manner of preparing all manner of eggs, for fast-days, and other days, in more than sixty fashions...The ‘Pastissier’ is cherished because it is so very rare.  The tract passed into the hands of cooks, and the hands of cooks are detrimental to literature.  Just as nursery books, fairy tales, and the like are destroyed from generation to generation, so it happens with books used in the kitchen.  The ‘Pastissier,’ to be sure, has a good frontispiece, a scene in a Low Country kitchen, among the dead game and the dainties. The buxom cook is making a game pie; a pheasant pie, decorated with the bird’s head and tail-feathers, is already made...

Dumas was both a gourmet and an expert cook. Many questioned his skills in the kitchen. Critics said if it were not for the excellence displayed by chef Julien, the dinners would not be worthy of attendance. From Cooks, Gluttons, and Gourmets.

Every Wednesday Dumas held dinner for the leading wits and artists of the periods with fifteen places laid at table. The dinner hour was eleven o'clock, for the Paris of the early nineteenth century had turned night into day. Most of the food was prepared by Dumas' chef, Julien, but the salad was always made by the master himself. It was so renowned that one friend, Ronconi, when he could not attend the Wednesday dinner, sent his servant to pick up his share of salad, bearing a giant umbrella to protect the dish from inclement weather. (Cooks, Gluttons, and Gourmets Betty Wason pg. 200)
On one occasion Dumas gave a masked ball to which four hundred people were invited; among the viands on the buffet were an entire roasted roebuck and a three-hundred pound sturgeon from the Caspian Sea cooked in bouillon. Fish of this size apparently was not uncommon (though in what kind of vessel it might be cooked all in one piece is hard to imagine), for Dumas, in his Dictionnaire, related the story of a banquet given by Prince Cambacérès for which two sturgeons weighing well over three hundred pounds, were prepared. The prince, as arch chancellor, was given many lavish gifts by would be office seekers, but he was greatly embarrassed by this coincidental payola, since both donors would be present at the banquet. The frist was brought in to the music of violins, the way lighted by footmen bearing torches. Then, deliberately (so Dumas tells us), one of the footmen slipped and the sturgeon crashed to the floor. Cried Cambacérès "Serve the other sturgeon!" and it was borne in, escorted by four violinists, two flutists, and four footmen.

I don't have a copy of Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine in my cooking library yet. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me to seek it out. That has changed with today's posting. The man was a locomotive of words, anecdotes, enthusiasm, and personal experiences. Dumas' exuberance bewilders me! His reputation urges me to unravel his complicated lifestyle. Dumas especially wanted to be remembered for his extraordinary production of Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine; (Great Dictionary of Cuisine) He often said, "I want to close my literary work of five hundred volumes in a cookbook."

Have you ever heard of the dish; Turducken? I found a video on you tube featuring Paula Deen preparing turducken for Thanksgiving. (A turducken is a dish consisting of a partially de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken.) Well it seems, turducken has a past, I also found an interesting "letter to the editor" recently published in the New York Times titled Swash Buckle and Fowl. In gist, the article states, that the dish appears in Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine as Roast à l'Impératrice. (The term à l'impératrice is used to describe a variety of rich sweet or savory dishes.)

Alexandre Dumas was a great eater, as well as a great storyteller. "It was in the year 1869 he wrote the Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine. The manuscript was delivered to his publisher and friend, Alphonse Lemerre, in March 1870. This manuscript was brought to the printer, and several sheets were made when the serious and sad events among whom Alexandre Dumas died, came and publication was suspended." Alexandre Dumas died on December 5, 1870.

Rather than share Dumas' salad recipe with you today, (there's dinner and salad Dumas style @ the Old Foodie:) I have instead chosen a recipe for Almond Cakes as served at the King's Supper in Louise de la Valliere. The recipe is gleaned from my copy of The Literary Gourmet written and edited by Linda Wolfe. (1962)

In the Vicomte de Bragelonne, a second sequel to The Three Musketeers, the gastronomer Dumas expounds upon the Gastronomer Louis XIV, an unbeatable combination. One of the main characters of the Vicomte is still the musketeer D'Artagnan, but D'Artagnan grown wiser and more mature and holding a responsible position at court. In this scene D'Artagnan has brought Porthos to eat at the king's supper. Only to often the embarrassed Louis is the greatest consumer at his own dinners, and D'Artagnan hope to ingratiate himself with the king by making Louis feel less gluttonous in the face of Porthos' grand appetite.

In other words, a sort of eating duel:) Before we get to the menu and the recipe, I must give you a snippet of insight into The Literary Gourmet.

Beginning with the Bible and The Story of Jacob and Esau, each chapter in The Literary Gourmet takes the reader on a culinary journey through history in which food and drink are an integral part and where sometimes even Murder is on the Menu. (previous post:)

Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Was It worth It? You can decide for yourself. The recipe is in The Literary Gourmet, an entrancing cookbook, a completely dleightful literary anthology, and a charming collection of anecdotes about famous chefs throughout history.

For centuries authors have been wining and dining their fictional characters, serving up meals that have satisfied a variety of literary purposes. They have found food, with its kaleidoscope of odors and textures, colors and flavors prime equipment for creating the semblance of reality that is the first requirement of their job, to reveal precisely the milieu from which the characters drew breath. Some of these depictions have been so fine that much of what we know best of ancient life or even of the more recent life of the French nobility or English gentry or American homesteaders, we know through the carefully detailed dinner scenes of fiction writers and poets.

Almond Cakes
from Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine
butter (1 cup)
2-3 egg yolks
flour (2-1/2 cups)
sugar (3/4 cup)
125 grams (about 3/4 cup) crushed almonds
a good pinch of salt
orange-flower water (1/4 tsp.)
2 additional egg yolks for glazing
Make dough in the usual way, with some butter, 2 or 3 egg yolks and flour; add sugar, 125 grams of crushed almonds, a good pinch of salt, and a little orange-flower water. Mix the ingredients well together, make a smooth paste, roll out with a rolling pin on a greased paper (chill for an hour), glaze with egg-yolk (cut into small round shapes), and bake in the oven. (Moderate: 375 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned.) Makes 2-3 dozen small almond cookies.
Alexandre Dumas may well have been the most popular novelist of the 19th century; to be sure, along with Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, he stands among those 19th century novelists who retained their popularity best in the 20th century. His books, including The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask continue to sell, well over 100 years after his death. His influence over our popular culture is so widespread and deeply implanted that, five generations after his death, mass audiences throughout the world still understand the meaning of references to the Three Musketeers or the Count of Monte Cristo. If Dumas' work has endured, it's because it was written from truth and from reality, astounding as that may seem on its face. The author's life, and that of his father's even more so, reads like the plot of one (or more) of his novels...Dumas died in 1870, long before the advent of motion pictures, but his fiction has served as the official basis for over 100 screen adaptations from 1898 through 2002 and beyond. Actors from Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Leonardo DiCaprio have starred in film versions of his work. source (Ed Note: You may remember reference to the three musketeers in Slumdog Millionaire)

Today is also National Tequila Day. Check out this recipe for Chocolate Tequila Mousse @ Dying for Chocolate. Let us not forget, tomorrow kicks off National Salad Week!  If you happen to be in the vicinity of Gilroy, California, have fun at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, it too begins today!!! 

"People with curly hair like you and me, Sarah, [Bernhardt] should never bind ourselves to anything for life!" Dumas

1. Alexandre Dumas (sr.) Biography
2. Alexandre Dumas fils (son)
3. The Alexandre Dumas père Web Site (French & English)
4. The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas (1902)
5. Three Musketeers Online
6. Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo
7. Countess Dash Memoirs of Others
8. Legends: Swashbucklers & Fops
9. The Club Dumas (google books)
10. Dumas' Paris (1908) By Francis Miltoun available online
11. New York Times article published March 1920 PDF
12. The Rarest of Elzevirs (New York Times September 1896)
13. Auguste Maquet @ wiki
14. A Fan's Guide to Dumas
1. Asparagus à Pompadour


  1. This is a wonderful survey of the Dumas material, thanks.

  2. What type of salad recipes would you recommend? There are just too many ingredients to narrow down.

  3. Thanks for taking a jog by my blog!

    My 2 favorite things are food a books and your site is great!

    I love Mary's blog and that one perfect bite picture is just scrumtious

    Glad you stopped by and glad I've found you


  4. Thanks for dropping by Mae. I got a bit carried away but I just couldn't help it the man was amazing!!!

    Hi Andrew, Hmmm....let me think. What about [drum roll...] a Rhyming Salad Recipe!

    Hi Birdie, Thank you for the kind words. I had so much fun at your blog I just had to add it to my blogroll!

  5. Love almond cakes! Do you think there's any connection here to the Monte Cristo Sandwich?

  6. Hi T.W. I plan on making those almond cakes one day and you "know" me, I don't bake!!!

    No where in my searches did I find a hint of Dumas' touch in the history of the Monte Cristo Sandwich. (a huge favorite of moi:) According to What's Cooking America, the earliest display of a version of the sandwich, was in 1910. Some believe it may be named as a tribute to the author but nothing specific.


Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise