Gourmet Rhapsody is the deathbed confession of Pierre Arthens, a celebrated food critic. When he learns he has fewer than 48 hours to live, the desire for a flavor that would bring him comfort and meaning in his last days plagues his senses. He journeys through his memories and different types of food as he searches for the elusive flavor. Alternating between these chapters are the reactions of various players in Arthens' lives when they hear the news of his imminent demise.
Gourmet Rhapsody was a delight for many reasons, but two in particular endeared the book to me. Arthens' sumptuous descriptions of gourmet foods titillated both my imagination and my taste buds. A "taste" of the sushi course:
"True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue. It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture. Yes, it is like a fabric: shashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, an dthe extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds." (Barbery, 73)
Being on my honeymoon when I finished this book, I had the opportunity to experience the "gourmet" a little more than usual. My husband and I ate at a restaurant called Napa Rose on the final night of the honeymoon. It was probably the fanciest restaurant I have eaten at in the United States. My meal consisted of an appetizer pizzeta of red grapes, French cheese, prosciutto, and caramelized onions (picture to the left), and my main course was salmon on wild rice with pine nuts and a blackberry salsa. I won't attempt to describe the meal in an Arthens-worthy manner, but just having read the book, with Arthens' adjectives fresh in my mind, I was able to have a richer experience. Arthens critiqued food not based solely on taste sensations - he also paid attention to its appearance, its scent, its texture, and most importantly, the emotions it evoked. This all-encompassing sensory experience became almost holy to him, and reminded me of something I heard when I was staying in Paris - that eating was a holy experience, a sacrament dedicated to nourishing both our bodies and our relationships.
The other thing I loved about this book may have been due to one of my idiosyncratic interests. In the 7th grade we had to take a "Life Skills" class where we learned about drugs, etc. We also learned about how there are four dimensions to personality: what you know and others know, what you know that others don't know, what you don't know that others also don't know, and what you don't know that others do know. Ever since this class, I have always wondered what other people know about me that I don't know about myself. The chapters alternating between Arthens' internal monologue about food are the reflections of people he has encountered and how they feel about him, from his family members to the homeless man he passes each day on the street. The different views on his life contrast and complement to form a very complete picture of this strange and complicated man (His own self description: "If I had been a woman, I would have been Scarlett [of Gone With the Wind]-- the one who survives in a world that is dying"). (pg 102). The perspectives of others to complete the portrait are fascinating. I will let you unwrap the layers of Arthens' relationships to discover who he really was.
To summarize (because I have to get to my chemistry class), I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars. The concept is beautiful and different from anything else I have read. However, the wordiness of some of the passages makes the writing a bit obscure. (It might just be above my intellectual level. ) Check this book out from the library.