Monday, September 28, 2009

Reckless Appetites by Jacqueline Deval

Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, c1993.
196 p.

Another foodie book...but I enjoyed this one more than the Barbery I recently read. I was surprised that I enjoyed it more, however, as it is not really a traditional novel. Reckless Appetites tells us the tale of Pomme Bouquin, whose father is a chef; she is following in his steps. She is also hugely influenced by food writers, especially Colette. The storyline, as much as it can be followed, is that Pomme is trying to seduce her English lover Jeremy through a sumptuous meal: she reads through Colette as well as other writers and shares it all with us. Then Jeremy rejects her, and spurs her toward revenge. Mixed in with this narrative are some letters back and forth between her father and a French chef, sharing ideas for a literary themed dinner extravaganza (and through which we discover Pomme's inherited tendency toward betrayal and self centredness). There are also a couple of chapters written as food essays by Pomme as if published in a magazine, a chapter by Jeremy, another chapter by Pomme's American lover who is languishing in a Singapore jail, and throughout, always recipes. It's a bit of a mash-up but somehow I was utterly fascinated by it. All the literary language, the positive wallowing in food writing, and the multiple recipes were great. Pomme's character drives the tale: she is absolutely convinced of her own centrality to the world and her seductive, irresistible nature.

That said, if you're looking for a plot driven novel this is not it. If you like an essayistic tone and a lot of differing perspectives on the idea of food and its relation to comfort, civilization, and literary inspiration, then you may enjoy it. Also, much of the book is recipes - actual historical recipes from Dickens, Colette, Hannah Grasse and more. So, if you like reading recipes -- and I mean reading them, picturing the process of making them and imagining the results -- you will find much more depth to the book. If you tend to skip over recipes in books then this one will probably annoy somewhat, as at least a quarter of the book is in recipe format. I personally love reading recipes like novels (which could explain my 80+ cookbook collection) so I found this part of it vastly entertaining even though I have no intention to ever make any of them. There are also many tidbits about literary figures thrown in; one I found intriguing was a mention of Zola - in 1862 he found a job working in the shipping department of Hachette publishers! ;)
There is one chapter written by Pomme's American lover who is now stuck in a jail in Singapore; many reviewers have commented that it is out of place. It doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the storyline; however, it does give Deval some space to bring up some fascinating ideas about hunger and its significance culturally and morally. As opposed to the luxurious celebration of foodstuffs in the rest of the book, this chapter is a little more austere, and I think interesting for that reason.

I enjoyed her writing style and the collage effect of all the different techniques employed in telling this tale. Deval herself provides some insight into her approach in a couple of quotes from various places in the book; together they give us some indication that this structure is something she worked at quite deliberately:

A writer cannot create great works by writing to formula. Likewise, the best cooks are the ones who put something of themselves into the endeavor, not merely follow a set of instructions. Cooking and writing -- for Pomme believes that of all the arts, these are the closest allies -- when done with intent to achieve perfection, are demanding and very personal forms of work...

What Pomme wants her students to understand is that whether one's choice of artistic expression lies in literature or cookery, there's no point in doing either unless the creation is the best possible, the most deeply satisfying experience first for the artist and then for others, the thrill of creation born as much from the process as from the result. The pleasure a cook takes in composing a soufflé that holds its delicate, airy form is akin to what a writer feels when he has written the perfect story, or novel, or poem, knowing that it's good, very good, and couldn't be made better. ...

Room exists in the world for all sorts of bouillabaisse. Serious cooks must not close their minds to other ways of seeing and sensing and tasting. Acknowledge the artistry of another cook. You may become better for your willingness to learn.

I think if this book would have been published today it would have garnered much more attention, as the reading public is possibly more attuned to this kind of genre-less cut and paste style of fiction than it was in the early 90s. Web reading has perhaps accustomed us to following something through even without a strong narrative thread. In any case, I found this to be a very enjoyable, intelligent read. Definitely for anyone with an interest in food writing, or in literary feasts, or in a creative use of fictional style. I'll be rereading this at some point, I know.


  1. This sounds wonderful. It reminds me a bit of Babbette's Feast or Like Water for Chocolate. I also read cookbooks like novels. My husband calls them & my foodie magazines my food porn.

  2. Caitlin - it was really enjoyable. After I read this I was looking through some Colette stories and only then realized how much the author had been influenced by Colette - even the writing style and narrative voice is similar. Fascinating.


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