Eating is the great preoccupation of both primitive and civilized man. But the savage eats from need, the civilized man from desire.
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
When I did my close up for “The Angle Show” on food, creator/producer Gemal Woods asked me the all important question — “If you could heave a meal with anyone living or dead, who would that be?” That person, though he be dead, is Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, numerous plays, travel journals, histories, historical novels, crime stories, with a passion for many things especially food. In fact, Alexandre’s last work was a 1,000 + page Dictionary of Cuisine (Dictionnaire de Cuisine) published posthumously in 1873. I have several abridged versions and the complete french version provided by Google on my iPad. Ever since I’ve started diving into Alexandre’s culinary biography it’s been serendipity, even though this segment didn’t make the final cut on “The Angle Show.”
Alexandre Dumas and I go way back. I fell in love with his novels through the 1970s film adaptations with Michael York as D’Artagnon, Oliver Reid as Athos, Frank Finlay as Porthos; and Richard Chamberlain as Aramis who also played Edmund Dantes in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and Phillipe/Louis in “The Man in the Iron Mask” movies.
Eventually I got around to reading Dumas’ books, and his stories and old Erol Flynn flicks on TV inspired me to take a fencing class in college. I sucked at it. When I found out there would be no swinging from chandeliers, it kind of ruined the fun for me. I still enjoy watching the sport.
But Alexandre’s biography and the times he lived never cease to fascinate. Alexandre let his passions rule his life and managed to make a good life of those passions at least until the money ran out. He was also the son of a heroic French general named Alex Dumas. General Alex Dumas’s father was Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French aristocrat seeking his fortune in Saint Dominque (now known as Haiti). Antoine fathered several children that included Alex with one of his slaves, Marie Cessette Dumas. Only Alex would join his father in France. Alex Dumas died when Alexandre was very young, but would always be bigger than life and the inspiration for his son’s famous characters.
When I learned Alexandre Dumas was a gourmet cook and had published this grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, I found a deeper connection and the inspiration for “Dinner with Alexandre Dumas.” Will this be my “Julie and Julia”? My name does appear in Alexandre’s The Three Musketeers.” Serendipity?
I rallied my “Favorite Chefs” potluck group for a lunchtime dress rehearsal. Mind you, recipes in Alexandre’s day didn’t include measurements, and were usually written in prose. But our cooking group is seasoned enough to figure it out as we go. However, my first email on the theme sent everyone into a state of confusion. This was not a Julia Child experiment. It would take imagination, research, and a sense of adventure — just like Alexandre.
I insisted on making Alexandre’s famous salad. He says in a letter to French writer Jules Janin (published in the dictionary and translated by Louis Colman for his abridged version):
…I made a salad that satisfied my guests so well that when Ronconi one of my most regular guests, could not come he sent for his share of the salad, which was taken to him under a great umbrella when it rained so that no foreign matter might spoil it.
Though I did the shopping and prep for the salad, it would take 3 of us from the Favorite Chefs group to interpret the narrative recipe by Dumas against modern interpretations which begins with a paste made from the yolks of hardboiled eggs, oil, tuna, anchovies, Maille mustard (still around today) and the finest vinegar. The Three Musketeers were Marsha Weiner food media producer and educator (FoodMuse Media), myself and Janet Cam a restauarnt and wine consultant who was co-owner of Le Pavillon, the first nouevelle cuisine restaurant in the U.S. But this was 19th century cooking. We pulled it off. Alexandre would leave the tossing to his servant.
Our merry group (host Lisa, Mas, Taquiena, Paddy, Patricia, Phillippa, Joanne, Paul) did rally their culinary arms around the theme and filled the menu with food from Alexandre’s life and travels including hooch. Apparently France was also producing and drinking their own version of moonshine.
Here’s the Favorite Chef’s final menu for Dejeuner avec Alexandre Dumas, stories sources for recipes, wine etc.:
Le Dejeuner avec Alexandre Dumas
23 Septembre, 2012
Rillettes au lapin (Lydie Marshall) – A Dumas meal was never complete without rabbit
Confit des oignons (Alice Waters)
FRESH French Bread (Whole Foods)
Georgian Lamb Shashlyk (shish-kebab) – Dumas learned the grilling technique on his Georgian journey
Even if you don’t have a skewer or happen to be travelling in a place where skewers are unknown, you can always substitute something else. Throughout my travels the cleaning-rode of my carbine served as a skewer, and I didn’t notice any harm to the worthiness of my weapon from using it in this humble role. — from Le Caucase by Alexandre Dumas (1859)
Salade Dumas (the famous Alexandre Dumas salad from the Dictionnaire de Cuisine) – close to a Salade Nicoise but the tuna, anchoives, egg yolks are pounded into a paste and tossed in the salad…by a servant
Alexandre Dumas Potato Salad (James Beard version)
Tomato/eggplant/ricotta gratin (like tomatoes provencal – from a Dumas menu while on a fishing expedition when he took over the kitchen from the host’s cook)
Tois – Dessert
Fruits en saison (grapes and figs)
Bombe à la cardinal – ref Three Musketeers
Venetian Carrot Cake (Nigella Lawson) – ref The Count of Monte Cristo
“Wine…the intellectual part of the meal.” – Alexandre Dumas
Ole Smoky Moonshine/Goutte (blackberry/Tennessee)
Wilson Creek Almond Champagne (USA)
La Corte Negroamaro Vigne Salento (Italy)
2006 Vouvray, Champalou (France)
1999 St. Aubin “Les Frionnes” 1er cru, Huber Lamy (France)
2009 Bourgogne Rouge, Joseph Faiveley (France)
Shortly after our Alexandre Dumas feast I saw that Tom Reiss was coming to DC to read from his book The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre’s father, General Alex Dumas. I contacted Tom before the reading and told him about my culinary exploration of the Dictionnaire de Cuisine. Mutual fanatacism about Dumas led to a sharing of information and an invitation to attend a family book party the same week. The Black Count is now one of Time magazine’s top ten books of 2012, one of the New York Times 100 notable books of 2012, and has been serialized for BBC Radio. Tom is now a member of The Favorite Chefs potluck group. Serendipity? [Stay tuned for an eclectique interview with Tom in the new year.]