The Praise of Eggplant, by Abel González

>> Monday, October 23, 2006

The original title of this book by Argentinian journalist Abel González is Elogio de la Berenjena, so as it paraphrases the Spanish translation of Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, I translated it as The Praise of Eggplant, as weird as it might sound.

This book proposes to look through the keyhole to see up close the kitchen of some famous characters. Picasso, James Joyce, George Sand, Marilyn Monroe, Rossini, Caruso, Freud, General San Martín, Simón Bolívar, Gardel, Fangio, Kafka, Perón, Che Guevara, Cortázar y García Márquez, among many others, sit at the table to reveal the intimacy of their palates and, by the way, tell us their favourite recipes.

The author starts out from the premise that what we put in our mouths -whether raw or cooked- is enough to define an entire civilization. And the same is valid for individuals. Because a person who eats caviar on toast for lunch is not the same as the person who has a ham and cheese sandwich.

Anecdotes, fantastical biography, gastronomic commentary and recipe book join here to make up a hilarious repertoire, which only seeks to entertain. Thus, the characters who populate this book eat not only to satiate their appetite (which they also did), but to allow the reader to better know who they were and how they lived.
Sounds interesting, doesn't it? The descriptions of what historical characters used to eat would have been enough to make me want to take a look, but what really sold me was the promise of gaining some insight into their personalities through this exercise.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the author didn't really succeed in doing this. Out of the 50 characters who each had their own chapter, I only feel like I got a clearer picture into a few, like Freud, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Manuel de Rosas, Peggy Guggenheim, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound.

The others were mainly a collection of anecdotes, some amusing (I'd mention the Caruso anecdotes in the Toscanini chapter, for instance), some not, most of them extraneous to who these characters were.

Other than this...

The good: Each chapter contained one recipe at the end, something that the character in question either cooked often and well or liked to eat frequently, and most of those were pretty interesting. Especially outstanding:

  • Farfalloni à la Umberto Eco

  • Brótola (red cod, in English, I think) al cartoccio, from the George Sand / Fréderic Chopin chapter

  • Carrots in white wine, à la Heidegger

  • Chicken à la Marengo, a recipe prepared for Napoleon

  • Calamari à la Guggenheim

  • Bolognese sauce, as prepared for Arturo Toscanini

  • Sweetbreads in champagne sauce, Juan Manuel de Rosas' favourites
The bad: the writing style, which was coy and affected, most especially when the author was talking about food and sex. The language used revealed an old fashioned and immature attitude towards female sexuality. The women in this book don't make love, or have sex: they submit and/or lose their innocence, events narrated in a tone that's the literary equivalent of Beavis and Butthead's huh-huh-huh laughter.

Final grade: a C+.


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