Grimod de la Reynière declared the pig, “King of the base animal kingdom and the one whose empire is the most universal and whose attributes are the least contested.” Indeed, he went so far as to state that without bacon cuisine would not exist at all.
His unfettered enthusiasm for pork should not be interpreted as indicative of his generation but rather as a personal cause célèbre. Thirty years before he began the Almanach des Gourmands, Grimod featured an enormous array of pork products in the first course of the famously bizarre, funereal banquet that he staged in 1783. His subsequent gastronomic writing consistently treats the pig with reverence, sometimes even speaking of it in anthropomorphic terms. In his seasonal guide of 1803 he confesses that he hopes his lavish praise of the pig might restore its “so unjustly blackened” reputation.
Historically, pork had held a very low status in Europe’s hierarchy of foods. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433—99), for example, suggested that pork was most appropriate for, “bodies that are pig-like, as are those of rustic and hardy men.”* Although such a literal interpretation of humoral dietary theory would have seemed as primitive to Grimod’s generation as it does to our own, such beliefs, so deeply embedded into European culture, lingered just beneath the surface veneer of enlightened thinking.
Even without a medical justification, France’s upper crust had a sniffily disdainful attitude toward the pig, which Grimod made it his quest to eradicate.
What prompted this impassioned mission? It is tempting to infer that so personal an identification with the humble pig may have originated with the fact that his snobbish mother, whom he despised (and the feeling was mutual,) falsely blamed her son’s deformed, claw-like hands on an accidental tumble into a pigpen during his infancy. Did his almost urgent need to redress the pig’s status derive from this falsehood; the humiliation and disdain he himself suffered because of it; and his anger at his mother for giving him a distorted body and then faulting an innocent, little pig for it? One can but conjecture.
Leaving psychological speculation aside, Grimod had a very good point to make with regard to French cuisine. Nary a recipe of his era begins without first carefully barding a beast or bird with tiny morsels of bacon. It also often lent its flavor to cabbage and other vegetables.
Among the pig’s other gifts to gastronomy, Grimod emphasized the enormous range of sausages—both dried and fresh—that in his opinion made the reputation of Paris’s charcutiers. He deemed them the best in the world, owing to their artfulness rather than to the quality of the raw meat, which he credited as being better in Lyon and Troyes.
If barding has gone rather out of fashion in an era of plumper meats and fat-consciousness, Paris still abounds in a vast spectrum of sausages in every imaginable shape, size and flavoring. When the hour for apéritifs arrives, they will likely arrive with thin slices of saucisson sec to nibble on. But will this be the famed rosette of Lyon; an herbed, rustic version from Auvergne; or come laced with pimento from the French Basque country?
The two, football-field sized floors filled with food stands from France’s numerous regions that each February feature at Paris’s Salon de L’Agriculture bear witness to the seemingly infinite ways that pork can be cured.
Grimod also adored fresh pork. His list of favorites in this category, began with pork chops, grilled absolutely simply. In his honor, I prepared just that with two plump specimens acquired from a butcher at the Grenelle market (15th arrondissement), and served them on a bed of caramelized onions and apples deglazed with Armagnac. On a fiery hot grill, their thick edges formed a crisp crackling above a generous layer of succulent fat.
Grimod applauded every part of the pig—from the head to the loin. To this day, market stalls and butchers abound in pigs’ feet and ears, shoulders and heads, often piled in heaps directly on the counter.
As in Grimod’s era, ground pork flesh may not only serve as the foundation of a pâté but also, purchased plain or flavored, as forcemeat with which to stuff a bird.
Grimod reserved special praise for the famed hams of Mainz (in Germany, but under French occupation when Grimod wrote the Almanach) and Bayonne, in southwestern France. Both regions had sufficient fame in this arena to get mentioned in François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel of 1534. Both continue to be renowned for this specialty. However, following Grimod’s lead, I will eschew further discussion of ham until April and similarly wait until summer to consider the suckling pig.
*Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, trans. Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Tempe, AZ, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998), p. 181.
(c) Carolin C. Young, 2013.