Exotic Brew Review -Times Literary Supplement, 10.3.1995

February 16th, 2014

Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew. Translated by Christopher Woodall. 193 pp. Oxford: Polity. £29.50.

From a review by Patrice Higonnet of several works. Title of the review: ‘Let them drink chocolate. Salons, food and the growth of civil society.’

Goodman and Gordon are strict taskmasters who write from verse and chapter; Censer’s scholarship is impeccable and cold. In Bologna, however, Piero Camporesi is a poet.The darkening shadows of theory are never visible in his text, which is none the less remarkably informed. Everything in Exotic Brew is culinarily transposed and comes with succulent recipes such as the one for Président des Brosses’s favourite creamed sweet: beef marrow, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, almond paste, cinnamon and stock-covered currants. In Camporesi’s pages, the individuation of social life becomes smaller table-ware, personalized settings, or a quest for comfort. Cartesiansism exists, but as a “ratio convivialis”, a reconceptualized sequence of dishes, whose deeper meaning is of a “geometrical order and mathematical reason”. The feminized salons are “the dreams of lightness become a social imperative”. Like Goodman and Gordon, Camporesi also sees sociability as the key to Enlightened thinking, but he sets it in a very different register: “The dinner-table was becoming the condensation chamber for the new frontiers of the mind”; and a dinner without Voltaire was “like a ring without a gem”. Food, writes Camporesi, “was spoken rather than eaten, taken with detachment, while the new hot beverages… punctuated the passage of time with an obligatory ritual and etiquette”. Coffee and chocolate were the “liquid emblems of a new society”.

Camporesi does not ignore high politics: the decay after 1700 of monarchic authority, so important to Habermas and his disciples, is relevant to him oo, if only gastronomically. Camporesi’s definition of “l’infâme” does include an implied critique of political excess in an age when – in the words of the sceptic academician and tutor in the French royal house, La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1673), “the princes of Europe fed on vipers the fowls [which] they themselves consume”. But Camporesi subsumes these princely politics under a culinary rubric, namely the “extravagance of the baroque imagination [with its] bombastic cascades of main dishes”.

For him, Enlightenment politics and lighter food were always very close; did not French haute cuisine begin during the negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713?  But for Camporesi, the difference between absolutism and enlightened despotism is not so much in the changed Habermasian configuration of the private and the public, as in the fact that Louis XIV, contemptuous of the civil sphere, never tasted potage garbure (which he easily could have done) whereas Frederick the Great, the first servant of the state, “composed verses in praise of pâté à la sardanapole”. Because the abbé Galiani’s acrimonious dispute with Morellet in 1770 over the advantages of free trade is a set-piece in any discussion of Enlightenment sociability, the Neapolitan minister appears at some length in both Goodman’s and Gordon’s texts. And Camporesi cites him too, but in his book, Galiani is not merely a polemicist. He is also a moderate and Enlightened man whose elevation of spirit enabled him to admire Morellet’s skill in carving pullets.

The transformation of the public sphere, the revalorization of civil society; these lofty changes, Camporesi reminds us, were hard to understand for those who lived them day by day, unthinkingly. But drinking chocolate (or, in Boston, tea) was more simple. In 1794, the reactionary Bishop of Parma knew what he was doing when he condemned ex cathedra the wicked love of novelties. For Camporesi, every new dish, every gastronomico-philosophical self-indulgence, every lavish table, every “epic of chocolate and sugar” contributed to “the graceful disorder” of the eighteenth century. Take the case of Cardinal Moncada, who was much interested in cooling and heating techniques and consequently devised a “well lubricated enema [that] entailed blowing hot tobacco smoke into the anus by means of a tube”. For Camporesi, the man is not an amiable eccentric but a “culture hero”.

Tiresome, postmodern Italian chic? No: Camporesi is very learned. He knows Bolognese food and culture perfectly. His knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuitical texts is impressive. He weighs his sources carefully, and he characteristically rejects, as he should, the questionable idea that the Cardinal of York, last of the Stuart line and a vegetarian, could really have consumed thirty pounds of chocolate a day. His playful, crafted and optimistic book is modest and accessible, elegant and entertaining, with, unexpectedly, an elegaic aroma: Camporesi’s diners had it in their mind to reject ponderous baroque cookery, but we see them also feasting in the shadow of the guillotine. Voltaire would have found food for thought in this delightful and incisive book.