Jonathan Grimwood’s debut novel, The Last Banquet, takes us to France during the mid-1700s, when the gap between the haves and have-nots widened and set the stage for revolution. The landscape is surreal, with bands of roaming citizens scouring the countryside for food—it’s almost an 18th century version of Road Warrior, minus the gas-powered vehicles and villains in strange get-ups.
It is amidst this setting that we meet our hero, Jean-Marie D’Aumont. He is orphaned, his parents apparently dead from starvation. Jean-Marie has survived, presumably due to his prodigious instinct for gastronomy and an openness to experience new taste sensations. He is discovered by a nobleman and his entourage who pass through Jean-Marie’s village as he contemplates the consummation of various stag beetles. He is questioned by his visitor:
“You like eating beetles?”
“Black ones,” I said, pointing to the line of chewed carcasses that dried to sharp crackle in the summer sun. “Brown ones taste sour.”
The stage is thus set for Jean-Marie’s career of culinary adventure. The nobleman preempts Jean-Marie’s hardscrabble life and sponsors him in a school for young gentlemen. Our young hero is a natural and quickly makes friendships crucial to his rise in the world. One such friend is Charlot, whose father is a duke and lives in the Chateau de Saulx. Eventually, Jean-Marie wins the approval of the duke and his daughter Virginie’s hand in marriage. Jean-Marie is growing up quickly.
Soon, Jean-Marie’s travels have him sampling the offerings of whatever edible materials are available. Improvisation is often key. Our young man perfects his creations as he explores, including his recipe for Pickled Wolf’s Heart. In Marseilles he learns to cook arudi (best fried swiftly with garlic or cooked slowly in a fruit stew) and how to make the perfect redingotes Anglaise (soak the caecum, which is the pocket between the small and large intestine, in fresh water for a day, changing the water twice). At this point I realized this is a book best reviewed by Anthony Bourdain. In a sense, this novel is a history of taste, of how flavors were forged before the advent of the much later industrial age and the standardization of food processing.
Grimwood does not forget to remind Jean-Marie of how the other half is living. On a carriage ride home to the Chateau de Saulx with Virginie, he views the passing countryside. “Cows lay dead in the fields. Crops had been trampled. In a town square on the way home a half-naked woman was being whipped, her rags ripped from her shoulders and her breasts bare to the jeering crowd. . . . A small child at her feet sobbed loud enough for both of them.” Unfortunately Jean-Marie does not take this experience to heart.
Grimwood’s prose is elegant, verging on the Dickensian, and his storytelling ability is compelling. The panoramic scope of this tale includes appearances by Voltaire and the American Francophile, Ben Franklin, who imports to Jean-Marie some wisdom from the Swedish ambassador—“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” a sort of twist of Hemingway’s later tag line, “What is true at first light, is a lie by afternoon.” Both are ominous pieces of advice in this adventure’s case. And what book on this era would be complete without an appearance by the Marquis de Sade? Jean-Marie’s adventures work overtime keeping the reader on his heels; we even follow him to his participation in the Corsican War of Independence. Along the way, the reader will find a bevy of rare information including the intricacies of making condoms from lamb intestines (thank God for modern-day drugstores) and how to cook flamingo tongue. I can’t leave this review without noting Jean-Marie’s proclamation of his alligator stew: “tastes like leathery chicken.” Maybe Campbell’s can work on that.
But what, you may ask, is the last banquet? Of course I won’t spoil it for you, but here’s a clue—the book ends with the arrival of the French Revolution, and you know what a party that was. My appetite for history, adventure, and cooking were certainly sated as I read the last pages. Jonathan Grimwood has given us an amazing gift. I had no room for dessert.