"My earliest memory is sitting with my back to a dung heap in the summer sun crunching happily on a stag beetle... ." That's Jean-Marie Charles d'Aumont, recalling a meal he ate as a 5-year-old in the barn on the property of his family's tumbledown château. He's eating the beetle not out of hunger but because he is a precocious connoisseur. Moments later, two noblemen ride up, hang the peasants who killed his parents, and offer the boy a sumptuous picnic, including Roquefort, in which he finds "a sourness so perfect the world stopped."
D'Aumont will live through much of the 1700s, up to the brink of the French Revolution, and "The Last Banquet" is his account of his life. He goes on to reclaim his parents' lost place in the aristocracy--marrying, taking mistresses, getting imprisoned in Corsica--all the while never losing his fascination with food, with flavor. He is a true omnivore, eating foie gras and trout but also peacock tongue and a deceased lion from his private menagerie (which "tasted stringy as old saddle"). He sets down many of his recipes: One is for dog, which "tastes like sour mutton"; another is for three-snake bouillabaisse. D'Aumont is also a philosopher of taste, and a budding scientist, musing that different flavors could be used to change people's "humour." "A woman could be brought to bed," he proposes, "a man made to fight, quarrels forced or mended simply by selecting the right foods."
There's an element of the fantastical in this darkly engaging, quasi-picaresque novel, but it may also be read as a kind of social history of 18th-century France, told in a style both sensuous and lean, both colorful and matter-of-fact. Part Gil Blas, part Brillat-Savarin, with maybe a touch of Huysmans's eccentric 19th-century voluptuary Des Esseintes from "A rebours," D'Aumont is a cool character, who seems to observe his emotions rather than experiencing them, right up to the point that--well, let's just say that some days you eat the lion, but some days the tiger eats you.