You've Heard of the Three Musketeers. but What of the Six Pages on Cocoa? (Food)

By Wilson, Bee | New Statesman (1996), November 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

You've Heard of the Three Musketeers. but What of the Six Pages on Cocoa? (Food)


Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)


It is 200 years since Alexandre Dumas was born, in Villers-Cotterets, to a mulatto general in Napoleon's army and his small-town sweetheart. Still France's most famous novelist, Dumas is far better known across the world than Balzac or Victor Hugo, never mind Celine or Camus. Who hasn't heard of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo? But we should also remember Dumas pere as one of the great French gastronomes of the 19th century, the author of one of the finest food reference books ever written.

Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (1873) has all the hallmarks of classic Dumas. Much of it is technically derivative; liberties are taken with facts; the whole thing goes on for pages -- hundreds of pages -- longer than the reader expects; and yet to read it is to enter a world of magic and excitement that one leaves only reluctantly. Like most of Dumas's best work, the dictionary was written in a hurry, and for money (famously, the reason why his fiction contains so much snappy dialogue is that he was paid by the line).

The year was 1869. Dumas was old and ailing and pressed for cash. He moved to Roscoff, a part of France famous for its onions, lived cheaply and wrote furiously. By March of 1870, he had managed to churn out a 600,000-word manuscript on everything from absinth to zest. His publishers had just begun setting the typescript when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Dumas died in December, without seeing his culinary masterpiece published.

Even Dumas could not have produced so much so quickly, had his interest in food not been long-standing and prodigious. Much of the charm of the book comes from the enthusiasms Dumas conveys for this or that foodstuff. As Alan Davidson has commented, it is a wildly unbalanced dictionary. There are six pages on cocoa, but only half a page on milk. But the lack of balance is precisely what makes it so compelling. …

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