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1940s Archive

An Alphabet For Gourmets

Originally Published October 1949

W is for wanton …



… and the great difference between the way a man eats and has his lady love eat, when he plans to lead her to the nearest couch, and the way a woman will feed a man for the same end.

A man is much more straightforward, usually. He believes with the unreasoning intuition of a cat or a wolf that he must be strong for the fray and that strength comes from meat: he orders rare steak, with plenty of potatoes alongside, and perhaps a pastry afterwards. He may have heard that oysters or a glass of port work aphrodisiacal wonders, more on himself than on the little woman, or, in an unusual attempt at subtlety augmented by something he vaguely remembers from an old movie, he may provide a glass or two of champagne. But in general, his gastronomical as well as alcoholic approach to the delights of love is an uncomplicated one which has almost nothing to do with the pleasurable preparation of his companion.

A woman contemplating seduction, on the other hand, is wanton.

A wanton woman, according to the dictionary, is unchaste, licentious, and lewd. This definition obviously applies to her moral rather than her culinary side. Considered solely in connection with the pleasures of the table, a wanton woman is one who with cunning and deliberation prepares a meal which will draw another person to her. The reasons she does so may be anything from political to polite, but her basic acknowledgment that sexual play can be a sure aftermath of gastronomical bliss dictates the game, from the first invitation to the final mouthful of ginger omelette.

It is an age-long rumor, apparently fairly well founded, that the great procuresses and madams have always been the great teachers, as well, in “la cuisine d’amour.” Such proficient pupils as Du Barry and the Countess of Louveciennes bear out this titillating theory, and recipes ascribed to both of them are reprinted annually in various underhand publications dedicated to the somewhat dubious encouragement of libertinage.

Most of the culinary secrets told in them, at a high price and “in plain wrappers for mailing,” lean heavily on the timeworn knowledge that dishes made with a great deal of mustard and paprika and other heating spices and ones based on the generous use of shrimp and other highly phosphorous fish are usually exciting to both human sexes, but particularly to the male. Sometimes a more complicated significance, straight from Freud, is given to recipes thought of long before his day. The dish of eel innocently prepared for a gathering of good pastors by a former brothel cook, which Brillat-Savarin describes so lightly in his Physiology of Taste, is a perfect example of this: there is a phallic tightness about the whole thing, visual as well as spiritual, which has more to do with the structure of the fish than the possible presence of a mysterious and exotic spice.

In general, however, the great courtesans have paid less attention to the Freudian appearance of their kitchens’ masterpieces, from what I can gather, than to the temperaments of the men they have willed to please. They have studied the appetites of their prey.

This is, in a way, a paraphrase of the old saying, “First catch your hare, then cook him”: wolf or even goose can be substituted for the little wild rabbit. Once caught, a human male is studied by the huntress as deeply as if he were a diamond. She looks at his ear lobes and his finger-nails, before and after he has eaten of rare beef…and if the former are plump and ruddy and the latter rosy pink, she knows his glands to be both satisfied and active. She analyzes his motor reflexes after he has downed a fair portion of jugged venison…and if, instead of showing a pleasurable skittishness, he yawns and puffs and blinks, she nevermore serves that gamy dish. She notes coldly, calculatingly, his reactions to wine and ale and heavy spirits, as well as to fruits, eggs, cucumbers, and such…she learns his dietetic tolerance, in short, and his rare metabolism, and his tendencies toward gastric as well as emotional indigestion. And all this happens whether she be a designing farm girl in Arkansas or a slim, worldly beauty on the Cap d’Antibes.

Now I myself am neither of these. I have met a few famous madams, but for one reason or another have never discussed the gastronomy of love with them. I have read a great many books. I have watched a great many people, and fed them, too. And here is how I would go about it, as of today, if I wanted to ensnare an average man and lead him, with proper discretion, to the marriage bed. (I say average. The truth is that I do not know a really average man, gastronomically or otherwise. A further complication is that I would quite probably be uninterested in one if ever I met him…)

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