Seeking their just desserts

SUN JOURNAL

Cardinal sin: Some Catholics in France say the word `gourmandise' is unfairly associated with overindulgence.

March 14, 2003|By Elizabeth Bryant | Elizabeth Bryant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS - It is a raw, midwinter afternoon - a time when most Parisians are at work or school, or napping off the country's cherished two-hour lunch. Yet a steady stream of tourists and local residents wanders into the tiny Poilane bakery on Rue Cherche Midi, snapping up luscious pastries and world-famous crusty loaves ... and - could it be - engaging in a cardinal sin?

For indeed, the heady desire to gobble up Poilane's heavy, dark bread and buttery cookies suggests nothing less than gourmandise - a French term sadly translated as gluttony. And for centuries, French Roman Catholics have been taught that gluttony, and gourmandise, rank among the unholy list of the seven deadly sins.

The unfair association of gourmandise and gluttonerie has long rankled local epicureans. Now, a group of French chefs, intellectuals and religious people is fighting to convert gourmandise from a sin to a state of grace.

"Gourmandise is more of an attitude, a state of being, a desire to share, of conviviality," says Catherine Soulier, president of the Association on the Question of Gourmandise. "Gluttony is something else. It's eating too much, too rapidly. It's putting too much food in the mouth."

Founded by a renowned French baker, the late Lionel Poilane, the group drafted a petition to Pope John Paul II to semantically strike gourmandise off the list of cardinal sins. The plea calls for keeping only the word gluttonerie as a deadly sin, and would apply only to the French language.

Indeed, the pope himself once recalled during a speech "the memory of cakes with custard cream, eaten after exams," the petitioners reminded the pontiff in their October 2002 letter.

Poilane and his wife died in a helicopter crash in November. But in late January, their daughter, Apollonia Poilane, 19, presented the gourmandise plea to the pope during a private audience at the Vatican.

"We have neither hope nor despair" for the vindication of gourmandise, says Soulier, who heads a pair of gastronomy institutes in Paris. "We're waiting, with much humility, for the pope and his entourage to reflect on this question."

Perhaps Evagrius of Pontus might have been swayed from his righteous campaign by tasting the snails in garlic butter, petit fours, or duck a l'orange that grace French tables at Sunday lunch. But such delicacies were concocted hundreds of years after the fourth-century Greek theologian first institutionalized gluttony and seven other vices as cardinal sins.

Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory I slightly edited the list of sins, replacing sadness with greed, combining vainglory and pride, and adding envy. Gluttony remained as a lesser, but still frowned-upon, act of spiritual weakness.

"These things could be understood at the time - it was after the religious persecutions," says Marie-Ange Herbise, who studied the theological origins of the seven deadly sins for the gourmandise association. "But today, we're not in the same period. We see the Gospels and the Bible in the era of 2003."

Good food and godliness have long been closely paired in France. Monks and nuns, once acclaimed for their champagnes and chocolates, still produce pungent cheeses and honey, cakes and beers. Celebrated wines, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and liqueurs like Chartreuse, carry religious connotations. Even the Michelin restaurant guide is known as "the red Bible."

Which is why Poilane aficionados, like Marie-Claude Salas, are outraged that the baked delicacies now sold in London and New York should be sullied by a coarser affiliation.

"I am surprised by the association of pleasure and gourmandise with gluttony," says Salas, a French Catholic, who was emerging from Poilane's Left Bank bakery one recent afternoon with a large loaf tucked under one arm. "When we're gourmand, we're open to others. We're people capable of accepting and giving pleasure. So we must remain gourmand."

The virtues of gourmandise are championed by French of other faiths as well.

"It's true we're known for being more economical than the Catholics," says Myriam Delarbre, spokeswoman for the Protestant Federation of France. "But a good cake never killed anybody. On this question, we're just as gourmand as the rest."

"Gourmandise isn't forbidden," says a spokesman for the Israelite Consistory of Paris. "Jews adore eating."

But the grand mufti of Marseille, Soheib Ben Cheikh, suggests that fine dining has its limits.

"There's no complex in the Muslim religion to eat good and delicious things," says Ben Cheikh, who proceeds to recite verses of the prophet Muhammad as reference. "`Who has the right to forbid the good and pure things God has delivered?'

"What's condemned is eating more than what's necessary."

For its part, the French Catholic Church appears divided on the merits of gourmandise. The Council of French Bishops has not commented on the papal petition, which is backed by several prominent French clergy.

But Father Francois-Marie, a monk in southwest France, has little good to say about the word.

"Gourmandise and gluttony go together," says the Benedictine monk, whose monastery sells goat's cheese near the city of Bayonne. "We have another word for people who appreciate good cuisine - gourmet. Gourmand is where the sin lies."

It is unclear when the Vatican will deliver its verdict on the gourmandise question. But the answer is unlikely to alter French eating habits. Or the reputation of Lionel Poilane.

"I'm convinced that Mr. Poilane, in his effort to create good bread and cakes, in his warmth and conviviality, was blessed by God," says Herbise of the gourmandise association.

"Absolutely."

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