Merriam-Webster just picked “surreal” as its word of the year for 2016, which is understandable if still woefully inadequate as a descriptor for a runaway freight train hauling a mile of raging dumpster fires jumping the tracks and incinerating a century’s worth of progress while the worst among us hoot and holler victoriously. It’s as if, upon seeing the Brexit vote, America responded: “Oh yeah? Hold my beer and watch this.” Coincidentally with the choice of surreal, if not in keeping with the hallucinatory horror of this fall, November saw the reissue of Salvador Dalí’s 1973 cookbook Les Dîners de Gala, which makes for an entertaining read and has the potential to inspire some neo-old school cooking.
While the book is copiously illustrated with Dalí’s trademark drawings and paintings of elongated, multi-limbed figures gripping cutlery and slicing off their own buttocks, the photos of the dishes (and some posed shots of Dalí at table) fall emphatically within the waning fashion of that era: stolidly arranged in concentric circles or pyramids, meat surrounded by tournéed vegetables, glossy, always on silver platters in baroque settings. It looks and feels very much like a museum piece: instructive and dated in equal measure.
While Surrealism arose as an absurdist response to the brutality of World War I melded with a fascination with Freud’s work on the unconscious, by the seventies it was old news, relegated to dorm room posters and derivative album covers. Even its successor, abstract expressionism, had already been overthrown by pop and minimalism and Surrealism even found itself lapped by its predecessor, Dada, whose trickster-in-chief Duchamp had sowed the seeds for postmodernism which were already sprouting by the time this book came out. Ironically, 1973 also coincides with the widespread emergence of nouvelle cuisine; Henri Gault published the Ten Commandments that codified the ethos and led to its rapid popularization. Far from cutting edge, the book reads more as a whimsically decadent nostalgia act: Escoffier on mescaline.
Despite the classic Dalí faux-philosophical nonsense (“Dalinian Gastro-Esthetics”) in the introduction and the luridly overblown chapter titles—”Sodomized Dishes” (meats), “Deoxyribonucleic Atavism” (vegetables)—the recipes are mostly pretty straightforward and written clearly enough to be useful. While not overburdened by rigorous technique—they hew closer to the vagaries of much earlier examples, frequently using such metrics as “until done” or “enough”—the aesthetics of the images are resolutely in that Escoffier/Carème mold, an effect further enhanced by the somewhat garish color of the photographs (my version is an original; I can’t speak to the color quality in the reissue). It sort of feels right, though, given that Dalí’s technical skill as a painter was only ever a low-fi echo of Velázquez and Goya. And there are frequent, if grainy and monochromatic, reproductions of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which is a nice shout-out to the king of proto-surrealists.
The chapter on aphrodisiacs is aptly titled “Les je mange GALA.” Any cookbook should be praised for advocating, however obliquely, the eating of pussy (not, it must be emphasized, the unwelcome grabbing thereof, but the reverent lingual ministrations of a giving partner) especially since so many paragons of flavor—oysters, Hermitage, panna cotta with balsamic vinegar—cannot be accurately described without reference to same. But while Dalí and Gala threw what were by all accounts bacchanalian dinner parties, and notwithstanding the psychedelically carnal illustrations, the recipes remain firmly rooted in tradition. And many of the photos are remarkably ugly. (Buñuel has aged much better than Dalí.) But there are some fetching collages—he would have enjoyed photoshop—and interesting layouts, and a compelling preserved-in-amber vibe about the whole thing.
Aesthetically, surrealism may not be your cup of fur, but where else can you find a book that offers recipes for “Tripe of yesteryear”, Stew loaf”, and Grilled lamb’s head” in the space of two pages? There’s a refreshingly old world nose-to-tail imagination at work in this book, and a playful willingness to mess around with pretty much any ingredient. While there may not be a dish called “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic” (which album also came out in 1973), there are larks, and tongue, and aspic to be found. This book was decades ahead of its time as far as ballsy, personality-driven, cookbooks-as-art-books go, and it’s an entertaining diversion—which heaven knows we can all use right about now.
It’s too bad that Dalí didn’t make it to this century, when a cuisine largely fuelled by virtuosic Catalán imagination (and made possible by state-of-the-art hydrocolloids) emerged that truly realized Dalí’s obsessions with textural transformation, polymorphous allusion, and sensual gratification. In the perfect bit of concluding irony, the Dalí house/museum sits just a few clicks up the coast from Roses, home to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli.