The Lost Worlds of Ali-Bab
The end of the world (with recipes)
BY NIGHT One Thousand, even Scheherazade's fertile imagination had begun to fail; she was reduced to retreading the names of her characters. "That guy with the olive oil jars and the forty thieves . . . Ali-Baba, was it? I can use that, tweak it a tad. Tonight's hero will travel under an assumed name -- what the heck, Ali-Bab. Okay, who will he be? What's his motivation? I've done thieves, minor royalty, slave girls, olive oil merchants -- pretty well exhausted the naval adventurer thing with Sinbad."
Her ankle bracelets jingle as she paces the Persian carpet. Suddenly, the sound of two dainty hands clapping.
"Got it! A dashing Indiana Jones-style mining engineer, who becomes a seer, a scribe, and a saint. He'll cook in his spare time. Oh, God, send me a decent plot before His Hubby pats the marital divan and asks for his bedtime story." You see, the Pasha of Persia didn't just love 'em and leave 'em, he loved them and laid them waste before he set the alarm clock. (No whining about your guy and his commitment problems.)
There's a shelf of my cookbook library I've mentally catalogued "Unused since Carter was President, but too weird to toss." That's where I strolled a couple of weeks ago in search of Michel Guerard's Cuisine Minceur (Morrow, 1976.) As I blew off the dust, I spotted Claiborne and Franey's Gourmet Diet (TIMES Books, 1980), shuddering at the memory of post-partum weight gain. I walked my fingers down a dozen more spines and discovered, sleeping peacefully in the back of the cave, Ali-Bab's Encyclopedia of Practical Gastronomy (McGraw-Hill, 1974) I paused for a moment, and indulged in a wave of nostalgia for macrame, Marimekko, and motherhood.
Why did Henri Babinski, author of Gastronomie Pratique, Etudes Culinaires (1907) choose to write under the pseudonym of an Iranian fairy tale character?
His exotic handle might have been one of the reasons that I bought the English translation of his magnum opus a few years after it was published. It got some serious buzz in the cookbook world. The dust jacket, fallen along the wayside like the spines to Volumes I and II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, boasted a blurb by Craig Claiborne.
I don't know how it lost the paper protector. I don't think I ever read the book, or tried even a single recipe. Its tone seemed dry and didactic, with many precious pages wasted on the author's endless digressions on history, geography, anthropology -- even etiquette. Despite the romantic allure of the author's name, what I really wanted in my twenties was the careful, encouraging pedagogy of Child, Bertholle, and Beck, not the chiding, critical dictation of a stern French Grandpere. I remember thinking that a cookbook should not have as many learned footnotes as it has recipes.
It took but a minute to confirm that Guerard had indeed added fromage blanc to his scrambled eggs before returning them to their shells and dabbing them with caviar. But I spent the remains of the afternoon lounging on the divan with Ali-Bab, nibbling almonds, sipping mint tea, and listening to the water bubbling merrily in his hookah. This man wrote a crazy paisley culinary encyclopedia, a history of the world as colorful, shimmering and delectable as a platter of wobbly Persian Delight.
My 1974 English translation gives two pitiful pages of bio. I felt like Sinbad sailing frustrated through a sea of sources as I tried to learn more about the man. I was baffled by Babinski.
He was born in Paris in 1855, died there in 1931. Like Edouard de Pomiane, he was of Polish descent, and a scientist. (This recurring Polonaise on the dance card of French gastronomy led me to check the ethnicity of the great Curnonsky, but no: just for the sake of perversity, the author of Cuisines et Vins de France was a Frenchman, Maurice Edmond Sailland, who wrote under a Slavic pseudonym. As far as I know, Curnonsky was not a scientist.) In 1874 he entered the Ecole Nationale des Mines, and spent his professional life as a roving mining engineer, panning for gold in California and French Guyana, digging for diamonds in Brazil, and mining coal in Chile. It was here that he set up an "audacious and creative system for towing the coal barges through the straits of Magellan using coal mined in the area to fuel the tugs."
And like de Pomiane, he was not born to cook. For Doc de Pomiane the nudge toward the kitchen was the study of food and its effect on stomach enzymes. For Mining Engineer Babinski, it was personal rebellion against the primitive mining camp meals.
"For my part, I admit reaching the age of twenty-five without having the slightest idea of what culinary art was." But the dreary menus around the campfire caused "lack of appetite and anemia . . . Therefore, the slightest innovation in the preparation of the food was received with enthusiasm, just because it would give us a gustatory sensation which broke the usual monotony."
The man was a scientific swashbuckler disguised as a mild-mannered mining engineer, preparing Piranha a la Parisienne. The bio gives us less than a hundred words about the rest of his life, mostly a short publishing history. It states that after the publication of Gastronomie Pratique, Etudes Culinaires the man was dubbed "The Brillat-Savarin of the XXth century." The bio concludes that Babinski was "a highly intellectual person, a very enterprising man, who also kind and very generous." Fin.
For a foodie, this is like reading a bio of Isaac Newton and learning what a fine job he did managing His Majesty's Mint, with a chapter tacked on mentioning that he dabbled in physics. Or perusing a life of Anthony Trollope that focuses on how he modernized Her Majesty's Post, and devoting a mere footnote to the fact that he wrote a novel. Or seventy-five.
I returned to the book, hoping to learn a little more about Ali-Bab's life after mining engineering. No dice. But I did start to wonder if he prospected with his own personal library-on-a-tugboat. It would have rivaled, in sheer volume and variety, Ptolemy's Great Library at Alexandria.
Henri Babinski had a formula for predicting the end of a civilization. Attendez bien: Every great culture, and many the minor, has fallen to defeat and decay as a direct result of its cuisine becoming too rich, too eclectic, too decadent.
He spends a good part of Encyclopaedie de Gastronomie Pratique speaking like a Sybil, or a twentieth century Nostradamus. Forget larger historical, religious, and cultural influences at play in the decline and fall of the Hebrews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Greeks, and Romans. By Babinski's standards, we might not need to stock up on duct tape and MREs yet, but of this he is certain: once you forget the principles of gastronomy and the dishes of where you call home, resign yourself to the burning of your cities, the rapine of your women -- and the extinction of your culture.
The Jews? Under Solomon, they started to serve meat and dairy at the same meal; Isaiah was seriously pissed. The Assyrians? Their post-victory orgies and gluttony, especially under Belshazzar, had them wallowing in "their final and most repulsive debauchery." You'd think that those nobler-than-thou Greeks would have figured this stuff out. Wrong! Civilizations repeat the same mistakes endlessly, merely adding a few new twists on each individual road to ruin. "The Greeks had learned from the Libyans the deplorable habit of eating lying down, a prime gastronomic error. They subsequently fell into an even more grievous habit, that of living only to eat. In vain Hippocrates, in the name of health, and Socrates, in the name of morals, battled against encroaching national gluttony. Greece was declining . . ."
Need I jog any memories about the eating habits of the late Roman Empire? Amuses of nightingale livers, pates made from the tongues of small songbirds, ragouts of peacock brains were the appetizers. No room left for the camel hoofs and elephant trunks? Just stagger to the handy vomitorium and come back with appetite restored. In the words of Babinski: "So much for Rome!"
This is the History section of the Encyclopedia, which should be subtitled "The Decline of the West, the East, the South." And the North? "As to Norwegian cuisine, it does not exist."
He moves methodically through:
- Geography: Spain is a very lovely country but, as for its cuisine, the less said the better;
- Sociology: It is curious that there are many temperance societies in that country (the United States). Certain states even have strict laws against the use of alcoholic beverages, which, if the truth were known, are not always observed;
- Gracious Living: A dining room, beautifully decorated and cleverly arranged, sparkling with silver and crystal, brilliant with light, is almost like a fairyland . . . (He likes an orchid at each lady's place);
- Food Science: To fry a food is to fry it always at a temperature of over 248 Fahrenheit;
- Etiquette: He deplores people who are late for dinner, and suggests that the evildoers be forced to wait outside until the table is cleared for the next course. He quotes precedent here in the custom of forbidding admission to tardy concertgoers until the end of the first musical selection; and
- Anthropology: In a footnote (and there are scores of footnotes) he gives us a rare vignette of his life in the wilds: I must confess I understood anthropophagy (Cannibalism -- I looked it up) better on one of my voyages when, after having spent twenty-four hours without eating because of the loss of all my provisions while crossing a waterfall, I ate monkey for the first time. This animal, as large as a human roasted on a stick, gave me the impression that I was about to eat one of my own kind. He doesn't tell us if he liked it.
All this, and we haven't had a peek at a recipe yet! Remember, we're looking at an encyclopedia here. The original French version (Flammarion, 1907) sold 35,000 copies, and it weighed in at over 1200 pages, fully three times as long as the book that sits atop my printer. Babinski was a polymath, a prophet, a writer -- the "Brillat-Savarin of the twentieth century," dammit! -- and all I really knew of him was that he was born in Paris, buried in Paris, and spent his working life burrowing for bauxite in -- I dunno -- Borneo.
I searched online for Ali-Bab, and came up nearly empty handed, so I plugged in "Henri Babinski." It was deja vu all over again, Dear Reader. Are the biographies of Franco-Polish male cookbook writers like de Pomiane and Babinski to be found only on medical Web sites? What the hell? The man was a mining engineer, not a doctor!
One by one, I opened the articles. Babinski is a very, very famous name in neurological circles. He was a father of modern French neurology, and his name produced page after Google page. I had overlooked the centenary of the discovery of the Extensor Plantar Response, otherwise known as the Babinski Sign, back in 1996. Among neurologists, it seems, failure to celebrate this birthday would mean I'd be partying with mere podiatrists for a long, long time. There it was: Henri Babinski in boldface all right, paper after paper. But my historian's heart sank as I realized . . . Wrong Babinski!All these articles discussed Joseph Francois Felix Babinski (1857-1932) the brilliant Babinski, the famous Babinski, the difficult, brooding baby brother.
Nevertheless, there it was: the answer to my questions about Ali-Bab's last adventure. Henri spent the last eleven years of his life nourishing genius, both with his cuisine and with the fraternal devotion of a big brother. His name pops up without fail in Joseph's biographies, not on the merits of his own considerable achievements but because, to quote Clovis Vincent, "Joseph Babinski lived for science and Henri lived for his brother; without Henri Babinski Joseph would not have accomplished that much." Joseph, the younger man, died less than a year after the passing of Henri.
The Babinski Sign
I am not a doctor, and found Dr. Babinski's biographies tough sledding. Luckily for the neurological novice, Joseph's most famous discovery can be explained to the barefoot anywhere: no hospital is required, no electrodes, no framed parchment on your office wall.
Let's play Doctor. I'll remove my Persian slippers, (don't you just love the turned up toes and tiny jingle bells?) and you'll take off your shoes and socks, and we'll cover them with the paper modesty sheet. After a twenty minute wait, we'll uncover them and give each other a sharp poke to the sole with a pointed stick: a pencil, a chopstick -- a larding needle would work nicely. Do you observe the flexion of your thigh, leg, foot, and toes? That's it: Joseph Babinski's Extensor Plantar Response. In fact, even a caress to the sole of the foot will produce the flexion, as you can see in the tiny foot Mary strokes in Raphael's Small Cowper Madonna.
Should you be interested in the history of Joseph Babinski's Extensor Plantar Response, and his eponymous sign, I refer you to Medscape. Should you be, like me, a borderline hypochondriac, avoid it. Please get dressed and stop at the desk on your way out the door.
But it is here, and in other medical sources, that I finally glimpsed the last ten years of Ali-Bab's life. He hung up his pith helmet and pulled on a toque. Perhaps he was tired of extemporaneous haute cuisine in rainforests; maybe he wanted to write. The medical professionals, to a source, imply that he forsook Peru for Paris in order to extend the life and career of his baby brother. I even found a charming anecdote about the irascible Dr. Babinski, interrupted during late morning rounds at the Hopital Pitie in Paris. A timid nurse approached the great man and whispered into his ear. He grabbed his hat and beat it out the door. The message? M. Henri has prepared a souffle for your lunch.
The brothers batched it together in a Belle Epoque flat on the chic stretch of the Boulevard Haussmann near the Opera. I was comforted by this line in the Medscape paper: "His brother was perhaps the more celebrated in French society, being the culinary expert whose Gastronomie Pratique was a well-known cooking reference of the time." (Sic transit gloria!) It continues, " . . . both Babinski brothers embodied the early 20th Century images of self-made men, born of displaced immigrant parents, but integrated at least partly into the fabric of traditional French society."
The recipes in "Practical Gastronomy" confirm Ali-Bab's integration into the pot-au-feu of traditional French cuisine. The recipes are bourgeois standards, clearly written, sprinkled with notes, seasoned with sage advice. (If potato chips are really "an ideal food for diabetics," it should be cause for celebration!) He gives the occasional nod to a classic from Mittel Europa or the Near East, but, for all practical purposes, Child, Beck, and Bertholle mined the same lode of French classics. You don't need this book for hints on Poulet Saute a L'Estragon, Bouillabaisse, or Oeufs Brouilles.
It should be on your bookshelf -- and not in the dusty cave -- because it's a magic carpet ride through the heart, brain, and stomach of Ali-Bab, a hero worthy of Scheherazade. (Should you find a well-preserved first edition of the eleven hundred-page French opus, I would love to find it under the Christmas tree.) My sly Iranian sister named him well. Full disclosure: Your modern houri required twenty-six years, weeks of research, and three revisions to appreciate her wit -- and his. After reading his name hundreds of times, my brain -- at last! -- shouted "Open Sesame!" and I giggled at my bafflement.
Bien sur. Ali-Babinski!
Had Henri Babinski whispered through a crack in the wall of the Bridal Suite, he would have thanked Scheherazade with a tip worth its weight in saffron. "Ma Princesse, don't let history repeat itself. Tonight, after you've spun your tale, whisper in his ear. Tell him from me, ma Fleur, that the Persians, even after the example of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Hebrews . . . fell into habits of luxury and indulgence. Debauchery was rampant. Decadence began."
Monday, August 25, 2003