The moment I heard there was a copy of Les Diners de Gala, a collection of recipes by Salvador Dalí, at the main branch of the New York Public Library, I knew I had to go see it. Accustomed to the amazonian age where anything you want to read is in your hands in 2 clicks and 3-5 days, it was a few months before I made my way there. Passing the stone lions on the steps, the candelabras of the marble entrance, and a labyrinth of wood paneled reading rooms, I realized it was the perfect setting to delve into this particular cookbook which early on quotes Dalí:
I attribute capital esthetic and moral values to food in general, and to spinach in particular. The opposite of shapeless spinach, is armor. I love eating suits of arms, in fact I love all shell fish…food that only a battle to peel makes it vulnerable to the conquest of our palate.”
Still, when I first opened it, I was a little disappointed. Published in 1973, the photographs had a Willy Wonka glare and the recipes were full of ingredients I couldn’t bring myself to use. Woodcocks and calf’s brains maybe, but shortening? It was clear from the first that they hadn’t been chosen to please or comfort. More likely, they’d been selected to delight, challenge and some times, appall: Conger of the Rising Sun, Father Hans’ Sauerkraut, Peacock A L’Imperiale, Anchovies A La Christmas, and Old Champagne Sorbet to name a few. I read on and slowly let myself enjoy the jewel box strangeness of each creation.
I remembered an art history professor I had in Spain. As a student, she recalled seeing Dalí at the Prado, standing in front of El Bosco’s El jardín de las Delicias for hours a time. This activity must have made him hungry because he begins every chapter – which focus on everything from meats to frogs to game to desserts – with illustrations from the famous work and quotes from Rabelais. The chapter titles were a meal in themselves with names like “les cannibalismes de l’automne” (eggs-seafood), ‘les “je mange Gala”‘ (aphrodisiacs), “les montres molles demi sommeil” (pork), and “les delices petits martyrs” (hors-d’oeuvre). The directions lived up to the titles. So few cookbooks these days call for castrating fish (Peruvian Crayfish), throwing cakes into boiling oil (Mexican Baby Turkeys) or for dishes that are “elephantastic.” One recipe for a Casanova cocktail – a mixture of orange, bitters, ginger, brandy and Cayenne pepper- directs you to “drink…and wait for the effect. It is rather speedy.” Leaving me to wonder exactly what is supposed to happen?
After copying a handful of recipes I might actually try over the next few months, I felt my heart beat a little faster as I crossed the long hall to return it to the stacks. The book that seemed garish and dated had come alive in my hands and I didn’t want to let it go.
I can’t be sure, but think it may have bitten me.