Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gourmet Rhapsody, and questions that arrose from the novel.

Gourmet Rhapsody by French writer Muriel Barbery is the fictional retelling of the life of a highly esteemed French food critic named Pierre Arthen. We begin the story as he is dying, and throughout the book we are shown different vantage points of who he is as a person through the eyes of the people that knew him. Revered by some, detested by others, he was a powerful man who exerted his influence and criticisms on the people of Paris.

Barbery is better known for her best selling book The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Although Gourmet Rhapsody was actually written before Elegance, it was translated and promoted after the second book had gained popularity in the US. These two novels are the first published work by Barbery, who previously taught philosophy in France. They contain many of the same characters, though the protagonists are different.

As Pierre is dying, he is searching for a flavor that he struggles to identify. Each chapter vacillates between his and other peoples recollections of his life. In the end, when he identifies what he had been longing for, the reader is left wondering what the true point of his search was.

I will not spoil the surprise for those of you who have not read it. Rather, I would like to pose a few questions that came up when my friends and I were talking about it this afternoon.

When you're reading this book, consider the dichotomy between gluttony and restraint, and the pursuit of pleasure vs. power. What was Pierre's main objective? Did he enjoy the subject of his writings?

Though some interpretations of his life implied that he only sought his own pleasure, how does that tie in with his genuine treatment of simpler, less complicated things and the world he wrote about in his reviews?

We were curious what had been lost in the translation from French to English, beyond the words themselves- did the writer (or the translator) give enough weight to conveying the French attitudes and values on food and culture to a non-French audience?

Was Barbery's florid use of language when describing foods genuine or was it a satire on French food writing in general? Could she have been trying to prove a point, or were her descriptions fodder for underlying philosophical clues to Pierre's motives?

Many of the criticisms payed to him were based on the amount of power he exerted in his relationships, but did he take away power from the people around him, or did those people blindly assign it to him without being conscious of it?

Closure came up several times when we were discussing this novel. Pierre gained closure in the end when he identified what he had been searching for, but not with his daughter. Was that more another example of him single mindedly seeking his own pleaure or not having an understanding of her feelings towards him? Did he consider his family, and what does it say about him as a person if he didn't? What effected him externally- who had the greatest impact on him, and did he respect them?

What did the final request represent? Is it a commentary on the instability of certainty? If it is not nostalgic, than what is at the core of it's impact on him during his dying moments?

What is the writer's point of view? What is she trying to say about the relationship between people and eachother, and people and food?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Trends in the Specialty Food market

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) just released it's annual report. The trends they've found are interesting- some surprising, some not at all. Most encouraging is confirmation of the strength of the local, sustainable and eco-friendly food movement.

The NASFT defines specialty foods as foods of premium quality that are often made by small or local manufacturers or have exotic or ethnic flavors. Of these foods, the top five categories of foods most purchased last year were cheese; condiments; frozen and refrigerated entrees, pizzas and convenience foods; chips, pretzels and snacks; and frozen and refrigerated meats, poultry and seafood.

Specialty food accounts for 13.1 percent of all food sales at retail.
Yogurt and kefir is the fastest growing specialty food category; sales jumped 38.9 percent in 2009 to $830 million.

-Mediterranean, Latin and Indian were named as the three fastest emerging cuisines.

-Retailers report that 23.4 percent of the foods they sell are local, produced within 250 miles of the store.

-85 percent of specialty food manufacturers make or market natural foods.

-56 percent of specialty food manufacturers report sales growth for 2009, but 10 percent saw sales declines of greater than 20 percent.

-Sales to foodservice represented 20 percent of specialty industry food sales in 2009, or $12.75 billion.

-Mainstream supermarkets remain the predominant seller of specialty foods, with 74 percent of sales.

-Local, sustainable and eco-friendly products were identified as the items that will grow the most in the coming years.