Sunday, January 07, 2007

Word of the day: Chateaubriand

"While you dine on Chateaubriand and champagne, my daughter and I clip grocery coupons and eat leftovers," said former Enron employee Dawn Powers Martin to Jeffrey Skilling during the latter's sentencing last October. Malcolm Gladwell recalled the scene in this week's New Yorker.

I liked the alliteration but I have to admit I didn't know what Chateaubriand was. For guidance, I checked in with that perennially unreliable source, Wikipedia. Here, I learned that Chateaubriand was a man. A French man. I actually knew that; François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was the "father of French Romantic literature."

He was also one of the European explorers of the Middle East that the late scholar Edward Said focused on in his controversial book, Orientalism. The premise of that book, to summarize it hastily, is that in colonizing the East, most specifically the Middle East and North Africa in this context, Western powers like England and Napoleonic France gained such a strangle hold on its people that they ruled even the cultures' descriptions of themselves. Part of this happened through explorations and academic studies. Said wrote:
To so preciously constituted a figure as Chateaubriand, the Orient was a decrepit canvas awaiting his restorative efforts. The Oriental Arab was “civilized man fallen again into a savage state”: no wonder, then, that as he watched Arabs trying to speak French, Chateaubriand felt like Robinson Crusoe thrilled by hearing his parrot speak for the first time.
Everywhere, one encountered Orientals, Arabs whose civilization, religion, and manners were so low, barbaric, and antithetical as to merit reconquest. The Crusades, he argued, were not aggression; they were a just Christian counterpart to Omar’s arrival in Europe.
How familiar this all sounds, even as we try to free an irate Iraqi people from themselves today.

But I digress. Chateaubriand is not just a man, a Romantic novelist, explorer, politician and an ultra-royalist Bourbon supporter; Chateaubriand is a fine cut of beef.

Montmireil, the personal chef of the famous French Orientalist, created the luxurious recipe for his master. For some culinary history, let's check in with that pugnacious little food troll, Emeril Lagasse:
Julia Child says that that it corresponds to the tenderloin portion of a Choice or Prime porterhouse steak. Others describe it as the center section cut from a beef tenderloin. It is usually cut two inches thick, and should weigh a pound or more before trimming, and is always broiled or grilled.

LAROUSSE GASTRONOMIQUE says, too, that it is a slice of very tender fillet steak. It goes on to say that "This French version of English beefsteak was probably dedicated to the Vicomte de Chàteaubriand (1768-1848) by his chef, Montmireil. At the time the steak was cut from the sirloin and served with a reduced sauce made from white and shallots moistened with demi-glace and mixed with butter, tarragon, and lemon juice."

And still another reference explains "Contrary to popular belief, Chàteaubriand is actually a recipe, not a cut of beef. This method of preparation is said to be named for the 19th-century French statesman and author, François Chàteaubriand. It's a succulent, thick cut of beef, (usually taken from the center of the tenderloin) that's large enough for two people. The Chàteaubriand is usually grilled or broiled and served with Béarnaise sauce and chàteau potatoes (potatoes trimmed into olive shapes and sautéed in butter.)"
That was actually written by another chef, one Marcelle Bienvenu, posting on Emeril's Notes for the Kitchen with only a fine-print attribution.

Compare this to Beef Wellington, a recipe cut from the same part of the cow – the tenderloin – as Chateaubriand and named for Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a man who may have also lent his name to a certain sort of rubber boots, originally designed by the Duke after a Hessian style to be "hard wearing for battle, yet comfortable for the evening"

The Duke of Wellington was a contemporary of Chateaubriand’s. While the latter was languishing in exile outside Paris (after a nasty critique of Napoleon), the Duke of Wellington was fighting, and winning, the battle of Waterloo, defeating the recently exiled and escaped Napoleon.

While the connection between the edible Chateaubriand and its namesake is clear, Beef Wellington’s origin is obscure. "Some say it was his favorite meal, and others claim it resembled the boots that he wore, " says Gourmet Magazine. The contemporary version of the dish is a filet of beef, covered with pâté de foie gras and mushrooms and wrapped in a puff pastry.

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Blogger The Masticator said...

Conservative critics often complain that Said's Orientalism (1978) reduced great art and literature to a series of unenlightened political and cultural faux pas.

For a decent conservative critique of Said's most famous legacy, see Keith Windschuttle's 1999 essay in The New Criterion.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I love it, Mr. Masticator. Great Blog. I'm filthy hungry now, though.

3:32 PM  

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