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September 2003 Issue [Readings]

This Is My Body, Have Seconds

The following letter was sent to the pope last October by Lionel Poiliâne, a prominent French baker who died in a helicopter crash later that month. Translated from the French by Donovan Hohn.

Most Holy Father,

There is, in French, an old saying which holds that “we are what we eat.” This folk wisdom about nourishment—versions of which can be found in all cultures—appears to be commendable and sound. Humans, for whom eating is a matter of survival, have devised, according to their various cultures, ways of preparing and concocting an assortment of foods appealing to body and mind alike. The art of nourishment has nurtured the human spirit and human industry for thousands of years. This ancient pursuit has relieved our pain and hardship, and revealed to us that great joy we French call la satisfaction gourmande.

Whereas neither history nor the study of human behavior can demonstrate that the gourmand eats to excess;

Whereas neither religion nor philosophy can demonstrate that, in practice, the gourmand has any effect whatsoever on either human rights or family values;

And, finally, whereas, in his pacifistic works, the gourmand, if he is “good” at what he does, helps quality triumph over quantity;

We humbly beseech you, Most Holy Father, knowing that an outright abolition of the seventh deadly sin would be inconceivable, to modify its French translation. The seventh deadly sin does not have the same sense in Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, or German that it does in French, and thus its “semantico-theological” significance subjects the French-speaking world to an injustice.


—In English, the seventh deadly sin was translated as “gluttony” (la gourmandise, of course, has no English equivalent), a term synonymous with the French “gloutonnerie” or “voracité.”

—The Italian “góla,” which also means gullet, connotes piggishness.

—The Spanish “gula” is roughly synonymous with “gluttony.”

—In German, the word “lüsternheit” signifies the act of eating like an animal that does not know when to stop or with unbridled appetite or like someone who inhales his food.

Now, this entire family of words calling to mind the unbridled appetite of gluttons, of face stuffers, of scarfers, of chowhounds, of epicurean swine, is utterly foreign to French culture and to la gourmandise, which remains the admirable activity of the gourmand.

Over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years, la gourmandise became such a powerful catalyst of virtue that it imbued its creators with a spiritual state of as high a quality, nearly, as their gourmet creations. By baking bread and breaking bread, gourmands became, as we say in French, “bon comme le pain”! Upon consulting the kitchens of the Vatican, I was able to confirm that humility and pleasure are indeed ingredients of simplicity and kindness.

The history of those exceptional wines, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Le Pape Clément, served at your own table, strikingly illustrates this point. These chosen wines of the Vatican require a winemaking expertise of the highest quality. This would seem to provide the basis for the notion of gourmand virtue, because quality is inherently opposed to quantity (and to excess).

The incriminating shadow cast by this condemnation has myriad disgraceful consequences for gourmands, but especially for those directly involved in the creation of gourmet dishes: the mothers and fathers and cooks, and also the fishmongers, the meat roasters, the bakers, the caterers, the cheesemakers, the sauce chefs, the pastry chefs, the sommeliers—all because food has made their lives fruitful and meaningful. The value of their knowhow—exhibited in the preparation of meals, of roasts, of sweets and sorbets, madeleines and brioches, of grilled meats, of soufflés, of stews and marinades, pastries and pates—is intrinsically above reproach.

The numerous feasts mentioned in the Bible offer further support for our case. Time and time again we discover the abundance, availability, and pleasure of food (as at the miraculous wedding of Cana), which represent nothing less than a flowering, a fulfillment, a rapture.

Finally, Most Holy Father, the speech you gave in June 1999 in Warsaw, during which you fondly recalled eating cream buns to celebrate the end of your exams, reassures us that this supplication will receive a sympathetic audience.

Therefore, we hereby wish to propose that in the French version of the catechism the word “gourmandise” be officially changed to “gloutonnerie.” Although the word “intempérance” conveys the idea of condemnable excess equally well, “gloutonnerie” would have the advantage of harmonizing the French with the theological terminology of other languages.

The case against this semantic impropriety calls for your favorable consideration. We respectfully solicit your help, Most Holy Father, in liberating gourmands from the purgatory of verbal ambiguity in which they have suffered for hundreds of years, and from which they have incurred serious harm.

Your humble and devoted servant,
Lionel Poiliâne

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September 2003

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