Les Dîners de Gala
Rare cookbooks are great fun: the Prohibition dazzle of Giggle Water, the raw prestige of an early-edition Escoffier. Among the strangest, and rarest was Les Dîners de Gala, a grotesquely opulent cookbook penned and illustrated by Salvador Dalí. It was an object whispered about here and there among chefs, a near-myth that few had actually held in their hands.
The book, now reprinted by Taschen, commemorates Dalí’s profound love of elaborate eating. It is also a passionate ode to his wife and muse, Gala, whose image haunts the illustrations and with whom Dalí hosted decade after decade of lavish dinner parties. Guests could expect fish served inside slippers, or frogs jumping out from medieval tureens. They dined amid the howling of hired monkeys. These were parties designed to present a living manifestation of the surrealist ideal.
And yet to read through Les Dîners is to understand that food was not just another vehicle for Dalí’s exhibitionism. His friend Pierre Roumeguere, introducing the book, quotes him as saying, “The sensual intelligence housed in the tabernacle of my palate beckons me to pay the greatest attention to food.” The religious allusion is not careless. We are given to understand that for Dalí, the act of eating represented a sacred opportunity for self-realization amid existential crisis. “I know what I eat,” he once said, “I know not what I do.”
The careful language he uses in the recipes bears this out. Sure, the chapter titles are full of his trademark exotica (“Les Entre-Plats Sodomisés” for meats, “Je Mange GALA” for the aphrodisiac course), but the recipes themselves are lessons in humble, crystal-clear delivery. It is a very sober Dalí who writes, “First of all, let us prepare the slices of the conger eel by removing the skin and the central bone, one by one…” He wants us to experience exactly what he did while consuming his Conger of the Rising Sun. This wild inventiveness alongside careful execution calls to mind his paintings—famously strange, yet everywhere full of technical mastery.
Dalí warns us right away that his recipes are not for the faint of heart: “If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive, and far too impertinent for you.” The warning is well-taken. Oasis Leek Pie is harmless enough, but soon we arrive at Larded Meat á la Mode, the Breast of Venus and Toffee with Pine Cones. All 136 recipes are doused in Dalí’s surrealism; all are meant for real-world preparation.
Still, the book can be enjoyed without ever melting a pat of butter in a pan. It carries our minds back to an unrestrained era of French cooking, when rich sauces were considered so de rigueur that they are only casually referenced at the end of recipes. A handful of the instructions were provided by the old high-command of Parisian restaurants—La Tour d’Argent, Maxim’s, Lasserre—where Dalí regularly held court throughout his life.
And then there are the illustrations—some of them fully-executed paintings. The illustration for the “Soft Watches Half Asleep” chapter features a macabre parade of crayfish topped by deranged human faces. Halved fruits sit beneath them like fascist banners, and beneath those we find a cartoon narrating the attempted murder of a frog. The images are wrapped around each other and presented on a silver platter. What sort of dish is this? Whose appetite could it possibly arouse? Everywhere in the visual elements we find perverse juxtapositions between violence and delight, plentitude and decay—the “coincidence of opposites” that was the elemental component of Dalí’s life’s work. No opposition delighted him more than that between sustenance and death. To eat well, he once said, is “to die a lot.”