Les Dîners de Gala, by Salvador Dali

Some cookbooks are written to fulfill a necessity. For instance, the first book we tackled for the Historical Cooking Project back in November, Catharine Parr Traill's The Female Emigrant's Guide, was designed to teach town-dwelling Englishwomen how to cook with the ingredients they would find in the Canadian backwoods. Le Livre de la Nouvelle Mariée sought to teach new brides how to cook and raise a family in the days of the Great Depression. It seems that many of the cookbooks that we are drawn to are designed for home cooks -- they seek to motivate people to cook nourishing food for themselves. Salvador Dali's Les Dîners de Gala is not that kind of cookbook.

When I first read that Salvador Dali, the most well-known Surrealist artist of the twentieth century and a renowned eccentric, had authored a cookbook, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I find Catalan cuisine from Dali's boyhood? Or, perhaps, techniques for how to melt a clock to the ideal temperature for it to drape perfectly over a tree branch? What kind of recipes would be expected from a man who once drove 500 kilograms of cauliflower to Paris? In fact, Les Dîners de Gala features exclusively sumptuous foods, dishes which seem designed to cram costly, caloric ingredients together and present them as memorably as possible. The book is named after Dali's wife and muse, who went by the name Gala, but the double meaning of the title -- "les dîners de gala" being lavish dinners eaten for special occasions -- is clear from the images included.

Les Dîners de Gala is a compilation of recipes arranged around twelve themes -- from a whole chapter on frog's legs and snails called " Les spoutniks astiqués d’asticots statistiques" (meant for Holy Week) to "les je mange Gala," a chapter of aphrodisiacs. The recipes included here do not skimp on ingredients -- truffles and heavy cream gild the game birds included, and it is rare to find a recipe which only includes one non-vegetarian ingredient (if there is ham in a recipe, there is almost always also bacon as well). Some of the recipes included are attributed to chefs from famous restaurants such as Maxim's and Le Buffet de la Gare de Lyon; it is unknown if Dali himself penned the remaining recipes or not. Even dishes which seem simple here contain esoteric ingredients; I eat avocado toast all the time, but I've never been tempted to include lamb brains in my version of the dish. Considering that the book was published in 1973, Dali was very much in opposition to the burgeoning diet movement in the United States. He notes in the introduction that his book is not designed for anyone watching their waistline:

"We intend to ignore those charts and tables in which chemistry takes the place of gastronomy. 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."

In the years since Dali's death, his corner of Catalonia has become well known for the work of another artist with an appreciation for eye-popping food presentation. Ferran Adrià, known as "the Salvador Dali of the kitchen," ran the restaurant El Bulli just a few kilometers from Dali's home of Cadaques, Spain. During the time that it was open, the restaurant served 8,000 diners a year, who were selected, lottery-style, from among two million competitors. Unless you happened to live along the Catalonian coast already, a diner at El Bulli would, on top of the 250 Euro charge per person, incur plane, hotel and taxi costs for the opportunity to partake in a thirty-five course tasting menu at "the best restaurant in the world." Like the recipes in Les Dîners de Gala, a meal at El Bulli was not meant to assuage hunger, but to provide pleasure. These experiences involve meals which are  luxuries, rather than necessities.

The work of artists like Adrià and Dali raises questions about the need for such lavish meals. Is it acceptable to pay 250 Euros for a memorable meal made by an artist? Or is the idea of treating food as art, a commodity to be refined and sold at a high price, a disservice to those who struggle to put food on the table each night? While I don't shave truffles over my own roast chickens, I think there's something to be said for getting as much enjoyment out of your food as possible. Whether or not Dali cooked, or even wrote, the recipes in Les Dîners de Gala himself, the book shows his passion for food. Looking beyond the bizarre qualities of some of the recipes here, I think that Dali has an important lesson for us all - food is to be enjoyed, not simply tolerated. I, as well as most of my friends, may not delight in offal, whole pheasants served with feathers intact, or "Casanova cocktails." That does not mean, however, that we need to forego the occasional extraordinary meal. After all, we need to eat anyway -- it makes sense to enjoy our food as much as we can.

For the next couple of weeks, the members of the Historical Cooking Project will explore a few of the dishes from Les Dîners de Gala; please keep up with the blog to find out how to have a Surreal experience in the kitchen. If you'd like to try following some of the recipes yourself, see if one of your local libraries has a copy of this tome; the book is out of print, and used copies can sell for thousands of dollars. More images from the cookbook can be seen at brainpickings.org; please take note that many of the illustrations are fairly erotic and are therefore NSFW.


  1. Haha,"les je mange gala!"


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