Today is the birthday (1622) of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, a French playwright and actor who is generally considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, although he is not very well known, popularly, these days in the English-speaking world (largely because intelligence and wit are unfashionable). I’ll give you a snippet of his biography (the rest you can find for yourself). Then I will give you some of my favorite quotes.
Molière was born into a prosperous family and having studied at the Collège de Clermont (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand) he worked for 13 years as an itinerant actor. Then he began writing plays combining Commedia dell’arte elements with the more refined French comedy of his day.
Through the patronage of aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans—the brother of Louis XIV—Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre. Performing a classic play by Pierre Corneille and a farce of his own, The Doctor in Love, Molière was granted the use of salle du Petit-Bourbon near the Louvre, a spacious room appointed for theatrical performances. Later, Molière was granted the use of the theater in the Palais-Royal. In both locations he found success among Parisians with plays such as The Affected Ladies, The School for Husbands and The School for Wives. (Sorry – I am going to use the English translations). This royal favor brought a royal pension to his troupe and the title Troupe du Roi (“The King’s Troupe”). Molière continued as the official author of court entertainments.
Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière’s satires attracted criticism from moralists and the Catholic Church. Tartuffe and its attack on perceived religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church, while Don Juan was banned from performance. This social ambivalence was summed up in an anecdote that is probably apocryphal, but makes the point, and was immortalized in a classic painting.
One day Louis XIV was informed that certain members of the court refused to invite Molière to join them for a meal because he was just a playwright and, therefore, beneath their dignity. One morning, as the king sat down for breakfast, he invited Molière to join him at the table and enjoy the meal. Conventionally Louis invited the rich and famous to watch him eat, but they had to remain silent as he ate. Louis reportedly kept up a conversation with Molière over the meal and called in to the room everyone who normally attended his breakfast. Supposedly after this royal lesson, no one ever had qualms again about inviting Molière for a meal.
Molière’s hard work in so many theatrical capacities took its toll on his health and, by 1667, he was forced to take a break from the stage. In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.
Here’s a smattering of Molière’s quotes (they are by no means all meant to amuse, and the English translations fail to capture the original French – my apologies again):
It is a folly second to none; to try to improve the world.
It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.
Some of the most famous books are the least worth reading.
The only people who can be excused for letting a bad book loose on the world are the poor devils who have to write for a living.
Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.
Love is a great master. It teaches us to be what we never were.
All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.
Unbroken happiness is a bore: it should have ups and downs.
I want people to be sincere; a man of honor shouldn’t speak a single word that doesn’t come straight from his heart.
I have the fault of being a little more sincere than is proper.
Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.
The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.
One ought to look a good deal at oneself before thinking of condemning others.
We must take the good with the bad because the good when it’s good is so very good, that the bad when it’s bad isn’t so bad!
There is something inexpressibly charming in falling in love and, surely, the whole pleasure lies in the fact that love isn’t lasting.
So that we can transition into talk about food I will add:
I live on good soup, not on fine words.
It’s often said that fine French cuisine began in the time of Molière with the publication of Le cuisinier françois by Pierre François La Varenne in 1651. The full text in the original can be found here — http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k114423k/f1.image It’s not that hard to read if your French is halfway decent, and there are hundreds of recipes to choose from that look a lot like modern French recipes. La Varenne’s work was the first to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, particularly in the court of Louis XIV, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner, according to rules and principles. He introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce, for example, he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the base for sauces, and lard with butter. You can also find the first usage of terms such as bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, and the use of egg-whites for clarifying stocks. It also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. The cooking of vegetables is considered at some length, which was unusual for the times because vegetables previously were not popular. In a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”
Here’s my adaptation of Varenne’s recipe for garden peas, which were a fad in 17th century France. This makes an excellent side dish. The peas should be seasonal and freshly shucked.
Varenne’s Garden Peas
3 cups freshly shucked garden peas
3 tbsp butter
2 oz rendered pork fat or bacon fat
1 head of lettuce
finely chopped chives
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves separated from the staly
salt and pepper
2 tbsp rich beef broth
¼ cup crème fraîche
Break off the tough outer leaves of the lettuce and plunge the head in boiling water for a few seconds to blanch it. Immediately drain it and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Then chop it to a size that suits you.
Heat the butter and pork fat (or bacon fat) in a large skillet over medium-low hear until the butter has melted. Add the peas and stir them so that they are all covered in butter and fat. Add the other ingredients, except for the crème fraîche, and simmer, covered, until the peas are just cooked. Uncover, stir in the crème fraîche, heat for a minute, and serve.