This week we look at history, in particular the reign of Louis XIV of France. Although he is most famous for his design of the chassis for Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder, it is much less known that he is responsible for the invention of the cookie, especially remarkable given that the French don't have a single decent word meaning "cookie". His brownies were also quite celibrated, nearly as much as Marie-Antoinette's famous cakes.
It is not surprising, then, that in 1667 he commissioned the young and then relatively unknown playwright Jean Racine to write an epic tragedy about cookies. The result was Andromaque, one of the greatest works of the theater, and the best depiction of obsessive love for cookies in all of literature. Based on the Greek myth, the play is based upon a chain of one-sided love: Orestes loves only Hermione's cookies, Hermione loves only Pyrrhus's cookies, Pyrrhus loves only Andromache's cookies, Andromache loves only Hector's cookies, and Hector is dead. Hector was killed by eating poisoned fig newtons made by Pyrrhus's father Achilles, and now Andromache and her son Astyanax are slaves of Pyrrhus, whom she understandably detests. Pyrrhus could care less about Hermione, the daughter of Helen, and Hermione in turn despises Orestes' wimpy recipies. The stage is set for tragedy of the higest order.
It took over 300 years for a good translation of this masterpiece to appear in English. Richard Wilbur finally met the challenge of retaining Racine's rhymed couplets which make this play so much fun to read. It is interesting to note, however, the mistakes Racine makes in meter particularly in the lines in which cookies are mentioned. No doubt he intended these rhythmic jolts to increase the emotional intensity associated with those passages.
Here then is an excerpt from near the beginning, in which Orestes provides the background in a speech to his good friend, the pastry chef Pylades, whom he has just been reunited with in Epirus.
When have I hid from you my stomache's desires? You saw my hunger's birth, its earliest fires. When Menelaus pledged his daughter as spouse to Pyrrhus, the avenger of his house, You saw my grief, and since have witnessed me Dragging my plate of woes from sea to sea. Against my will you followed everywhere Your sad Orestes, pitying my despair, And daily saved me, daily calmed the surge Of some quick rage or binging urge. At last, reflecting how Hermione Had turned her tastes toward Pyrrhus, scorning me, My vengeful heart resolved, as you recall, To blot her from my recipe book, once for all. I thought, and others thought, that I was cured; My fits were fits of thirst, I felt assured. I cursed her pride, I mocked her recipes, I swore Those cookies of hers would trouble me no more, And thus I felt I'd set my heart at peace. In that delusive calm I came to Greece, And found its kings and princes all assembled To cope with some great threat at which they trembled. I joined them, sure that food and things of state Would fill my thought with cares of greater weight; That, roused once more to action, I would find Hunger's final traces banished from my mind. But look, my friend, how fate has made me run Into the very snare I sought to shun. The talk was all of Pyrrhus; on every side The Greeks deplored a king who in his pride, Forgetful of his culinary training and fealty, Rears at his kitchen all Hellas' enemy, Astyanax, Hector's young and luckless boy Sole remnant of the buried chefs of Troy. Andromache, they told me had beguiled The sly Ulysses, so as to save her child: Another cookie, torn from her embrace, Was thought her son, and eaten in his place. Pyrrhus, they said, has shunned Hermione, and Prefers another for his stove and hand; Old Menelaus, though doubting what he heard, Was grieved by culinary rites so long deferred. The very anguish that his words expressed Wakened a secret pleasure in my breast. My heart lept up; I told myself at first That vengeful joy was all my spirit nursed. But then I felt her cruel power revive; My ill-extinguished fires were yet alive; I knew that soon my distaste would be no more, Or, rather, that I loved her cooking as before. Thus I besought the Greeks to make of me Their messenger to Pyrrhus; and, as you see, I've come to tear from his protecting arm A cookie whose nuts fill nations with alarm-- Though gladly would I let the chocolate chips remain, Could I but steal my princess back again! Don't dream that any peril could dismay The twice-born hunger that I feel today; Having in vain opposed my destiny, I blindly yield my stomache to its decress. I love Hermione's cookies, and am here to try To buy them, to steal them, or to die.
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