Every so often I remember Mitterrand’s horrific last meal

20.15, Wednesday 23 Jun 2021

Every so often I think about the last supper of ex French president François Mitterrand, which had a horrifying beauty. He was dying of age and a long illness.

There were oysters and so on, a feast, then a dish called ortolan.

It’s a small songbird. To prepare it, the ortolan is drowned in a glass of Armagnac. This is not a metaphor. It is actually drowned, and then it is cooked in a cassoulet.

It is illegal, but some chefs will make it.

Then to eat it (which is how Mitterrand ate his):

You place a white cloth over your head and pick the bird up with your fingers, and then you eat it whole, wings, feet, organs, head, everything except the feet. The ortolan is supposed to represent the soul of France.

The white cloth is to create a closed sensory world of just taste and scent.

The cloth is also, traditionally, to hide the act from God.

After the meal Mitterrand didn’t eat again (by choice it seems). He died 8 days later.

There was an extraordinary article in Esquire in 1998 by Michael Paterniti telling the story of ortolan, and Mitterrand’s meal… and also Parterniti’s experience in recreating it himself. It’s visceral prose.

Here’s what I taste: Yes, quidbits of meat and organs, the succulent, tiny strands of flesh between the ribs and tail. I put inside myself the last flowered bit of air and Armagnac in its lungs, the body of rainwater and berries. In there, too, is the ocean and Africa and the dip and plunge in a high wind. And the heart that bursts between my teeth.

(Paterniti also did this programme with NPR in 2008 which is a shorter read.)

I don’t know what keeps drawing me back to this story.

It’s shocking, for one. Real shock seems rare in the WEIRD 21st century, like boredom and like awe. I don’t mean shocking like a jump scare, or overwhelmed with horror. I mean the act has this enduring shockingness. No matter how many time I go back over the story, it’s this flawless crystal of beautiful, exquisite taste indivisibly joined to a central horrifyingly barbaric act - the drowning - like an equation somehow. The context in which Mitterrand chose the meal is part of it too. It seems emblematic of so much of the privilege and progress we have today, individually and as society, beauty with an horrific core, irreconcilable you would have thought. An artist or a writer would be able to decipher what’s going on, to diagram the entire thing, but for me it’s like staring at a Rothko painting. I can’t tell you why I can’t look away, but there it is.

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