We decided to have a special Shrove Tuesday dinner this year at Domus Logogustationis, the clubhouse of the Order of Logogustation. Word tasting is a nonsectarian activity, but we felt a need to have a little carnival to say carnem vale (farewell to meat), as we were giving up our kitchen for lent.
Not for Lent. For lent. We were lending it out to a cook, Marty Graw, for a few weeks so he could run a private cooking class in it. Our arrangement was that, in lieu of rent, he would cook two meals for us all: one just before he started with the class, on Shrove Tuesday, and another after he was done with it, in March. Naturally, for Shrove Tuesday he decided to go with a pancake theme.
So we were all seated around our tables, eagerly awaiting the delights forthcoming. Marty came in with one plate, in the centre of which was his featured assemblage for the first course, and he held it forth to explain to us what it was he was about to serve to each of us when he brought in all our plates.
“At the bottom you will see a buckwheat blini. It is topped with butter whipped with maple syrup. Above that is blueberry caviar with a daydream of orange zest shreds. And, as a coup de gras, on top of all is a piece of flash-seared foie gras.”
He went back into the kitchen to fetch the plates. Maury and I and Philippe Entrecote exchanged glances with each other, eyebrows raised.
“He did say coup de gras, didn’t he?” said Philippe.
“Yes, that’s what I heard,” I said. He couldn’t have said coup de grâce; that has an audible /s/ on the end. “Do you suppose he intended it?”
“I know him,” Maury said. “He’s not the sort of person who says ‘vishy-swa’ for Vichyssoise. I don’t think he’s prone to hyperforeignisms.”
“Precious turns of phrase, perhaps,” Philippe said. “A daydream of orange zest shreds?”
“It’s not a bad pun, anyway,” I said. “The foie gras is, after all, a stroke of grease. Or fat.”
“Perhaps he meant ‘neck of fat’?” Philippe said. The French for that, cou de gras, sounds the same as coup de gras.
“Not unless the goose’s liver is in its neck,” Maury said. “I mean, they do force-feed the birds by massaging food down the neck, but… Perhaps it’s the elbow grease they use to force it down. Coude de gras.” He knew, and we knew that he knew, that coude de gras actually means ‘elbow of grease’, but we let it go.
“Isn’t gavage illegal?” I said.
“Foie gras is illegal in some places,” Maury said. “Because of gavage. The force-feeding of the birds is seen as inhumane.”
“In which case,” Philippe said, “after all that torture, putting the bird out of its misery – and onto our plates – might well be a coup de grâce.”
“Ah, yes,” said Maury, “there’s the point that arched my eyebrows. A coup de grâce is of course not just a nice finishing touch. It’s the bullet through the head of a mortally wounded man. It’s the sword blow to decapitate a samurai who is performing seppuku. The grâce is mercy. It’s a mercy stroke.”
“A handsome stroke of mercy,” I said. “Mercy beau coup.” Philippe sighed and rolled his eyes slightly, not because it was a pun but because it was poorly formed French. Beau does mean ‘handsome’ and coup ‘stroke’ or ‘blow’, but the mercy was out of place.
Just then Marty arrived with our plates. As he set them down, Philippe couldn’t keep himself from gesturing to the foie gras and asking, “Are the geese grâce-fed?”
Marty, not being quite an Olympic-level punster, simply heard it as “grass-fed.” “No,” he said, “grain-fed. Maize, I think, with vitamins.”
“Merci beaucoup,” I said, lifting my knife and fork as soon as my plate had landed in front of me. Philippe rolled his eyes slightly again. Marty went back to the kitchen to get more plates.
“After smelling this coming for the past couple of minutes,” Maury said, “I’m about to die of hunger.”
I took a bite of mine and my eyes nearly rolled back in my head. “Maury, old chap,” I said after swallowing, “put some coude de gras into it and get some gras down your cou. If you’re nearly dead, this will surely deliver the coup de grâce.”
Philippe, chewing with purse-lipped vigor, paused after a swallow to mutter, “That’s what my cardiologist would say.” And then, after a moment, he reached for the wine.