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When Did Gluttony Become So Glamorous?

By Ligaya Mishan

Photo by Sharon Core. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Prop styling by Maria SantanaA meal inspired by the Surrealist provocateur Salvador Dalí’s 1973 French cookbook, “Les Dîners de Gala,” featuring, from left, an artichoke-and-thai-chili totem rising from an antique vase full of split peas and lentils; a tower of cooked lobsters, langoustines and kale; aspic studded with olives, gooseberries and petits poivrons; and a pastry peacock (in lieu of taxidermy) alongside a bowl of grapes.

Langoustines drooped from above, their whiskers trailing like vines. Below them, the table was laden with duck potpies, caviar and great loaves of pâté; lobster tails spilling from a ceramic shell nearly as large as the one that birthed Venus; lamb chops with the bones jutting out amid cracked-open pomegranates yielding glittering ruby seeds. Some of this could be eaten — the lobster tails were replenished every few minutes, a seemingly endless supply — but what could be done with a swan built to scale out of artichoke petals, or kumquats rising to a tall, narrow peak that recalled the perilous architecture of a croquembouche?

This was less banquet than elaborate tableau, staged last spring by the New York caterer Olivier Cheng to mark the opening of the Hermès boutique in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Extravagant food displays have become a motif at high-end fashion, design and other events in the past few years, from the pyramid of shrimp layered with roses and the three-foot-long challah surrounded by butter renditions of the face of Michelangelo’s David, created by the New York-based artist Laila Gohar for the opening of the Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées in Paris in March, to an event last October at Longchamp’s SoHo boutique, where the Brooklyn catering company known as BoardGirlsNY dispensed with serving ware and instead heaped food directly on the six-foot-long table, a sprawl that was at once wreckage and bounty, with macarons tilting up against raw broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes tumbling over coins of salami and giant rough-hewn cantaloupe halves daring someone to scoop out their flesh.

Related story: On Set | The Making of a Lobster Tower

In another era — ancient Rome, perhaps, or 18th-century France — such profligacy might have been interpreted as the last gasp of a blinkered privileged class before the revolution. But now a strange satirical spirit appears to be at play, self-consciously looking back to the debaucheries of antiquity with a knowing eye. The Hermès feast was so excessive as to become a commentary on excess, on the enormous marshalling of resources, expenditure of labour and frenzied attention to detail devoted to the ephemeral pleasures of a single night. In this it served as a metaphor for fashion itself and the great machinery of artifice that each fleeting season creates clothes and accessories to be exulted over, scrambled after and then pushed to the back of the closet to make way for the new.

Obsolescence is the dark side of fashion, which, accordingly, has always (and often intentionally) blurred the line between narcissism and futility. These lavish buffets explicitly invoke vanity in the Old World form of vanitas, the 17th-century genre of Dutch still lifes that sought to illustrate, through an arrangement of objects, the transience of human existence. Each carefully chosen item holds within it its doom: expensive fruit imported from abroad and soon to rot, flowers already listing, a bubble unmoored, about to land. At the Hermès event, platters were lit by candelabra, and a faux butterfly — another vanitas motif, its life span but a moment — perched on a dome of jelly flecked with silver foil.

But unlike the still lifes of the 17th century — so heavily freighted with moral sensibility, favouring the eternal kingdom over earthly delights — these recent tableaus suggest a rage against the dying of the light. If anything, the hint at demise heightens the revelry, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), when a prince throws a masquerade ball inside a castellated abbey even as a plague decimates the peasants outside. The first-century poet Juvenal, who satirised the excesses that would lead to the collapse of the Roman Empire, likewise wrote of those who remained in denial as the end looms, retreating further into indulgence: “The greater their straits — though the house is ready to fall, and the daylight begins to show between the cracks — the more luxuriously and daintily do they dine.”

Excess is defiance, sometimes literally, as in ancient Rome, when the government imposed so-called sumptuary laws to prevent extravagant spectacles. In response, the most powerful in society outdid each other with menus of difficult-to-procure exotica: boiled flamingo, peacock brains, nightingale tongues and parrot heads; camel heels, sow’s udders, mullet guts and milk-gorged snails.

The Hermès party was almost austere in comparison. But a moral note did creep in, slyly, in keeping with recent calls by protesters on the far left to “eat the rich” — a slogan lifted from a phrase often misattributed to the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” That night, actors were hired with a counterintuitive mission: to disrupt the proceedings and purposefully unsettle guests. Posing as staff, they loudly bungled names, shrieked in corners and snatched away plates. It was a warning amid the debauchery: Don’t rest easy. Trouble is coming.

There is at least one historical instance in which an over-the-top affair helped bring its host to ruin. In 1661, Nicolas Fouquet, France’s finance minister under Louis XIV, threw a party so ostentatious that it convinced its observers of a long-held suspicion that the erstwhile government functionary was skimming off crown funds for his own benefit. He was arrested on charges of treason and embezzlement and put in prison, where he would die in 1680. But Louis XIV, while righteously angry, didn’t take the lesson to heart: He poached Fouquet’s architect for himself in order to transform a relatively humble hunting lodge near Versailles into a proper chateau. There, the feasts grew lusher, grander, madder with each royal generation. Finally, all that was left was the guillotine.

Crystal decanter and silver pheasant from Nelson & Nelson Antiques. Silver Warwick vase from S. J. Shrubsole. Silver plate (with aspic) from Nathan Horowicz Antiques. Photo assistant: Madison Emond. Food assistants: Jen Monroe and Mariko Makino. Prop assistant: Sarah Ballard.