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Let Them Eat Cake

A scholar finds hints of Versailles in the dinner parties of New York's would-be Sun Kings.

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Carolin Young knows that people don't give dinner parties the way they used to. When Nicolas Fouquet threw a candlelit banquet at his château Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, he served six courses and hundreds of dishes -- pyramids of fruit, flocks of songbirds, a profusion of pheasants, and countless sculpted desserts -- all arranged on garlanded tables to resemble ornate floral knots. Fouquet hired Molière to write a comic play and Lully to compose a string concerto, and also shelled out for fireworks. After the feast, La Fontaine wrote a commemorative poem, and another guest, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was so impressed that he had Versailles built so he could imitate Fouquet's savoir-faire on his own turf. (This, at least, is Young's theory.)

There are foodies and then there are foodies, and Young, 31, a dining historian trained at Christie's, antiques dealership James Robinson, and Peter Kump's Cooking School, is inarguably the second kind. This fall, after a decade of far-flung study with chefs, antiquarians, and art historians in Oxford, France, Italy, New York, and Germany, Young has embarked upon a series of lectures at Sotheby's called "Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver: Stories of Dinner as a Work of Art" (drawn from her upcoming book) to bring her savory expertise to a salivating audience of boomtown bons vivants who want instructions -- down to the silverware -- on giving dinner parties to rival the Sun King's.

"People think if they don't have a silver service with ten different kinds of forks, they aren't capable of giving a dinner party," says Young. "I can tell you that at James Robinson, they sold a lot more silver flatware during the past few years than ever before. But there is not a 'right' way. In some of the fanciest meals of the ancien régime, there is one fork, one knife, and one spoon on the table! Being elegant is not about having a pastry fork and a fish fork; it's about realizing that you're participating in this great human need for occasion. You can give a dinner in a small apartment. It's seductive. Or serve a ham -- I love to watch people taking apart a ham. It has this element of the Baroque: You see this beautiful ornamental object, then watch its destruction, then you have this detritus at the end." She sighs.

Left to her own devices, of course, Young does not stop at a ham. At a joint birthday party at the Paula Cooper Gallery for her architect friends John Bennett and John Keenan, she created a multi-tiered architectural sculpture in black (caviar, squid-ink ravioli, olive crostini), red (duck canapés with cherry glaze, tandoori-chicken brochettes, tomato bruschetta), and green (cucumber garnished with crabmeat). And she has even loftier ambitions: "I'd love to give a Cluny monks' banquet at the Cloisters, or a Casanova souper intime at the Frick, or a Renaissance meal in the Italian courtyard at the Met," she muses. "Dining isn't just about food; it's about the architecture, the ambience, the silver, the porcelain, the people. It's one of the few times in life when all your five senses are being stimulated at the same time."

Attendees of Young's upcoming lecture on Marie Antoinette will get the delectable chance to learn what this kind of sensory overload might have felt like to the queen. At her first lecture, Young asked the capacity Sotheby's crowd how many wanted to attend special dinners re-creating the famous meals she discusses. "Every hand went up," Young recalls. So on October 23, at Nicholsons -- Young's chef friend Patrick Woodside's Upper East Side restaurant -- they will sample the délices that Marie Antoinette could have savored in her "pleasure dairy," all the rage in the eighteenth century. "We will have lots of fresh goat cheeses and some of the more complex creams and mousses in beautiful pale neoclassical colors to reflect the Sèvres porcelain at Marie Antoinette's laiterie," Young rhapsodizes. The vogue for ladies' dairies came from Rousseau's call for a return to nature -- which Young sees echoes of today. "It's kind of like people going to the Hamptons and hunting pristinely made cheeses," she says. "A sophisticated idea of simplicity."


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