Son of a highly successful financier and tax farmer, Grimod de la Reyniere was born in 1758 with a pair of deformed hands, apparently shameful enough to keep him indoors and out of public sight throughout his childhood. Swiss craftsmen fitted him with prosthetic hands, with which he learned to use a knife and fork and, more importantly, a pen. He trained as a lawyer, wrote the odd play and criticism (pen name: Le Censeur Dramatique) and socialized with philosophes and other intellectuals. Youthful excess – the pregnant girlfriend, not to mention that time he got caught by an unsuspecting father for throwing a party in which a pig presided at table– saw him get banished from his family’s Paris mansion to a distant abbey.
The punishment turned out to be light. The abbot took a liking to him over their shared interest in over-eating. Following the call of food, de la Reyniere then started a business as a high rent grocer in Lyons and elsewhere. The enterprise failed, as enterprises will.
The Revolution marked a new beginning for de la Reyniere, as for so many others. Grand chefs for the aristocracy, now without employers, found a new audience in the unwashed public. Paris saw restaurants open in large number. Good times for the restaurant critic, which is what de la Reyniere became. Between 1803 and 1812, he published several editions of the Almanach des Gourmands. A sort of combination of the Guide Michelin, or Zagat, (anonymously, presumably for the same reason as critics are today) and Anthony Bourdain, the book reviewed Paris restaurants and celebrated all that is good and great and at times excessive in French cuisine. Turducken? Please. A proper host (as instructed by his follow up volume Manuel des amphitryons) will serve his guests a Rôti Sans Pareil, sixteen layers of bird increasing in size from bunting all the way up to a turkey. (His spirit clearly lives on in England.)
Although he had survived the Revolution, de la Reynière managed to incur the displeasure of Napoleon. No surprise then, when, in 1812, few of his friends, informed of his sudden death and invited to an memorial dinner, dared to show up. Those who did were ushered through a dark entry way past a black draped coffin into a brightly lit room in which was a full table, at the head of which was a cheerful and very much alive Grimod. A divertissement. He had calculated exactly how many would actually show up and had that many places set. It was his farewell to Paris. He had married his long time mistress, and now moved to an aging chateau and lived until the ripe age of 80, alternating a happy gluttony with long restorative walks in the French countryside.