A Discerning Palate

A Discerning Palate (A Delectable Descent)

We were all rather shocked to discover we had been eating human flesh.

Well, eating would be the wrong word. Rather, we were dining. Dining on human flesh had over that period became the height of our groups social calendar, as odd as the thought may seem to you now. Reginald Boucher was introduced to the wine club in the spring of 1988 by Gilbert Chestwich – an absolute cad of a man who nonetheless became an essential fixture at our selective post meeting dinner parties for his standing as Montreal’s premiere restaurant critic, and for the bracing salvos loosed from his rapier tongue.

Regardless of the source of his induction, Boucher was an immediate smash hit among the society. Polite. Dashingly handsome. Whip smart and oh so drawl; Reginald was a piquant, saucy distraction among a stuffy bunch of brooding epicureans who were becoming rather set in stale old patterns. Only once Reginald had finally observed the established waiting period prior to investiture of a new member and successfully traversed the complex political ladder within the society was he deigned as the next host of the bimonthly ‘Dine & Wine’ soiree.

And what a grand event it was. Boucher’s evening was a symphony in haute cuisine. Presentation was his most obvious accomplishment with not a detail spared nor overlooked. Many hosts brought on hired help for their evenings, not only to avoid the tiresome work of actually preparing the food but to assure the rest of us that they were indeed cut from as fine a cloth as that which neatly shielded our Hugo Boss shirts and Valentino cocktail dresses.

Reginald however, utilised his help to achieve heretofore unthinkably precise, unique dishes that simply soared above the best courses we had yet seen. The filet de sole roti at Marcus Kent’s. The mise en bouche minimaliste dotted on peculiar tiny china espresso plates at Margery Tywhitt’s. The seemingly sumptuous sous vide salmon with apricot reduction served at Damien Heard’s Hamptons townhouse. All were rendered simply ordinary by comparison.

True French cuisine was a sought after experience in Montreal. To do it justice at a Wine & Dine would be a crowning achievement; to do it poorly would surely earn you an unshakable private derision among the group. Since so few of us were actually prepared to face any such derision, the dinner parties became increasingly staid, safe affairs. Elevating oneself to host brought with it a great status within the society and the role of guest was equally earned and fought over. Being on the outside – or worse, ousted from the inside – was deathly in a group like this, and so things stayed.

After so many tiresome plates of world cuisine we were due a change. Routine rehashes of once ravishing recipes were consumed without comment. Interminable parades of incongruous courses were silently endured, then denigrated in upstairs bathrooms, on balconies and by exterior water features. Countless evenings were whiled away eating god awful “Creole Soul food” serenaded by Miles Davis records at Tyson Perrimore’s whilst everyone politely retained their criticisms for fear of the inherent racial component.

Suffice to say, once Reginald entered the picture, there were a lot of loose tongues and even more hurt feelings. Things quickly became more competitive and a small but highly vocal group of disgruntled hosts began to question the omnipresence of Boucher’s banquets and quoted the club charter in a vain attempt to undermine him. Of course, the charter held no power over these informal gatherings and even if it did, the food was now simply too good and the deriders were dismissed.

Yes, Reginald had some critics, but even that catty bitch Cathy Allen had to concede that this new dining revelation was impeccable. Each poor host serving as a buffer between his transcendent servings valiantly attempted to match him, inevitably coming up short. Once you had a taste of true art, everything else was just, missing something. By the 1989 Opéra de Montréal fall season, Corkmaster Laurent Depardieu declared Reg the toast of the season. He would have pinned a damned Michelin star on his chest like a medal there and then if he could.

And so it went on, delectable dish after delectable dish. Each soiree -at this point having bloated to banquet proportions – followed the latest Opera, Shakespeare or Symphony and was as much of a gala event as the actual performance which preceded it.

And yet, Reginald, ever the entertaining but boastful host, felt he could do one better. And so the date was set for what would become the unplanned yet unequivocal apogee of the Montreal Wine Appreciation Societies Wine & Dine evenings. A sumptuous set of meals to follow each of that winter’s instalments of Wagners Ring Cycle was arranged.

Our expectations soared and were met with reality. Each successive movement of Wagners Der Ring des Nibelungen was perfection as was the dinner which followed until, with Götterdämmerung, Reginalds menu coalesced with the nights subject matter in dramatic, unprecedented ways none of us could have forseen nor wished for.

In a rare break from his established style, Reginald had chosen this night to serve his magnum opus, kaiseke 懐石. A Japanese fourteen course meal where presentation is paramount seemed the essential end to his oeuvre. Just as a splendid sushi based second course (Hassun 八寸) had been served, the veil of refinement came crashing down along with some lovely venetian blinds and an imported Italian hand carved cherry oak door.

Countless men burst into the room, burly shapes emblazoned with the letters “FBI” on their backs. They entered brusquely, knocking over chairs and needlessly shattering a lovely aged bottled of dai ginjo sake. Shrill cries pierced the room as the men shouted at Reginald, then began firing harried salvos at him as he cut at the nearest agents face, spilling blood over the Hassun he had so delicately prepared just moments earlier. It was a profoundly undignified experience.

We were all rather shocked to discover we had been eating human flesh. They explained it to us as gently as one can explain this sort of thing. Sobs and wails spread throughout the diners as Reginald Bouchers corpse was wheeled out of his home behind us.

In time we would be hounded by the press and harangued for comment on the situation. It appeared that for each of the much ballyhooed dinners Reginald prepared to coincide with the latest cultural showing, he also abducted and served up an extra unwitting dinner guest. In the end it was the societies steady, regimented scheduling that raised the red flag for investigators.  Police and private psychiatrists attempted to attenuate the trauma of the events for us, but the Montreal Wine Appreciation Society would dissolve soon after.

French haute cuisine features what many would deem to be unusual cuts of meat. In this way, it was the perfect guise for Boucher’s particularly sinister ingredients, not least because for all the bluster of the so called refined set, they’re no more experienced than the average adventurous eater. The most pressing question most of us would receive was along the lines of “how did it feel to find out you had been eating people?”, but I felt the media at large rather missed the point.

The sushi, of course, was not fish. Sliced abdomen. Various appendages were disguised in this way, used to form meaty stocks and so forth whereas others were simply introduced wholesale. Liver, pâté, sweetbread, brain. I’m sure you get the idea.

I’m also sure that many of us were as oblivious as to what was on our plates as they were about the plight of children living in the Congo, or the AIDS epidemic, or how to properly perform a splenectomy. Many of us however, surely knew or suspected.

As a surgeon, I’ve studied and practiced with human anatomy enough to recognise it in the flesh, so to speak. As a foodie, I know my way around the kitchen and a good meal. I’ll admit, I was suspicious at an early stage. We all were. How could this be so new, so refreshing, so good even for a discerning palate? It became apparent to me with the roasted foie gras with a fig and grape glaze that I was eating people.

But I said nothing. It was taboo yes, but isn’t veal taboo? Dog meat is taboo, but was eaten regularly in Germany throughout history and still eaten in many countries to this day. The Donner party descended into cannibalism in 1846, and plenty of tribes throughout the world dine on their fellow man with impunity. Who am I to draw the line? This is simply a matter of cultural snobbery.

Reginald never once hinted at his true nature, and I never again questioned what I was eating until that final, dramatic dining dénouement. It was too good to stop. My fellow diners deny all knowledge of events, but I know they can’t all be oblivious. There are rumors that a small cabal of dedicated former society members continue these Wine & Dines still. The notion is preposterous; that they would continue in secret without inviting me is laughable.

And so I search the restaurants of Montreal and Manhattan for that elusive taste. Trying to recapture that glorious dining delight; trying to cleanse my sullied palate and forget about Reginald Boucher.

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