The daughter of the president of France entered the room and modestly presented the fillet of sole she had cooked. The man at the table, one of the leading food critics in the nation that invented gastronomy, tasted the dish. As he smiled and pronounced it a notable accomplishment, people watching on television all over France broke into laughter.
They laughed and laughed again as other savants waxed eloquent in praising the culinary efforts of Valerie-Ann Giscard d'Estaing. "It's original," cried one after he tasted the mussels in cream sauce she had prepared. "We've never eaten such a dish in the great restaurants of France," decided a pair of critics reacting to her Basque chicken.
Both comments, were correct, but not in the worshipful context in which they were delivered.
The critics were victims of a French institution known as the blague, something akin to a practical joke. As dignified, precise and even arrogant as the French can be, they have a weakness for braoad comedy. They honor Jerry Lwis above any comic save Chaplin and each Sunday millions of them gather about their television sets to discover what stunt Jacques Martin has devised to poke fun at a topical situation or political personality.
In this instance Martin used the publication of the book "The Cuisine of the Young" to strike a blow against the bombast and pomposity with which gastronomic critics attempt to rule the French palate. The president's daughter and her collaborator, the daughter of another prominent politician, had no professional qualifications for their role as cookbook authors. The critics might well have judged the food harshly.
Instead, as Martin had expected, they responded with flattery. "When they write, they are hard," he said, "but facing the president's daughter they felt an itch for the Legion of Honor."
Amusing perhaps, but why so much laughter? Why the phone calls of praise that poured in from chefs after the program? Because Martin and a colleague, in view of the television camera but out of sight of the cook and the critics, doctored each dish between kitchen and table.
The chicken was given a lethal dose of red current jelly. The mussel sauce was enlivened with two heaping teaspoons of powered ginger, forcing the critic to gulp a glass of water before uttering his words of praise. Vanilla extract found its way into a mousse of salmon; the sole's delicate taste was altered with a generous addition of sugar and the pineapple and fruit salad dessert was sprinkled with cayenne pepper.
"This should be on every menu in France," Martin quoted the pineapple critic as saying. "You have opened a new road to the use of spices." Since the program, he has been greeted in restaurants by maitred's carrying pepper mills and asked by a trade association to compose a book of recipes that use extensive amounts of pepper.
It didn't really hurt the standing of food critics," Martin said. "It showed how people will behave in the face of power or authority. After they left (the sequence was filmed), I had Valerie-Anne taste the food and she broke into laughter."
Laughter is very important to Martin, a round-faced man in his mid-40s who stands astride French Sunday television in a way even Ed Sullivan could not have envisioned. From noon until 9 p.m. each week he overseas a continuing series of mini-programs broadcast from a packed, 2,000-seat theater in Paris.
The show includes film clips of humorists such as Robert Benchley, "The Muppet Show" from America ("a work of genius"), a scaled down opera presented by a musical educator, an hour of sports, an evening variety show in the Sullivan tradition and the pieces of satire devised and executed by Martin and a staff of six.
"It's not like Candid Camera," Martin said. "The people always know the camera is there. But somehow we find new pigeions every week."
Some of his wilder shunts have included handing out stilts to Americans outside the American Express office in Paris because "We cannot use your Kennedy Airport for the Concorde, so you cannot use our sidewalks"; getting a senior French official to explain the nation's political system to a teddy bear; having a Gascard d'Estaing look-alike pay a good-will visit to a street lined with brothels; delivering a man in the garb of an Arab dignitary to the Elysee Palace in a motocycle sidecar as an "au pair" exchange of Giscard, who that day had left for a visit to North African.
"I think some of these things are not possible to do in the United States," Martin said. The program, which is shown on government television, has completed its third season and he and his wife were in this country for a two-week visit as tourists.
He began his career as a skit writer and performer, but his taste for social satire led him into journalism as well as television. He does a couumn in the Parisian daily, France-Soir that will appear on the front page three times a week beginning in the fall. "It's humurous, mostly," he said. "I like it when we can laugh at the news. But sometimes I am serious. Sometimes it is necessary to be serious."