PARIS (RNS)-- It is a raw, midwinter afternoon -- a time when most Parisiansare at work or school, or napping off the country's cherished two-hourlunch. Yet a steady stream of tourists and locals wander into the tinyPoilane bakery on Rue Cherche Midi, snapping up luscious pastries andworld-famous crusty loaves... and--could it be--engaging in a cardinalsin? For indeed, the heady desire to gobble up Poilane's heavy, dark breadand buttery cookies suggests nothing less than "gourmandise" -- a Frenchterm tragically translated as gluttony. And for centuries, French RomanCatholics have been taught that gluttony and gourmandise rank among the listof seven deadly sins. The association of gourmandise and "gluttonerie" has long rankled localepicureans. But today, a group of top French chefs, intellectuals andreligious personalities is fighting to convert gourmandise from a sin to astate of grace. "Gourmandise is more of an attitude, a state of being, a desire toshare, of conviviality," said Catherine Soulier, president of theAssociation on the Question of Gourmandise. "Gluttony is something else.It's eating too much, too rapidly. It's putting too much food in the mouth." Founded by renowned French baker Lionel Poilane, the group drafted apetition to Pope John Paul II to semantically strike "gourmandise" off thelist of cardinal sins. The plea calls for keeping only the word"gluttonerie" as a deadly sin, and would apply only to the French language. Indeed, the pope himself once recalled "the memory of cakes with custardcream, eaten after exams," during a speech, the petitioners reminded thepontiff in their October 2002 letter. Poilane and his wife died in a helicopter crash last November. But inlate January, their 19-year-old daughter, Apollonia Poilane, presented thegourmandise plea to the pope during a private audience at the Vatican. "We have neither hope nor despair" for the vindication of gourmandise,said Soulier, who heads a pair of gastronomy institutes in Paris. "We'rewaiting, with much humility, for the pope and his entourage to reflect onthis question." Perhaps Evagrius of Pontus might have been swayed from his righteouscampaign by tasting the snails in garlic butter, duck a l'orange or petitfours that grace French tables at Sunday lunch. But such delicacies wereconcocted hundreds of years after the fourth century Greek theologian firstinstitutionalized gluttony and six other vices as cardinal sins. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory I slightly edited the list ofsins, replacing sadness with greed, combining vainglory and pride, andadding envy. But gluttony remained as a lesser, but still frowned-upon, actof spiritual weakness.
"These things could be understood at the time -- it was after thereligious persecutions," said Marie-Ange Herbise, who studied thetheological origins of the seven deadly sins for the gourmandiseassociation. "But today we're not in the same period. We see the Gospels andthe Bible in the era of 2003." Good food and godliness have long been closely paired in France. Monksand nuns, once acclaimed for their champagnes and chocolates, still producepungent cheeses and honey, cakes and beers. Celebrated wines such asChateauneuf-du-Pape and Chartreuse carry religious connotations. Even theMichelin restaurant guide is known as "the red bible." Which is why Poilane aficionados like Marie-Claude Salas are outragedthat the baked delicacies now sold in London and New York should be sulliedby a coarser affiliation. "I am surprised by the association of pleasure and gourmandise withgluttony," said Salas, a French Catholic, who emerged from Poilane's LeftBank bakery one recent afternoon with a large loaf tucked under one arm."When we're gourmand, we're open to others. We're people capable ofaccepting and giving pleasure. So we must remain gourmand." The virtues of gourmandise are championed by French of other faiths aswell.
"It's true we're known for being more economical than the Catholics,"said Myriam Delarbre, spokeswoman for the Protestant Federation of France."But a good cake never killed anybody. On this question, we're just asgourmand as the rest." "Gourmandise isn't forbidden," said a spokesman for the IsraeliteConsistory of Paris. "Jews adore eating." The grand mufti of Marseille, Soheib Ben Cheikh, suggested fine dininghas its limits, but said there is no constraint in Islam on eating "good anddelicious things." "Who has the right to forbid the good and pure things God hasdelivered?" Ben Cheikh asked, reciting verses of the Prophet Muhammad asreference. "What's condemned is eating more than what's necessary." For its part, the French Catholic Church appears divided on the meritsof gourmandise. The Council of French Bishops has not commented on the papal petition,which is backed by several prominent French clergy. But FatherFrancois-Marie, a monk in southwest France, had little good to say about theword. "Gourmandise and gluttony go together," said the Benedictine father,whose monastery sells goat's cheese near the city of Bayonne. "We haveanother word for people who appreciate good cuisine -- gourmet. Gourmand iswhere the sin lies." It is unclear when -- or if -- the Vatican will deliver its verdict onthe gourmandise question. But the answer is unlikely to alter French eatinghabits. Or the reputation of Lionel Poilane.
"I'm convinced that Mr. Poilane, in his effort to create good bread andcakes, in his warmth and conviviality, was blessed by God," said Herbise ofthe gourmandise association. "Absolutely."