When I heard that the Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show” was opening a Chelsea location of his celebrated bistro, Dorg Schnorfblorp Horganblorps, I was skeptical. I’m always hesitant to believe the hype surrounding celebrity chefs, especially when they’re made of felt. While the city was abuzz, calling Mr. Muppet the new Jean-Georges Vongerichten, I was certain that this newcomer was nothing more than a passing fad, a Swedish Salt Bae. But, after such a tough year for restaurants, I was curious about how this mustachioed madman’s gimmick had sustained its popularity. Eventually, I decided that I had to go see for myself—could the Swedish Chef’s bites ever live up to his bark, or bork?
Dorg Schnorfblorp Horganblorps has been open for only three months but already has a wait list that extends to the end of the year. I was amazed that anyone could get a reservation at all, considering that the restaurant’s Web site contains no helpful links or information, only a GIF of a turkey being chased by the chef wielding a tennis racquet, captioned, “Birdy gerdy floopin.”
I entered Horganblorps expecting chaos, but the restaurant was pristine. A group of prawns scurried out of the gleaming kitchen, cackling among themselves. A handsome rat in a bow tie placed a starched napkin on my lap. I was seated next to two older gentlemen who sustained a witty repartee, critiquing every dish that they were served. “It’s not half bad,” one said. “Nope, it’s all bad!” replied the other. They laughed. Apparently, they are here every night.
I heard the chef before I saw him. Loud bangs, crashes, and moos peppered the haughty murmurings of the upscale dining room—no doubt contributing to the proprietor’s mystique. A swordfish sailed past my head and smacked clumsily against the wall. “Herdy come da fishy wishy!” Our chef had arrived.
Each night, Horganblorps offers a fixed menu featuring a wide range of items. On the evening that I visited, dishes included Chicky Catchy Turdi, Bork Chops, and a specialty item that is listed on the menu solely as a photograph of the chef, trapped inside a lobster pot. There are no prices, only pictures of the Swede in different funny hats.
I was so distracted by my attempts to decipher the menu that I failed to notice that our chef was clutching an antique hunting rifle, chasing a chicken around the dining room, feathers flying. Before he knew it, the chicken had taken control of the firearm, and our chef sought shelter inside the barrel of what I had presumed to be a purely decorative, eighteenth-century naval cannon. The chicken lit the fuse and our chef exploded onto the hostess stand.
To say that the chicken was delivered to us undercooked would be an understatement. It was alive. In fact, it was pumping its feathered fist in celebration.
This remarkable presentation proved to be only one of the night’s many feats of nouveau sophistication, feats that dismantled the performance of traditional fine dining. This Swedish Chef is willing to lay bare the pretentious charade that New York City’s high-end restaurant scene has become. Every night, he throws the elements of that scene into the air, shoots them with a gun, and then allows himself to be crushed by an enormous cast-iron skillet that is inexplicably hanging over his head.
I can now attest that this restaurant is a culinary achievement, and I never even tasted a bite of food. I didn’t need to—the dishes literally speak for themselves. I’ve never been so acutely aware of where my food comes from, how it got here, and with whom it is angry.
We all have something to learn from this chef with no name and seemingly no eyeballs—a chef so dedicated to his craft that he will often end up face down on a cutting board, or with his entire hand in a vat of boiling water. In a city where the art of cooking feels dead, the Swedish Chef is bringing food back to life. “Bork, bork, bork,” indeed.
Sunday Reading: Commemorating Juneteenth
Juneteenth, the commemoration of emancipation, is a moment of reflection for this country. Last year, the Harvard professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed published a piece in The New Yorker about her childhood in Texas and the meaning of the holiday for her family and community. Juneteenth and the Fourth of July were inextricably linked during those years, she notes, in part because the Declaration of Independence carried a promise yet to be fulfilled for Black Americans. “I also did not know, as a child,” she writes, “how intensely African-Americans had fought to keep alive the memory of Juneteenth—to commemorate our ancestors’ struggles and their hopes, and to link them to our own.”
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This week, as we prepare to honor the holiday and those sacrifices, on June 19th, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about racial injustice and the abiding legacy of slavery. In “The Prophecies of George Floyd,” Michael Eric Dyson explores how Floyd’s killing sparked some of the largest protests in American history, and considers the inescapable threat of violence by police officers against Black Americans. In “The Long War Against Slavery,” Casey Cep writes about the protracted struggle of abolitionists and civil-rights activists across the country. In “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain,” Edwidge Danticat reflects on the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, and asks whether the nation will ever confront the devastating repercussions of white supremacy. (“Black bodies are increasingly becoming battlefields upon which horrors are routinely executed, each one so close to the last that we barely have the time to fully grieve and mourn.”) Finally, in “The Matter of Black Lives,” from 2016, Jelani Cobb profiles Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and examines the powerful appeal of the movement that is helping to change America.
Running: A Success Story
Proust and the Sex Rats
Many people have asked me, since the publication of my long review of new books on Proust, about what seemed a perhaps too-casual reference to Proust’s paraphilia—a fancy but fashionable word for a sexual fetish—somehow involving the use, or rather abuse, of caged rats. I had danced past this quickly in the essay, not out of delicacy but out of an unwillingness to linger too long on a controversial point in the Proust biographical literature, and also because to go into it in depth would have required not merely a parenthesis but something more like a relentless footnote, or what used to be called, in the heyday of glossy magazines, a sidebar. Herewith though, in response, is that sidebar, with an attempt to make sense of the anecdote, true or false.
The story of Proust and the sex rats comes in several distinct versions, in itself a marker either of multiple confirmation or of the processes of fable-making. It seems to have made its first public appearance, at least in the English-speaking world, in George Painter’s once “definitive” biography. It occurs in this form: “The wretched creatures were pierced with hatpins or beaten with sticks, while Proust looked on,” according to André Gide, because of his “desire to conjoin the most disparate sensations and emotions for the purposes of orgasm.” Painter sources the story to several different, though not necessarily independent, informants, including, in addition to Gide, the writer Maurice Sachs, who was said to have heard it from Albert Le Cuziat, the owner of a brothel Proust was known to frequent.
In the newer biography by William C. Carter, and then in greater detail in Carter’s 2006 book, “Proust in Love,” the story is repeated in more gruesome form, starting again with Proust in a brothel: “If Proust failed to achieve orgasm [from gazing at a male sex worker] ‘he would make a gesture for me to leave’ and Albert would bring in two cages,’ each of which contained a famished rat. Le Cuziat would set the cages together and open the door. The two starving beasts would attack each other, making piercing squeaks as they clawed and bit each other, a spectacle that allowed Proust to achieve orgasm.”
This version of the story is sourced to Henri Bonnet’s 1985 volume, “Les amours et la sexualité de Marcel Proust,” in which it is said to be reaffirmed by an anonymous prostitute—the quoted speaker in the passage—whose memories were recorded by the writer Marcel Jouhandeau. The, uh, tale, is further confirmed by Carter with an item in Jean Cocteau’s diaries—though Cocteau’s version, in turn, is complicated by an accompanying and not terribly clear account that Proust also somehow, within this ritual, profaned a photograph of his mother.
The story then seems to have entered the cultural mainstream when it was significantly amplified in two improbable places—stranger bedfellows in the dissemination of literary gossip are hard to imagine. The first is Nabokov’s immense, bizarre 1969 novel, “Ada, or Ardor,” in which, among much other material, there is a reference to Proust decapitating rats: “crusty Proust who liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping”—the decapitation being a neat, Nabokovian twist not previously encountered in the literature.
Meanwhile, in Albert Goldman’s best-selling, and once notorious, 1981 biography of Elvis Presley, the story occurs again, as a thing widely known, in the course of Goldman’s discussion of Elvis’s paraphilia—reported presumably by Elvis’s own André Gide, his assistant Lamar Fike, who seems to have been Goldman’s informant on Elvis’s erotic life—which allegedly tended toward movies showing “cat fights,” i.e., half-dressed women wrestling. Goldman—a former professor at Columbia, whose descent into gossipy pop bios should not detract from the intelligence or the excellence of his biography of Lenny Bruce—used the Proust story to make the point that “mama’s boys,” as they were then known (a class that included both Proust and Elvis), might work out their ambivalent feelings about their beloved mothers in sexual play-acting. Proust’s rats were an oddly recherché literary reference for a mass-market pop biography—but that, of course, was rather the point.
From this spillover, the story can be found everywhere, with variants. So, to the core issue: Is it true? As with so many stories of the kind, it is hard to be certain. In doing the spadework a decade ago on the controversy about whether Edwin Stanton said, at Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels,” I followed the trail of this widely circulated and poorly sourced story back to a single disseminating source—and a very dubious one, Otto Eisenschiml, a conspiracy theorist. (He believed that Stanton had conspired to have Lincoln killed.)
The source of the Proust story seems as specific, and to be primarily Gide, along with the prostitute whom Jouhandeau quotes (discounting Cocteau’s reference, perhaps unfairly but cautiously, as likely derivative of Gide). Gide certainly knew Proust, but he also had reasons to gossip maliciously about a writer whom he had, at first, patronized from a height and ignored—and then had to watch become more revered than he himself had been. And Gide presumably had a reason to bring Proust into his own orbit of ostentatious sexual experimentation, involving what we would now characterize as sex tourism and open pedophilia. (Cocteau’s diary, again, is thirty years after Proust’s death, and the anonymous prostitute’s recollection, secondhand, is not by itself definitive.)
And, then, though the fighting rats do not sound like the kind of thing one just makes up, Proust’s supposed paraphilia does seem suspiciously singular, inasmuch as it is not one that, at least to the perhaps too innocent-minded search of this writer, has any other participants. (The famous fetishes, even though odd, tend to be surprisingly widespread; Elvis had no trouble getting movies devoted to his predilection.) There are certainly sexual fetishes horribly associated with animal torture—Google, or rather, don’t, “crush videos.” But that such things exist now does not, of course, prove that they did then, and they tend now, apparently, to be associated with highly theatricalized bondage rituals.
It seems unlikely that the rat scene could quite have taken place as described. Who would keep starved rats on the premises in case a client so disposed came in? (Even a favored one, as Proust presumably would have been.) Who cared for the rats while waiting for Proust, or some other rat fetishist, to show up? Though finding rats in Paris then was no more difficult than it is now, the idea of caging fierce and starving rats for an indefinite period in anticipation of a client with this brutal taste seems improbable. The improbability of the enterprise does not make it impossible, of course—but it does remind one of how easily we suspend normal skepticism about events when they touch on venomous gossip about the well known. (And, as Benjamin Taylor suggests in his Proust book, one’s sympathies must extend first to the rats who would surely have wanted to be excluded from this narrative.)
One need hardly mention here—yet one will—the once famous and not entirely dissimilar rumor that had a movie star going to a Los Angeles hospital to have a gerbil removed from his anatomy, where it had been lodged for erotic pleasure. The inherent absurdity of this story did not keep it from becoming surprisingly widespread and, if not universally credited, then, at least, as the Web site Snopes tells us, leading “countless doctors and nurses [to] claim to have participated in, been on hand during, or heard from a reliable colleague about, the procedure.” Not only is the story false but the entire “practice” of gerbil stuffing seems wholly invented, a deliberate attempt to suggest the most improbable possible activity in order to shock and titillate readers. Indeed, the rodent-sex nexus is itself a telltale sign of fabrication: What’s the most shocking thing you can imagine someone doing? Make sure it includes a hamster.
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