Sunday, January 15, 2012

Balzac's Omelette - book

Balzac’s Omellete, Anka Muhlstein (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, Other Press, N.Y., 2010)

If you ignore the title of this book (which you might as well do as it has very little to do with omelletes) and consider only the content, you might imagine this was a PhD dissertation in French literature entitled something like “Balzac’s Use of Food in the Writing of La Comedie Humaine,” or perhaps, “Balzac’s Dietary Habits While Writing,” or maybe even “The First Restaurants of Paris in Historical Perspective,” thesis topics of interest primarily or only to Balzac aficionados, lovers of Paris, or “foodies.” In fact under the somewhat odd title, Balzac’s Omellete, Anka Muhlsteing has tied these topics together and written a delightful and informative book about them all.

Balzac did have strange eating habits; while writing feverishly, sometimes for fourteen hours straight, and sometimes for days at a time, he subsisted mainly on strong coffee (lots of it) and fruit. He was, of course, an unusually prolific author, but even so he seemed to stay only one step away from bankruptcy throughout his life. Upon completion of a manuscript he would send it to his publisher, go out and order prodigious amounts of food, sometimes beginning his meal with dozens of oysters, and then send the bill to his publisher. Strangely, even while in jail in Paris, Balzac could and did order enormous feasts that he would enjoy with friends while in custody (this was apparently a common practice at the time).

Balzac was also the first novelist to use food as an important prop in his writing, inspiring Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and Proust to do likewise, although none of them used food as importantly as Balzac himself. To appreciate this you would have to read Balzac again (if you have previously read him), but happily Muhlstein gives example after example if you do not wish to return yourself to The Human Comedy.

When we nowadays think of Paris, or France, we usually think of fine restaurants and marvelous cuisine. It was not always so. In fact, until the late 18th century there were no restaurants (funny, I never thought of a time when there were no restaurants). Wealthy people ate well enough, but always at home, poor people ate not so well, but also at home. Travelers, without introductions to particular people, were at the mercy of whatever they could find, usually an inn of some kind where they could purchase the right to sit and eat at a communal table, to eat whatever unpalatable food was available. The first real restaurant with individual tables emerged in about 1780. It served poached poultry with sea salt, fresh eggs, and a rich stock. Before 1789 there were only four or five restaurants in Paris. Fairly quickly restaurants became more common and dining out in style, or putting on lavish catered feasts became the rage.

Interestingly enough, the gourmet dishes we now think of as the best of French cooking, were not terribly important at first, entertaining was primarily a social event featuring a huge abundance of food, and even more important, the ostentatious presentation of the food and drink. People who wanted to advance in society would often spend fortunes on one of these events, the eating and drinking would sometimes go on for hours, the guests would often become drunk on large quantities of different wines, including sometimes hundreds of bottle of champagne, and the party would resemble a riot. The ostentation was so pronounced and commonplace there were dealers who specialized in buying the leftovers. The great French food that we now treasure actually began in the provinces rather than in Paris itself. Eating there was more of a family affair, did not have the same social climbing implications, and the food was taken more seriously for itself. Of course this ultimately resulted in the famous French cuisine we find in Paris as well now in all the rest of France and all over the world.

I gave this book to my wife at Christmas as she is a truly wonderful cook with a consuming interest in food. I had not intended to read it and did so only “because it was there,” and I had nothing else to read at the time. I must confess I found it truly enjoyable, informative, and worthwhile. If you have any interest in Balzac, Paris, or food, you will also.

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