REVIEW by Meganne Fabrega
Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac
by Anka Muhlstein
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, October 2011
Hardcover: 256 pages
When I first read the description of Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac, I was a little intimidated. While I have read my share of 19th century French authors in college, would I enjoy this ode to French culture and cuisine without ever reading the great author’s works? Would reading it encourage me to search out one of the many novels that made up his series The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine), or merely emphasize the glaring absence of post-revolutionary French authors on my overstuffed bookshelf?
Luckily Anka Muhlstein writes with an ease that would make any French-literature neophyte feel at home. I was barely ten pages in before I was captivated by the young Balzac’s life (his family, surprisingly, had no real interest in food), his love affair with a married woman, and his wicked coffee habit. His writing regimen was especially interesting; while writing scene after scene of decadent consumption and the visual pleasure of a meal, Balzac himself subsisted on water, fruit (he especially liked pears), and coffee, attributing his abundant production to the dark brew. “Thanks to coffee, he claimed, ‘ideas swing into action like battalions in the Great Army on a battlefield…Memories enlist at the double…and flashes of inspiration join the skirmish; faces take form; the paper is soon covered with ink.’ “
Alternately, when he had finished his work and sent it off to the printer’s, he “sped to a restaurant, downed a hundred oysters as a starter, washing them down with four bottles of white wine, then ordered the rest of the meal . . .” which consisted of multiple main courses, vegetables, desserts and more pears. The best part? He would forward the bill for his feast on to his publisher. However, Balzac still paid a physical price for his excesses, and it’s comforting for 21st century writers to know that even in the 19th century, writers fretted about their weight and sedentary working life. Balzac was not a slight man, as Muhlstein points out, and he made efforts to control his girth with long walks and swearing off bread (a full 150 years before anyone had heard of Dr. Atkins).
With a fluid style and a firm knowledge of her subject, Muhlstein leads the reader through the French dining rituals of the early 19th century with humor and delight. To be sure, references to Balzac and his fictional characters are woven throughout the book, and it is with admirable thoroughness that Muhlstein covers Balzac’s novels that, in her words, “give[s] us a real social and gastronomic report on [Paris].” However, even a foodie or general French history buff who has no interest in Balzac’s work can learn something new as Muhlstein describes the evolution of French dining, both in and outside of the home, the social and health implications of dining with others, and even the difference between men and women’s eating habits.
Muhlstein spends the latter part of the book detailing how Balzac used food as a tool for character development and social commentary. He exposed the miserly characters by showing when they bought their meat (only on high days and holidays), the rivalry between women by the sauces they chose to serve their men, and the unhappy husbands who consoled themselves with food. In Balzac’s novel Le Cousin Pons, as Pons aged he dreamed of better days he had, and better meals, than his current situation offered. “Pons thought wistfully of certain creams—surely the poetry of cooking!—of certain white sauces, masterpieces of the art; of truffled chickens, fit to melt your heart . . . There were days when Pons, thinking upon Count Popinot’s cook, would sigh aloud, “Ah, Sophie!” Any passer-by hearing the exclamation might have thought that the old man referred to a lost mistress . . . The conductor of the orchestra, living on memories of past dinners, grew visibly leaner; he was pining away, a victim to gastric nostalgia.” Pons was pining away not necessarily for the food, but for the company and delights that accompanied the meals, as well as his previous station in life.
Balzac’s Omelette is Muhlstein’s ode to Balzac as an accomplished social commentator. Muhlstein writes, “If you want to imagine savoring an oyster as it melts on your tongue, read Maupassant; if you dream of jugs filled with yellow cream, try Flaubert; and if the thought of beef in aspic tickles you, turn to Proust. But if you are interested not so much in the taste of the oyster as in the way a young man orders it, less the cool sweetness of the cream than how much it costs, and less the melting quality of the aspic than what it reveals about how the household is run, then read Balzac.” The book is also a visual and tactile delight: Its bright yellow color and bold design (with illustrations by Andreas Gurewich and various reproductions of maps, photographs and engravings) perfectly complement the text.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading Cousin Betty, let alone Balzac’s entire Human Comedy series, but if I do, it will be with an intimate knowledge of Balzac’s relationship with food . . . and a large cup of black coffee by my side.December 5, 2011