Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

“Parties always end in pandemonium in houses where the valets have more style than the masters.”

As a Balzac fan, I was really interested to read Balzac’s Omelette from Anka Muhlstein (original title Garçon, un cent d’huîtres, Balzac er la Table). My copy came courtesy of the American publisher Other Press and is translated by Adriana Hunter. In this small volume, author Anka Muhlstein examines the way food, and all things related to food, appears in Balzac’s work. I’m going to admit that I never gave the subject a single thought before I read the book, but in the next Balzac novel, I know I’ll notice every mention of a bit of bread or a glass of wine. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, this is not a scholarly work, but if you are interested in 19th century French culture, Balzac or the history of restaurants in general, then this is an invaluable, fun romp and a very entertaining read. It probably helps if you know something about French literature of the period as there are frequent allusions to the novels of Balzac, Zola, Maupassant and Flaubert. To me, Balzac has always been about character, but in a marvellously fluid passage, Muhlstein argues that Balzac gives us another glimpse of his characters if we carefully examine how he implements the use of food in his novels: 

His preoccupation with all things gastronomic is first and foremost social, and this is endorsed by the fact that his characters spend hours on end in dining rooms, that his cooks’ habits are described in detail, and that he gives the addresses of his best suppliers. And yet he is not concerned with how things taste. If you want to imagine savouring 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 author illustrates how Balzac, Zola, and Maupassant use food and drink to describe their characters–Balzac’s Duke of Hérouville is “a good wine, but so tightly corked up that you break your corkscrew.” Delphine de Nucingen is “such a washed-out creature with her white eyelashes [she’s] compared to a Cox’s pippin, an apple with blotchy markings like a frog while the wicked Marquise d’Espard is a delicious little apple that warrants biting into.” With all these descriptions of food worming their way into Balzac’s characterisations, naturally the thought emerges that perhaps Balzac was obsessed with food. If you’ve ever seen drawings of Balzac, you notice that he’s a large man. Being portrayed by Depardieu in the film Balzac furthered that impression, so if you’d asked me off the cuff  how I imagined Balzac’s eating habits, I would have proffered a guess that he was a man of gargantuan appetites. Muhlstein set me straight:

Paradoxically, this man, who is so keenly aware of the importance of food, was not a great food lover but the most eccentric of eaters. He barely ate anything for weeks on end during periods of intensive writing, then celebrated sending off the manuscript by abandoning himself to vast excesses of wine, oysters, meat and poultry.

To address and “reconcile these contradictions,” the chapter Balzac at Mealtimes surveys Balzac’s personal life and eating habits.  While he slogged his heart out writing eighteen hours a day, he drank water, coffee (a true addict!) and “sustained himself on fruit.” But then came the monstrous excesses, the orgies of food once a book was finished:

Once the proofs were passed for press, 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: twelve salt meadow lamb cutlets with no sauce, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole, not to mention extravagances like dessert and special fruit such as Cornice pears, which he ate by the dozen. Once sated, he usually sent the bill to the publishers.

There’s one great description of a prison banquet held when Balzac was arrested for evading a period in the National Guard. It’s 1836,  and armed with borrowed money courtesy of his publisher, Balzac ordered a sumptuous feast from one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris: Véfour. The food orgy continued during Balzac’s stay:

His work table, his bed, his only chair, the entire floor of his room, everything was covered, everything was piled high, groaning with patés, stuffed poultry, glazed game, jams, baskets of different wines and every sort of liqueur [from] Chevet.

One of the most intriguing areas of the book is an exploration of the development of restaurants, and there’s some astonishing information here. Tracing how “the Revolution transformed the gastronomic landscape of Paris,” the author argues that the armies of unemployed chefs and pastry cooks of the aristocracy sparked a surge in the restaurant business. There were only “four or five restaurants in Paris before 1789,” but that number exploded to 2,000 by 1802 and 3,000 by the Restoration. Given that this sort of public eating was then, a fairly new phenomenon, the variety and competitiveness of restaurants must have been fascinating, and fortunately the book devotes some considerable space to exploring some of the most famous restaurants of Balzac’s time.  

The author argues that an examination of restaurants in La Comédie Humaine is essential as Balzac uses “restaurants to move his plots forward.” The information on the various restaurants is not delivered in isolation, however, and the author traces some of the characters Balzac ‘sends’ to restaurants. Muhlstein tallies the number of restaurants mentioned in La Comédie Humaine:

Balzac takes us all over Paris, on the right bank as much as the left, sending his characters off into the most refined establishments and the most lowly, and through his succession of novels gives us a real social and gastronomic report on the capital. Some forty restaurants are referred to in The Human Comedy, because he is not satisfied with mentioning only the biggest names. Whether discussing the most spectacular or the most modest, Balzac lingers over the menu. As is always the case with him, he is also interested in the cost. His work, therefore, amounts to a guide, one that discerns the stars but does not neglect the bill.

Restaurants described, along with mention of which characters ate where, and often why specifically Balzac ‘sent’ his characters to that particular restaurant include: Véry, Le Rocher de Cancale, Frères- Provençaux (“where he sends unsympathetic characters“), the Café des Anglais and its private rooms (which come in handy), the Café Riche, the Cadran Bleu, and the Cheval Rouge.  Including information regarding various restaurants creates a backdrop for the stories and characters–for example, to our modern sensibilities, it makes a great deal of difference whether the characters have an assignation in a rotgut fast food take-out, a steak house, or a 5 star restaurant that boasts a cordon bleu chef. Restaurants are not the only ‘real’ element to appear in Balzac’s fiction, he also wasn’t shy about including the very real Monsieur Chevet in his pages, and Balzac made him the “incomparable purveyor of all celebratory occasions.” The author notes that Chevet “seems to have been very grateful for the publicity.”

With literary examples, the author also argues:

Another rule–which Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola respected–dictate that any substantial function held in a house ‘where the traditions of grandeur had not descended through many generations’ should end in disarray.

On a final note, there’s mention of a restaurant with shit service where people “go to be insulted,” and while I read this I remembered many comedy skits involving the stock character of the snotty French waiter. According to Balzac and Muhlstein, that image is rooted in fact.  I don’t think I’d fancy the Katcomb where the food was basic and the ambience, well it left a lot to be desired:

The tablecloths were changed only once a day, but each table had a brush with which customers could clear away crumbs.

Wonder what the bathrooms were like…..



Filed under Muhlstein Anka, Non Fiction

17 responses to “Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

  1. It hasn’t changed much, in some of the fancier restaurants in Paris it is still fashionable to be treated like crap by the waiter. I never really enjoyed that and luckily I’m not very fond of French cuisine for various reasons.
    I never thought of the origin of restaurants but that makes a lot of sense.
    I think the book I bought on Austen and Dickens
    “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” seems similar.
    It is fascinating. So much is tied to food.
    I would like to read the one you read as well, especially because she points out how different food is described in Maupassant, Zola, Balzac and Flaubert.

  2. I suppose I had unthinkingly associated Balzac with gastronomic themes more than I had other French novelists for no better reason than that Balzac, judging from his portraits, appears to have been quite a fat man!

  3. Well, I guess you have to break the eggs…. Great review which I much appreciate. I don’t think I want to read the book, but I certainly enjoyed your take. I can think of a few UK writers who have also featured gastronomy (John Lanchester’s A Debt to Pleasure immediately comes to mind) and a Canadian or two (Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park has some comic noir to it which I think you would like), but I can’t immediately come up with a U.S. “foodie” novelist. I’m sure you can, Guy.

  4. It sounds interesting and entertaining. The most blatant about food is Le Ventre de Paris.

    Ah the bad waiters in Paris! So famous. When I’m in an American restaurant I wish the waiters left me alone, they come around too much asking if everything is OK. I’m not used to it.

    OK, I’m adding this to my Christmas list but I’d better choose the right family member for that. (The one who volunteered for Kostolanyi’s poems last year still remembers it)

  5. Sounds great, Guy, and definitely going on my shopping list.

    Always fascinating to read in his various works about the restaurants but I never thought to analyze them.

  6. I’m not that much into food and the lists of some of the food here-well, the mind boggles. If anyone has seen the very funny film The Trip, you know that it includes its 2 main characters eating in a series of swanky restaurants. Couldn’t believe the meals… at one point they’re given duck fat lollipops.

    Anyway, a must read, I think, for Balzac fans. I’m not that much into food, rarely eat out, but I was fascinated by the author’s approach. I specifically enjoyed the analysis of the restaurants.

    The Belly of France comes up, of course, and I think the author feels that Balzac influenced Zola, Maupassant, Proust etc when it came to the topic of food. Although, as the quote above shows, they all took a different approach.

  7. leroyhunter

    The Trip is brilliant, isn’t it? It reduced me to tears of laughter pretty much each episode.

    It’s great when someone has a novel idea like this (“Let’s explore Balzac through food”) and actually pulls it off. The point about the restaurant trade essentially coming into being post-revolution makes perfect sense, but you never would have really considered it that way.

    • Great film, truly funny. I loved the dueling impressions, but I didn’t fancy the food they ate.

      The author says that the un-moored cooks and bakers of the aristocracy ran a good catering business while their former employers were in prison. You can see how one social upheaval led to such terrific changes in the culinary trade. She also said that it wasn’t a good thing to invite people to your home and give lavish dinners. Much better to meet at a restaurant.

  8. Isn’t there some connection between Balzac and Brilliat-Savarin? I believe he said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” (Is that the source of “You are what you eat,” or did he just rephrase it?) Anyway, seems there is a similarity of approach to Balzac’s here.

    I’ve read descriptions of Edwardian banquets, and I just don’t know how people survived them. Did they just pick at each dish as course after course was brought? The quantities!

  9. Yes, that is a quote from Brillat-Savarin. He wrote the Physiology of Taste. haven’t read it, but it’s FREE for the kindle, and we all know how cheap I am.

    Have you seen The Trip? If not, it’s on netflix. Can’t believe some of the grub the two men in the film eat.

    Didn’t know that the Edwardians were such gluttons.

  10. Fascinating stuff. A lovely examination of something which I wouldn’t have thought of but which sounds rather persuasive.

    I was sold on Huysmans in part by his writing on food. In The Damned there’s a wonderful description of a pot-au-feu which I thought just a superb piece of writing. And of course With the Flow is full of the most revolting descriptions of terrible food.

    On the Edwardian bit I’ve had similar thoughts reading novels set in the 18th Century. The Patrick O’Brien novels routinely have his Jack Aubrey eating say two pork chops for breakfast plus sausages and various other bits and bobs.

    Of course Maturin is always nagging Jack to lose weight.

    I can’t think by the way of a better reviewer for this particular book. Marvellous.

  11. Thanks for visiting my review of this book. Re restaurants where you go to be insulted, have you seen the Monty Python sketch here (which I think was only included in the German episodes).

    It’s totally stupid but I’ve watched it many times and never fail to be amused.

  12. And the ULTIMATE… PORKY’S

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