‘Tell me where you eat. what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are.’ This is the motto of Anka Muhlstein’s erudite and witty book about the ways food and the art of the table feature in Honoré de Balzac’s writing.
It is not a coincidence that Balzac was the first in French literature to tackle this appetizing topic. Before the French Revolution, a traveller in France was apt to find local food scarce, tasteless and of dubious appearance. Restaurants did not even exist! Just as the art of the table became a centrepiece of French mores, Balzac used it as a connecting thread in his novels, showing how food can evoke character, atmosphere, class and social pretensions. Full of insights, Balzac’s Omelette invites you to taste anew French literature and cuisine.
Felicitous phrasing, a scholar's sage scope, and enormous fondness for Balzac's panoply of characters mark this charming, intimate look at the French novelist's depiction of the highs and lows of 19th-century French society, as reflected in its culinary offerings. Muhlstein (Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart) explains how Balzac, boarded as a youth at schools by his busy, distracted parents, and for whom food had been a source of humiliation rather than pleasure, grew to love the pleasures of the table as a way to infiltrate "domestic dramas"; personally, he acquired near ascetic habits while writing 12 hours a day. He could throw himself into a bacchanal feast once the manuscript was finished (and charge the bill to his publisher), procuring a famous rotund belly as a result. From the publications of Les Chouans (1829) onward, the culinary rituals of the French were undergoing transformation. Restaurants flourished and lunch was prized by the young and insouciant, such as at Flicoteaux, frequented by the youth in Lost Illusions, for example, or meals at unsavory boarding houses like Madame Vauquer's cacophonous 18-seat dining room of P re Goriot or at banquets of the newly rich, such as Taillefer's, in The Magic Skin, where feasts were presented like an elaborate stage play and usually ended in a debacle. Muhlstein delves lovingly into Balzac's characters, misers and gluttons alike, and finds the presentation of food an important indicator of social status, and well-cooked food equal to a woman's love.