Nonfiction (To be published Oct. 2011)
Leon Gozlan, a friend, had fun describing him at mealtimes: “[His] lips quivered, his eyes lit up with delight, his hands shook with pleasure on seeing a pyramid of pears or beautiful peaches. There would not be a single one left to go and describe the defeat to the rest.He devoured the lot. He was a magnificent example of vegetal Pantagruelism, tie whipped off, shirt open, knife in hand…[he] laughed explosively, like a bomb…then his chest would swell and his shoulders would dance beneath his jubilant chin…We thought we were seeing Rabelais at the Manse of Theleme Abbey. He melted for joy.”
Once you pick up Balzac’s Omelette, it is very likely that you won’t want to put it down, you will be impelled to read Balzac’s full canon and you will want to travel to France to begin eating. Any person interested in cooking, food, eating, French cooking, French culture, food history, French literature, and dining etiquette will be well sated by Anka Muhlstein’s exhaustively researched and witty journey through the stomach of Honore de Balzac. Muhlstein is a studied hand at biography and this will prove to be her most accessible and entertaining undertaking.
Balzac himself was a literary and gustatory binger. During his writing periods, he would survive on coffee, fruit, and “occasionally he took a boiled egg about nine o’clock in the morning or sardines mashed with butter if he was hungry; then a chicken wing or a slice of roast leg of lamb in the evening, and he ended his meal with a cup or two of excellent black coffee without sugar.” Working for 18 hour days, weeks at a stretch, he would deliver his manuscript to printer. Once this was done, the party began. He would then scour the city for the finest food and feast on game, vegetables, and wines of all sorts as if preparing for a period of fasting. His particular love for strong, excellent coffee leads Muhlstein to explore the methods of coffee making during that era, which introduces the first percolators and why he liked this system above any other method. Balzac was definitely a man of extremes, but very specific extremes.
All his likes and dislikes as a gourmand are laid out and referenced throughout the narrative which reads like part cultural food and dining history, part literary criticism and part biography. Citing a range of Balzac’s works we learn about the origins of the dejeuner a la forchette (fork lunch), the decadent and formal indulgences and rigors of fine dining, a burgeoning restaurant culture in Paris, rural methods and means of Provencal cooking, the differences between French and Russian service and the attitudes towards food itself through Balzac’s characters and settings. Also, the history of Parisian cafes is utterly compelling from the first few to their ubiquity and the changing trends of what a fashionable cafe was.
By exploring the works of Balzac, Muhlstein unearths the intriguing, the sensual and the sometimes disgusting world of food preparation. Full of tales describing debauchery and frugality,
Balzac’s Omelette serves as an indispensable guide to modern etiquette, food culture, and the works of Balzac. Muhlstein more than enlightens with her dismantling of the French influence, traditions and habits in present food culture. Hopefully, she will gain the readership she deserves through this homage to Balzac along with revitalizing an interest in his canon and enjoying a French meal solely for the sake of culinary delight.