A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac
by Anka Muhlstein
There are two grand themes in Balzac’s oeuvre, one is money — and most particularly debt — and the other is food. Of this second theme, Anka Muhlstein does full justice with her book Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac. Even though I have read over 95% of Balzac’s work in a Yahoo! Group dedicated to him, I am still amazed by Ms. Muhlstein’s marshaling of a mass of information into a coherent, and I might even say tasty, whole.
There is, for example, this gem from Cousin Pons, one of my favorite novels by the master:
One of the keenest pleasures of Pons’ old life, one of the joys of the dinner-table parasite, was the “surprise,” the thrill produced by the extra dainty dish added triumphantly to the bill of fare by the mistress of a bourgeois house, to give a festive air to a dinner. Pons’ stomach hankered after that gastronomical satisfaction…. Dinner proceeded without le plat couvert, as our grandsires called it…. Pons had too much delicacy to grumble; but if the case of unappreciated genius is hard, it goes harder still with the stomach whose claims are ignored.
As M. de Mortsauf says in The Lily of the Valley, “all our emotions converge on the gastric centres.”
Curiously, despite its highly focused subject, I think Balzac’s Omelette is not only an excellent introduction to the work of Balzac in general, but also to Dumas, Zola, Flaubert, de Maupassant, and other French novelists of the 19th century.