Anka Muhlstein on Food, Balzac and Flaubert

Vauquer Boarding House

BalzacsOmeletteSentimentalEduWhen he is invited to dinner at Arnoux’s house, Frédéric, the hero of A Sentimental Education, “had to choose between ten mustards. He ate daspachio, curry, ginger, blackbirds from Corsica, lasagna from Rome.” Arnoux, a porcelain manufacturer, is not in possession of a great fortune but prides himself on being a good host. He “cultivated all the mail coach drivers to secure foodstuffs, and had connections with cooks in grand houses, who gave him recipes for sauces.” Like many Parisians, he has no hesitation in spending a great deal of money both at home and in restaurants. The tyranny of the palate has never been described; as a necessity of life it escapes the criticism of literature; yet no one imagines how many have been ruined by the table. The luxury of the table is indeed, in a sense, the courtesan’s one competitor in Paris,” says Balzac in Cousin…

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Sphinx, Anyone?


In Balzac’s Omelette, Anka Muhlstein writes that even though restaurants were flourishing in Paris during Balzac’s time, that was not the case outside of Paris. She relates an incident at Saint-Cloud.




One day when Balzac and Gozlan were visiting the area, they had a sudden craving for food and stopped at an inn. They were served with mutton cutlets and a golden mountain of smelts. But they were still hungry. Sadly, no leg of lamb, no chicken fricassee, no veal fricandeau. “And do you have any sphinx?” Goslan asked the astonished waiter, who went down to the kitchen to inquire. “Sphinx? Did you really ask for Sphinx?” Balzac asked his companion. “Well, yes,” he replied, “if you want a Paris déjeuner in a Saint-Cloud eatery, you might as well ask for a sphinx.” The waiter came back up and announced that he was sorry but there was no sphinx left.


Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

Balzac’s Omelette:
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.

Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

“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 The Human Comedy.


Balzac’s Omelette
(Garçon, un Cent d’Huîtres! Balzac et la Table)*
By Anka Muhlstein


It is not a coincidence that Balzac was the first in French literature to tackle this appetizing topic. Before the French Revolution, a traveler in France was apt to find local food scarce, tastless, and of doubtful appearance. Restaurants did not even exist! Just as cuisine became a centerpiece of French mores, Balzac used it as a connecting thread in his novels, showing how food can evoke character, atmosphere, class, and social climbing. How better to decipher the lady of the house’s personality than through her relationship with her cook or the color of her broth? Full of surprises and insights, Balzac’s Omelette invites you to taste anew French literature and gastronomy.

* Waiter, a Hundred Oysters! Balzac and Food


We are pleased to announce that Balzac’s Omelette will be the group read for September at the French Literature group. Please join us.