Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

Balzac’s Omelette:
A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac
by Anka Muhlstein

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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.

Madame Fontaine, Fortune Teller Extraordinaire

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One of my favorite minor characters in La Comedie Humaine is Madame Fontaine. The above illustration depicts the scene from Cousin Pons when the colorful fortune teller is using her grand jeu (big pack of tarot cards), the black hen named Cleopatra and the giant toad Astaroth for one of her regular customers, Madame Cibot. Madame Fontaine also appeared briefly in Les Comédiens sans le savoir.

Poor Relations: Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac

Les Parents pauvres: Le Cousin Pons
Poor Relations: Cousin Pons

 

It is October 1844, and a sixty-year old man in respectable but threadbare and extremely out of fashion clothes is hurrying down the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. He has a pleasant look on his face and is in a good humor. The man is, shall we say, ugly, but not so that anyone would laugh at him. But too ugly to gain the love of a woman, alas. Continue reading