Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein

balzacThis book ticks a number of boxes for me:

– It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
– It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
– It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
– It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.

Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.

Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic.  Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).

Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein.  After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize.  Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time,  short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.

Balzac was an incredibly hard-working man. Wikipedia tells us that he would “eat a light meal at five or six in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fuelled by innumerable cups of black coffee”.  But although this asceticism enabled him to write on such a grand scale, when he took a break from toil, he would eat vast amounts of food in what we would today call “binges”.  Anka Muhlestein tells us that,

Occasionally he took a boiled egg at 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. An ascetic then, our Balzac? In a sense, yes. But not always. Once the proofs were passed for press, he sped to a restaurant, downed a hundred oysters as a starter, washing them down with four bottles of white wine, then ordered the rest of the meal: twelve salt meadow lamb cutlets with no sauce, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole, not to mention extravagances like dessert and special fruit such as Comice pears, which he ate by the dozen.

Incidentally, we read that Balzac’s love for oysters was far from exceptional – Louis XVIII often downed a hundred of them at the start of every meal and Muhlstein reports that about six million dozen oysters were eaten in Paris every year.  No wonder then that they keep popping up as a menu item in Balzac’s novels.

Interestingly enough,before the Revolution a kitchen of even the most rudimentary kind was a rarity in a Paris apartment.    The best that could be offered was a cauldron (or “marmite” – the origin of the brand name for a certain yeast extract spread) which would stand on the hearth containing a soup or a stew.  You can still see “marmite” on French menus indicating something akin to the British casserole.  In the early 19th century there were no restaurants in Paris, the best that could be offered being a table d’hote or host’s table, where guests turned up at a regular times and took whatever was on offer.  These were notorious for being a disappointing experience for occasional visitors because the food was served in the middle of the table where the regulars sat, leaving little for the visitors.  This is nicely illustrated by the engraving below

The Horror of a Table d'Hote

The Horrors of a Table d’Hote

Restaurants only began to appear in Paris after the Revolution when the Prince of Condé fled into exile, leaving behind, “an army of spit roasters, sauce makers, and pastry cooks who had all worked under orders from the chef, Monsieur Robert. The latter lost no time in opening a restaurant, which he called Robert, at 104 rue de Richelieu—a real restaurant with a varied menu, serving whatever he wanted”.  By the time Balzac’s was dining in the capital there were literally thousands of restaurants and Balzac, who always had a prodigious appetite prided himself on being a connoisseur of the table, who no doubt today would have been invited to be a restaurant critic of newspapers or television.

Balzac’s descriptions of food were used to give powerful impressions of the wealth of those around the table, but he also used them to illustrate the poverty of other situations.  In Père Goriot for example, Anka Muhlstein describes the lesser fare at the lodging house owned by Madame Vauquer’s;

the sideboards from whichmeals are served are sticky with dropped food. The most common dish is haricot mutton, one of Madame Vauquer’s favourites (already mentioned by Molière’s Harpagon), comprising a few cheap cuts that have been haricotés (boned), accompanied by carrots and turnips; it is one of the cheapest dishes in every working-class cook’s repertoire. The leftovers are always reworked for the following day, served up with potatoes. The pears she serves are the least expensive available and are usually rotten, her black currant liqueur causes colic, and her biscuits are laced with mould.

By sending us all around Paris, on both the left and the right banks of the Seine, Balzac takes us to all conditions of dining and as I read Balzac’s Omelette, I was alternately delighted and disgusted by the descriptions of meals  quoted in the book. By taking so many references from the context of the novels, we can see how greatly food featured in the author’s life.  Of course, Balzac was not the only writer to describe both sumptuous feasts and poverty-stricken plate-scrapings and in researching this article I stumbled across an interesting article by Tori Avey on Charles Dickens – Food and Drink. This suggests to me that a similar book to Anka Mhulstein’s could be written about our own British authors (Thomas Hardy perhaps).

I  greatly enjoyed this book – it served the dual purpose of describing Balzac’s interest in food but also giving a potted history of French cuisine.

Adriana Hunter’s elegant translation gives perfect support to the original work, allowing readers to completely forget that the book was no written in English in the first place.

The illustration above of the Table d’Hote is credited in the book to Musée de la Ville de Paris and the Bridgman Art Library.

13 comments to Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein

  • Another great review – this book is now on my ‘to read’ list. I live in a former French colony and kitchens in old houses here tend to be more a hole in the wall than somewhere you can cook. Perhaps there was an expectation that you cooked or ate outside. There is also a restaurant here called La Marmite, with the cauldron as its logo (the same shape as the English Marmite jar). Francis Bacon, the painter, was also a great fan of oysters. He often spent long hours in his studio working on a painting then would go off for a meal of oysters and champagne. It seems extraordinary how much meat people in the 19th century consumed – English accounts of this period are also full of meat and hardly a mention of vegetables, let alone fruit.

  • Oh stunning sounding I have just added all his books to my kindle and plan to work through them all at some point ,all the best stu

  • As a Balzac nut, I really liked this, and I found it to be a very interesting (and appropriate) approach.

  • Kat

    Thank you for this delightful review! You’re such a good writer that I do want to add this to my list now: I had vaguely heard of it but just thought, “Maybe.” I do remember the restaurant Lucien goes to in Lost Illusions with his poor artist friends, but not what they ate. Well, now I’ll pay attention.

  • Tom

    Hi Kat – it’s really good and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

  • Tom

    Guy – I thought you’d like this one. I must now go across and read what you said about it . . . – yes, a great review – some similarites – you were as interested as I was in the development of the restaurant for example. My interest in Balzac stems entirely from reading your blog so thanks for an ongoing pleasure.

  • Tom

    Stu – so many books to read aren’t there!

  • Tom

    Acorn – thanks greatly for the additional information you’ve included in your comment. I didn’t know that Bacon was also an oyster fanatic. I can’t see the appeal in them myself! Last year we were in the Dordogne and saw “marmite” on the menu – fortunately I already knew what it was!

  • This sounds to be really good. I think that my wife would love it as she really loves culinary history and related books, particularly French related.

  • Sue Terry

    I love these sorts of books, if well written Tom. I’ve seen a few bloggers … Including Guy … Reading Balzac lately. He’s a big gap in my reading repertoire, and with so much available for free on the Kindle I should rectify that, shouldn’t I.

  • Tom

    Sue- Balzac was a new discovery for me a couple of years ago – thanks to Guy. I’d say start with Pere Goriot or Lost Illusions.

  • Thanks for that recommendation Tom … I appreciate it.

  • Checked this out & Monsieur Proust’s Library. Thanks for the info.

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