Balzac’s Omelette

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Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a prolific French author who both indulged and abstained from food in equal measures.  Indeed, his love of food at mealtimes was described by his friend Léon Gozlan: [H]is 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 Thélème Abbey. He melted for joy.” This description opens Anka Muhlstein’s wonderfully delicious book Balzac’s Omelette – an almost tangible foray into nineteenth-century French culture and life and in particular, into the gastronomic world of Balzac which so infused his novels.

Balzac himself had very strange eating habits, (probably contributed to from his childhood) going for days when he was writing drinking copious amounts of coffee and eating only fruit, to dining out excessively when he had completed his work. In one sitting, he was said to have put away a hundred oysters, four bottles of white wine, a dozen salt-meadow lamb cutlets, duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole, dessert and Comice pears!!!

There are so many titbits in this book that you almost wish you could peep through the curtain of history and just for a while spy on the Paris which Balzac knew and portrayed in his novels. Muhlstein notes that Balzac’s gastronomic inclusions in his novels – the relationship between food and love, how meals, their preparation and the serving thereof were to be viewed – influenced subsequent writers such as Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and Proust to include meals and gastronomy into their novels.

I loved this book and it has inspired me to rediscover Balzac. I encourage you to do the same.

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