Sucking Oysters With Balzac

An epicure, time-traveling to 18th century France, would’ve been in for a crushing disappointment.

Few homes had a bona fide kitchen. Ovens were even rarer. Most housewives made do with cauldrons hung in the hearth. Cheese and walnuts were regarded as a poor man’s food, a mere sustenance. Fare was lacking in variety.

Despite these limitations, people ate and entertained at home. Where could they go, after all? There were only four or five of restaurants in Paris before 1789.

Byproducts of the Revolution, they sprang up in an era lashed by bloodshed, beheading, cultural chaos, and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

At the time restaurants were bursting onto the scene, Honoré de Balzac, a corpulent, garrulous clerk at a law firm and a gourmand with a refined palate, was beginning to make his mark in the Parisian literary circuit.

He saw, in the restaurant boom, a colossal opportunity, finding in them an “inexhaustible source of new material.” Food, literally, became fodder for his thought.

Balzac’s oeuvre, in turn, becomes a rich source for Anka Muhlstein, who in “Balzac’s Omelette,” mines the Balzacian novels, in search of their hidden gastronomic trends.

She takes us on an entertaining, panoramic tour of food and literature, sketching out what Balzac ate, how he fed his characters, and how the French, at large, ate.

When they first appeared, around 1780, the French word “restaurant” didn’t mean a dining establishment as we understand it to be, today, but a pick-me-up with “restorative qualities,” maybe, a bowl of salad or a glass of wine.

Three days after the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, the royal chef to the Prince of Condé, opened a luxurious place at 104 Rue de Richelieu, which offered a varied, multicourse menu. It was the first real restaurant.

During the post-revolutionary period, Paris heaved with throngs of single men, journalists, curious onlookers, foreign visitors, and observers, who’d no ties to the city, but who still had to satisfy their appetites.

They rushed to “pleasant modern establishments with menus to suit every purse.” Spurred by surging demand, restaurants popped up in every quarter.

Quickly, Paris metamorphosed into a gigantic honeycomb of eateries, redolent with the aromas of bouillabaisses, brandades, rich sauces, roasts, and confections.

In the 19th century, Paris had become the “homeland of great cooking.”

Balzac himself, “was not a great food lover but the most eccentric of eaters.” A mix of a Spartan, a gastronome, and a glutton, he ate and drank copiously—when he did indulge.

But for long stretches of time, he would exercise a dietary asceticism, surviving on very little. He and his characters “never ate at the same time: either he did or they did.”

He would sit down to work in the dead of night, at one o’clock, and toil away for fifteen long hours, guzzling rocket-fuel coffee by the gallons, percolating it in one of the earliest coffeemakers.

He chose his blend, made up of three types of bean: Bourbon, Martinique, and Mocha, meticulously.

“Occasionally, he took a boiled egg at 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 day with a cup or two of excellent black coffee without sugar.”

Once the manuscript left for the press, he would dash off to a restaurant to celebrate the completion of a project with food, and loads of it. Balzac feasted, at the expense of his publisher, at Paris’ finest and costliest restaurants.

He would wolf down “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 Comic pears, which he ate by the dozen.”

Balzac reported on a wide spectrum of restaurants, from the opulent, which offered private dining rooms, where the waiter never entered without knocking, to the dingy, hole-in-the-wall, with tables splattered with leftovers.

“The Human Comedy” is chock-full with no less than 40 restaurants.

At one end, there were restaurants with newspaper-length menus offering over 100 dishes, with perplexing nomenclature that startled the uninitiated; at another, the “dismal eating houses” “that served nothing but “roast beef surrounded by potatoes, turnips, carrots, and beans.”

He mentions Véry, which attracted and dazzled guests with its profusion of mirrors. Le Rocher de Cancale was famed for the quality of its oysters.

Strung along the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens were the great cafés: Hardy’s, Riche’s, Café de Paris, and Café des Anglais.

The cavernous kitchen of Café Riche.

While in the city, there were places to suit every pocket and every palate, in the provinces, the choice was “brutally restricted.”

Travelers, who didn’t have letters of introduction, were forced to dine at inns, boarding houses, and table d’hôtes, where the quality of food was typically, poor, and the service, obnoxious.

Men and women, in 1894, at a table d’hôte, literally, a table in a hotel or restaurant where all guests ate together. A meal was served at a stated time and for a fixed price.

Though there was no dearth of restaurants, the most extravagant parties were thrown in private homes.

At such get-togethers, “the whiteness of the tablecloth [was] the first, indispensable sign of elegance”; its length, another, and the presence of silver domes on the tables, an emblem of generous, easy, hospitality.

In Balzac’s day, water was unpopular, and people downed bottles till they toppled over. Riots would break out over an exquisite feast.

Muhlstein describes Balzac as a “bourgeois novelist,” who offered piercing details on the bill of fare, its display, its cost, but didn’t bother himself with how things tasted.

“If you want to imagine savoring an oyster as it melts in your mouth, read Maupassant; if you dream of jugs filled with yellow cream, try Flaubert; and if the thought of beef in aspic tickles you, turn to Proust,” she writes.

“But if you are interested not so much in the taste of the oyster as in the way a young man orders it, less the cool sweetness of the cream than how much it costs, and less the melting quality of the aspic than what it reveals about how the household is run, then read Balzac.”

But you, the literary-minded foodie, should certainly taste this tasty morsel of a book.

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