Anka Muhlstein

Balzac at Table Publication date : October 14, 2010

The author of, notably, Napoléon à Moscou (2007), Anka Muhlstein is a historian and biographer with a special interest in great queens such as Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart and Queen Victoria. Her works include Elisabeth d’Angleterre et Marie Stuart (2004), Reines éphémères, mères éternelles (2001), Adolphe de Custine (1996), Cavelier de la Salle (1992) and Victoria (1978).

With Balzac, the table entered literature — the table in all its diversity. Before Balzac it would have been unthinkable to digress, as he does, on the price of a cup of coffee, on the ennui that seeps from an eel pâté, on the solace procured by a fat carp, or on the information that can be gleaned from a rapid glance at the plates on a neighbouring table.
After Balzac, and in their own manner, Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant would each incorporate meals and gastronomy into their novels. Maupassant is the master of lovers’ meals and peasants’ feasts. In Le Ventre de Paris, Zola becomes drunk with the abundance and beauty of food. And who besides Proust would have been able to see a polychrome cathedral in the pink-and-blue-streaked fish that he is presented with? However, it was Balzac who had shown the way.
Throughout La Comédie Humaine, as we move from fashionable restaurants, with dark, elegant bars, to high-society soirées or to the shabby meals of the stingy petite bourgeoisie, Balzac gives us a sweeping view of nineteenth-century France at table. As we read or reread Balzac we discover the imaginative sources of the French relationship to food.

• Based on the notion that you are what you eat, there is no better way of understanding nineteenth-century France than by reading La Comédie Humaine. What do Balzac’s characters eat? How do they eat?

• A luminous essay of “literary gastronomy” for food lovers as well as for anyone interested in the nineteenth-century novel — or how to ally the pleasures of reading with those of eating, while discovering the influences that literature has had on the French imagination and eating habits.