December 2, 2011

Balzac’s glazed game and food in fiction


A few pages of Balzac is all you need to know that you’re in the company of a serious foodie—his descriptions of meals and restaurants are painstaking, mouthwatering and frequent. Even the most inedible of objects are often described with reference to, say, a cut of meat. A new book by Anka Muhlstein, Balzac’s Omelette, shows food’s influence on the man and his fictions, and collects some great anecdotes. The Wall Street Journal today gives one:

In 1836, a year after the publication of his masterpiece, “Le Père Goriot,” he was arrested for evading service in the National Guard and sent to prison—where he promptly ordered dinner from Véfour, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris. He invited his publisher to dine with him. They feasted in the prison refectory. The publisher visited Balzac in his cell the next day and found the prisoner doing nicely: “His work table, his bed, his only chair, the entire floor of his room, everything was covered, everything was piled high, groaning with pâtés, stuffed poultry, glazed game, jams, baskets of different wines.” They sat down to dine with a few close friends; the dinner table, chairs, linen and glasses all provided by the chief warden. Afterward, the prison staff squabbled over the leftovers.

The man ate better in prison than the rest of us do on Christmas Day! Serious respect. And this was no idle interest: there’s no doubt that this obsession enriches Balzac’s particular mode of realism.

Which other authors are food-obsessed, and how does it influence their fictions? Kanoko Okamoto‘s novella ‘The Food Demon’ tells of an obsessive young chef whose failure to integrate into society and romantic woes go hand in hand with his meticulousness in the kitchen. It’s a dark and intricate work, and the precision of the culinary vocabulary plays a large part in its success. Then there’s Harry Mathews, using the recipe form to write short fiction. Next year we’ll be adding to this list, when we publish the first of our books by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose investigator Pepe Carvalho is a true bon viveur; these are highly politicised crime novels shot through with martinis, great meals and gustatory delights. Watch this space for more on Pepe, including some of his very own recipes.

Meanwhile, where can we find our literary food fixes?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.