In his series of short stories and novels that composed La Comedie Humaine, Honore de Balzac drew on his own experiences in law, business, and politics to create fully rounded characters and a panorama of life in France after the fall of Napoleon. And as Anka Muhlstein points out in Balzac’s Omelette, he used food to create realistic characters and to portray universal human desires and frustrations that resonate today.
In fact, Balzac was what we might call a foodie. He would hunt through Paris’ arrondissments in search of newly fashionable pasta and he fueled his writing with a special blend of three coffee beans. He would surely recognize our own foodways—tweeting after food trucks and a Starbucks at the end of every arm. He would also recognize our concern with weight. Writing for 15 hours a day, and binging when he’d finished a work, Balzac grew from a skinny schoolboy to a man of impressive girth. Theophile Gautier recalled Balzac celebrating a finished manuscript by downing four bottles of Vouvray. Even his walks through Paris, which at the time had only three streets with sidewalks, couldn’t keep the weight off.
The eighteenth century Paris that Balzac was writing about was not the starred city we think of today. Muhlstein points out, at that time, a restaurant was not a place but a restorative drink. But princely chefs set loose by the Revolution, a loosening of medieval guild rules, and a nouveaux riche clientele created restaurants as a stage for social life, and as recorded in Balzac’s novels, food as an indicator of character and status.
And we recognize his characters, partly by the way they deal with food—society women elegantly picking at their meals, social climbers seeking acceptance via lavish dinners, a miser who locks up the bread, frustrated husbands feasting on food instead of love. In the novels, restaurants are a stage to display character and style.
Unsympathetic characters are sent to unfashionable neighborhoods, while jaded aristocrats are tempted at Palais Royale restaurants. A lover is seduced by a extravagant dinner at Le Rocher de Cancale and one who is discarded consoles himself with a plate of Ostend oysters at the celebrated Very, cost be dammed. In between plot and character, Muhlstein describes the development of stylish restaurants and how they changed Paris social life—private rooms, women in satin gowns, and forty-two bottles of wine consumed by fourteen diners.
Balzac uses also uses home cooking and cooks to point out folly, greed, and integrity. What better way to describe fruitless social climbing than through the rented silver, sugar centerpieces, traiteur-provided meals, and the ruinous bills that follow? Snowy linens, rich broths, and strawberries arranged prettily on the plate with their leaves are signals of love and generosity.
Despite all his attention to food, there is only one recipe in all his works, the omelet of the title, and it is less a recipe than a way to illuminate a character. Dr. Rouget, “renowned at Issoudon for several improvements in the art of cooking…” applies his knowledge of chemistry to create a more delicious omelet, but even still, none of his neighbors care to dine with him.
As any foodie or novelist knows, it’s not only what’s on the plate, but also who’s around the table that makes the meal.