The preconceived notion might be that Balzac was a gourmand, a modern-day Gargantua, excessive in his feasting as in his writing and his socializing and his consumption of coffee and his pursuit of titled women. Just look at Rodin’s nude study of him, with his Jovian girth and prominent belly. That’s the image most of us have of Balzac—and it seems it was fairly accurate since Rodin, some forty years after Balzac’s death, had his old tailor make to measure a set of his clothes so that the sculptor could have an exact sense of the writer’s body. Not only do we imagine that Balzac ate to excess. We also expect his Parisians to be gorging themselves indiscriminately on all the rich foods of the world, prizing fruits out of season and grating truffles over everything and downing hundreds of oysters.
But it’s a very different picture that Anka Muhlstein presents, one that is more nuanced and contradictory and surprising. Most of the Parisian women of fashion in Balzac’s era (and books) are on diets. Only the Princesse de Cadignan understands that to attract her lover, who loathes affectation, she should eat heartily. As Balzac tells us, “In Paris people eat [half-heartedly] and trifle with their pleasure.” No one ever comments on the food, which is assumed to be uniformly excellent.
It’s still that way. I can remember when I first moved to Paris how dismayed I was that no one ever praised my carefully prepared meals except when I offered seconds; then they turned down another helping but murmured that it was all very good. It took a while to learn that the fiction, at least in the past, was that everyone had a famous chef in the kitchen and it was pointless, even a bit insulting, to compliment the host or hostess on the food. One flustered woman even said to me, when I assured her that everything was excellent, “Don’t look at me—I didn’t cook it!” Muhlstein tells us: “In society, people do not go out to enjoy a delicious meal but to do business, to conspire, to hear the latest news, and to make sure they are seen.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed in nearly two hundred years: the French, then as now, dislike the smell of cooking and esteem the visual presentation of food above its taste. Whereas we think it’s cozy and welcoming and mouth-watering, they find the odor of warmed food revolting. James Rothschild, the founder of the French branch of the banking family, was so determined that cooking odors would not disturb his guests that he had the kitchen situated far from the château and the food delivered by a little underground railroad. His chef was Carême, the most famous culinary genius of the day, who specialized in pièces montées—complex architectural table decorations …