A Hungry Little Boy

white_1-011212.jpg
A supper to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, at the restaurant Véfour

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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.