Balzac’s Omelette, a delicious tour of French food and culture with Honore de Balzac by Anka Muhlstein

I started this book, excitedly, from the idea that it would offer insight into styles of cooking. And, since the subtitle enticed literary purpose, I assumed I would find what I was looking for – an introduction to a culture by way of its food according to its most notable literary artists (at least one of them). Surprisingly, it was less about what we ingest throughout the course of a day in a life, in favor of what one requires of what we ingest. This book speaks to food. It speaks to an economy of virtue, but also to economic strengths of class participation… we consume what we divulge.

Her writing is attractive. She writes, prettily, and seems as a palate cleanser within this work for the ambitious reader. Do you love Proust? She serves Balzac, instead, as the progressive in a world of expressive flamboyance. She stresses the importance of culinary imagery, (p. 3), « If you want to imagine savoring an oyster as it melts on your tongue, read Maupassant; if you dream of jugs filled with yellow cream, try Flaubert; and if the thought of beef in aspic tickles you, turn to Proust. » She then offers Balzac as the escapist, realist with a passion for practicality in a big way, « But, if you are interested not so much in the taste of the oyster as in the way a young man orders it, less the cool sweetness of the cream than how much it costs, and less the melting quality of the aspic than what it reveals about how the household is run, then read Balzac. » And, I am captivated.

A biography of writing, Ms. Muhlstein gives the reader a work which begs assimilation. What if all authors/writers made complete their work through characterizations of cultural familiarity by the humble acknowledgment of idiosyncracies of nutrition? Better yet, what does food offer the plot? What does intensity of one’s appetite or distaste for food offer to civilization? She writes in generalities, but her knowledge requests a feast for the famine of literary conformity.

Her chapters are the work. She writes her vast understanding on cultures of cuisine, Balzac’s Europe, history, from ideas of literary impact; one feels she could use these chapter definitions (titles) to clarify or expound on any topic with profound french consistency. Her style has manner. Her manner is properly and comprehensively compact, as all french should be… exhaustive. (This french word means complete, and nothing more. Whereas, the English, exhaustive, while not only being less interesting in pronunciation, will drown its subject with lavish definition « spent, over, done » and possibly even « thorough, » which hesitates to refine. The idea being, french gives all of something, there’s nothing more, but there may be something less.)

I wondered where the book’s title originated. There is a secret to the omelette, a perfect french method, perhaps, (p. 166), « … an omelette is more delicate when the whites and yolks of the eggs are not beaten together with the brutality that cooks usually put into that operation… the white should be beaten until it resembles foam and the yolk introduced a little at a time, … « . This is the only recipe found in Balzac’s repertoire, apparently. Her thought may be that Balzac’s Omelette inspires gentility. This is a writer’s influence on consumption.

And, it is a reader’s repast.

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