La gastronomie humaine


When eating a business lunch, it's important to know who's paying. Even then, the question of what to eat is fraught. Order the lobster on someone else's expense account and you look grasping. (Can they afford it? Will it scupper the deal?) But order a side salad with tap water and you look like a wimp.

These pitfalls are perfectly illustrated by a meal eaten in Paris by the novelist Honore de Balzac, who was born 200 years ago this year. Balzac (1799-1850) had asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch. The latter thought Balzac's choice of restaurant - a deluxe establishment called Very - was a little grand. Not wishing to drain the author's finances, he reined in his appetite and ordered a meagre bowl of soup and a chicken wing. Balzac failed to follow suit. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ingested "a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d'oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc".

The most exorbitant wines and liqueurs were taken throughout, as Werdet watched hungrily. After his last juicy bite, Balzac turned to his guest and confessed he had no money on him. "By the way, my dear fellow, you wouldn't have any cash on you, would you?" Werdet was horrified. The 40 francs he had in his wallet weren't enough. So Balzac took five francs for the tip and billed his hapless publisher for the rest - a whopping F62.50 - the next day.

Evidently Balzac could be something of a glutton. But he could also be an abstemious and even a careless eater. During his legendary intensive bouts of writing he would wear a monk's robe and resented the intrusion of mealtimes, preferring to keep himself going with endless cups of stomach-cramping black coffee. A regular writing dinner was consomme, steak, salad and a glass of water.

Even at feasts, Balzac often preferred to observe the gluttony of others than to indulge himself. He made an exception of the fruit course. In the words of his biographer Graham Robb, "he would remove his cravat, undo his shirt and demolish a giant pyramid of pears and peaches". The blacker and more desiccated the fruit, the better. He was said to have once stockpiled as many as 1,500 pears.

Balzac's interest in food was encyclopaedic. The cycle of La Comedie Humaine contains 15 different kinds of fish and 16 kinds of fruit, as well as countless meals eaten by parvenu shopkeepers or lawyers. Balzac's father was a peasant made good, a deputy mayor who drank tree-sap in the hope of prolonging his life. His mother was a wealthy draper's daughter. This background imbued Balzac with oddly mixed table manners. He gobbled and ate off his knife like a peasant - but his culinary sensibilities were refined. His dinner parties often had themes. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favourite onion puree (see below), onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. The ideas was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests were sick.

Onion soubise
Blanch 1lb of sliced white onions in salted boiling water for about five minutes. Then put in a casserole with a good lump of butter and allow to stew very gently until completely soft. Do not brown. Pour in a pint of very thick bechamel sauce and season with salt, grated nutmeg and white pepper. Rub through a sieve and return to the pan, with cream to taste. A cross between a sauce and a side dish. Delicious with Balzac's beloved lamb chops.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?