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May 20,1799-August18,1850 French author 'La Comedie Humaine' nourriture dans les arts
Balzac ranks among the great masters of the novel. In 1816 he began studying law at the Sorbonne, but after receiving his license in 1819 he decided to abandon law for literature. Throughout his life he worked with feverish activity. He was ridden with debts, which were increased rather than relieved by his business ventures.

The novelist would lock himself away during creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs. When he finally took a break, he was known to consume huge quantities of food.

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 Balzac, who 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 consommé, 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, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. The idea was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests were sick.

Balzac was an excellent art connoisseur. His novel Cousin Pons is an outstanding example: Sylvain Pons earns a meager living conducting at the ballet and giving private music lessons. He is very fond of fine food and fine art. Over the years, he has satisfied the latter craving by slowly accumulating pieces that now clutter the small apartment he shares with his friend Schmucke. Sylvain doesn't know it, but the collection is worth a surprising amount of money. He satisfies his taste for fine food by frequently going to dinner at his cousin Marville's house. Marville's wife dislikes having Sylvain at her table, for he is rustic and abrupt. He is finally kicked out completely when he tries to find a suitor for the Marville's daughter, Cecile, and bungles the job. Shortly afterwards, Sylvain falls ill. His portress, Cibot, enters the rooms to nurse him, recognizes the value of his art collection and schemes to get it. She gets Remonencq, who runs a nearby pawn shop, and Elie Magus, a Jew with an eye for art, to help her. The attack begins when Cibot convinces Schmucke to sell some of Sylvain's paintings in order to pay for the doctor bills. The plot thickens as Sylvain's doctor and an attorney get involved. The attorney goes to Madame de Marville and convinces her to fleece Sylvain or risk a smaller inheritance from Sylvain. Her husband regretfully agrees also. Meanwhile, Sylvain has become suspicious of Cibot. He struggles out of his sick bed to find Magus studying the collectibles in his bedroom. The other rooms are empty. Sylvain realizes his friend Schmucke has been duped, and he plans a counter-attack. He writes a false will, leaving all his money to Cibot for her service at his final illness. He leaves it where she will see it. He then writes a second, true will that leaves his money to the crown on the condition that they grant Schmucke a lifetime annuity. Sylvain then dies. Schmucke becomes the new target of the others' greed. They nearly convince him to sign a paper forfeiting most of his inheritance, but when he realizes that the Marvilles are accusing him of having duped their cousin he falls ill and dies. The money passes on to the Marvilles. The attorney gets an important new job; the doctor gets a sinecure, and Magus gets the pictures. Even Cibot is rewarded; she gets an annuity and marries Remonencq after he kills her husband.

La gastronomie humaine.(Food) (eating habits and interest in food of French author Honore de Balzac) copyright, New Statesman, 1999, by Bee Wilson/  and Art Archive

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