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Pigging out in style. December 3, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. With the recent zoom in popularity of eating contests— those grotesque competitions where contestants try to cram in massive amounts of food in the shortest possible time—and with the news and medical communities perpetually assuring us that our everyday-enormous portions are supersizing us all, you’d be tempted to think that overeating is a modern phenomenon.

But what about the Nineteenth Century, when affluent households ate from groaning sideboards at breakfast each morning and were served course after course each evening, not to mention nuncheon and tea? Looking at the staggering variety of foods served at a single meal, I’d always just assumed that diners selected carefully from the assortment and then ate small portions, rather than gobbling down a healthy serving of each and every dish.

Now I’m not so sure. I just read a review of Balzac’s Omelette, a biography of the French author Honore de Balzac by Anka Muhlstein (Other Press, 2011, $19.95). As the title implies, food plays a significant role in the book, as it did in Balzac’s life. He liked to celebrate the forthcoming publication of his novels with a big meal, and I do mean big.

According to reviewer Moira Hodgson, at one such meal Balzac “was said to have put away a hundred oysters, four bottles of white wine, a dozen salt-meadow lamb cutlets, duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole, dessert and Comice pears.” By himself. The after-dinner brandies and coffee would have been so taken for granted that they weren’t even worth mentioning.

Now, admittedly, this was a special occasion, and Balzac was not what you’d call a small man (as far as girth was concerned, at any rate). His meal probably lasted many hours, too—no rushing to polish it off in an hour and head off to catch the latest drama on TV. But even so, where in the world could a single person put all that food?!! And did the well-to-do really eat like that (or an approximation thereof) all the time?

Food historians, if you’re reading along, please weigh in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) And everyone, if you’d like to check out the review of Balzac’s Omelette, it’s called “Like Dining with Rabelais” and appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 12/1/11 (www.wsj.com).

All I can say is, it’s a good thing for the restaurants that sponsor those eating competitions that Balzac isn’t around today. He’d put them all out of business.

             ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

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