Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Deipnomachy, or Cooking with Zola

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Deipnomachy, or Cooking with Zola

Article excerpt

In recent years, a number of studies have been devoted to the functions of food as a cultural object; food studies themselves have become an important developing field within the larger fields of cultural studies. Part of the material world, food has always had a status as a cultural object, but recent work has recognized those cultural values and structures as part of interpretative systems and as parts of systems to be interpreted. The structuring value that food has within culture is well-known, whether it is a matter of "the raw and the cooked" as Claude Levi-Strauss put it, the origin of table manners, as Norbert Elias would have it, or more generally, the functions of hunters, gatherers, and eventually cultivators within developing societies. (1)

Here I am interested in the literary ramifications ascribed to food in Zola's Germinal, but this needs first to be placed in a general context. In the nineteenth century, French culture places a specific and conscious set of values on food, running from the early Grimod de la Reyniere and Brillat-Savarin through Careme and the development and codification of French haute cuisine (Ferguson) and the rise of the restaurant (Spang) and moving on toward a domestic codification of cuisine bourgeoise, perhaps finally ending with the first regional travel guides, assembled by Rouff and Curnonsky in the 1920s (Schehr, "Savory" 125). Not only is food an unconsciously structuring figure within the everyday life of society, it is also the object of a set of investigations in which its form, production, presentation, and content are themselves assigned values. Brillat-Savarin famously challenged individuals in society to tell him what they ate; having heard that, he would tell them what they were. And one need go no further than one of the cornerstones of post-structuralist French theory, Pierre Bourdieu's epoch-making La Distinction, to find the "scientific" confirmation of Brillat-Savarin's insight about the association of specific foods and social strata.

When we read realist and naturalist novels, we notice a phenomenon that parallels the real world. Modest meals are described at the Pension Vauquer in Le Pere Goriot, bread is the staff of lire in Les Miserables, there is an ironic wedding banquet in L'Assommoir, after which the solidity of food will be replaced by the liquidity of liquor (Newton). And in Proust's Recherche, there is an ongoing semiotics of food and drink: madeleines and tisane for the narrator, the boeuf en daube, the asparagus, the chicken as sale bete, and so forth, all of which relate to the character of Francoise and her functions, and there are the various ice creams, teas, breads, drinks, salads, meals, and banquets that are associated with one character or another.

And yet there is a significant omission here; the studies and texts are all skewed high, for they are in fact based on the availability of food and on the ingestion thereof. Within this period of developing capitalism and materialism in society and reflected in literature, one is hard put to find evidence of the low end of the scale, an end that goes from starvation and the complete or relative unavailability of food to subsistence living. Food persuades by its presence and variety, not by its absence. There are certain obvious exceptions to this general rule of thumb: Kafka's later ironic tale "Ein Hungerkunstler," as well as narratives of illness (especially tuberculosis) or of religious deprivation about anachorites and martyrs. But basically, the group of works available within realism is a small one for works hot inflected by codes of medicine, pathology, religious zeal, or existential irony.

The dissolving of starvation into materiality with Jean Valjean's theft of bread is an early example, but Hugo uses this as a passing moment with which to begin a progress narrative. Perhaps out of the implicit belief in materialism and progress, realism seldom engages this dematerialized low end of the food scale. …

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