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Foodstuffs and Fiction

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It always bugs me when characters in novels don’t consume any food or drink. Not that the whole novel has to be about that, mind you, but the occasional mention can do so much to create setting.

I recently read that Honoré de Balzac died at age 51 from caffeine overconsumption. I assumed that this must be overstating the case because I have long been a fan of the bean and have never heard of such a thing (Specifics post from 8/12/2009: scroll down for books about coffee history). It turns out he was indeed a coffee fanatic, reportedly drinking up to 50 cups a day of the stuff and consuming handfuls of the beans themselves. He was always working on a project and, hence, always on a deadline. He wrote an ode to coffee, translated here, that is rivaled only by Marcel Proust’s (1871-1922) devotion to madeleines, the tiny French cakes in Remembrance of Things Past:

"I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake... a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place."

"The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it..." but "...as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me.... immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents."

I read about Balzac’s coffee overconsumption in Luc Sante’s introduction to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, a title that became so interwoven with the American consciousness that a sandwich was named after it, a loosely interpreted version of the French Croque Monsieur. Dumas was renowned for his elaborate parties and spreads, and when he died in 1870, he was bankrupt and had lost his château, also named Monte Cristo.

Monte Cristo, by A. Dumas, Digital ID TH-37660, New York Public Library

Interestingly, both Balzac’s Cousin Bette and The Count of Monte Cristo have been made into films multiple times, both to mixed reviews. One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer of the Cousin Bette film with Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue and Hugh Laurie likened it to “a crinolined episode of ‘Dynasty.’” There is also a BBC version. The Count of Monte Cristo has been made into a film at least twenty-nine times, often borrowing key scenes from the plot while missing the scope of the work as a whole, playing more like Dumas lite. More recently, the internationally known work has spawned an anime series, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, again, very loosely based on the original, and available from the Library here.

All versions of both works were ranked “worth consuming” on the web site http://www.allconsuming.net.

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