Sunday, September 09, 2012

`Lettuces, Endives, Chicory'

V.S. Naipaul once likened his reading of Balzac’s novels to a child gorging on candy, full to sickness but unable to stop. That’s how I feel about Zola. His politics don’t interest me (though, of course, I admire J’accuse and his defense of Dreyfus), and his pretentions to writing “scientifically” are silly, but the likeness he renders of the moiling human swarm is irresistible. He is a Dickens for grownups, though, like Dickens, his understanding of human psychology is seldom nuanced. Henry James said tactfully that Zola “reasons less powerfully than he represents,” but I like Zola for the same reasons I like Dirty Harry – a compelling story with a moral strain and a dedication to densely chronicling a piece of the world. So I was pleased to pick up a book at the library I knew nothing about – Vegetables: A Biography by Evelyne Bloch-Dano (University of Chicago Press, 2012) – and find its epigraph is taken from my favorite in the twenty-novel Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris, 1873).

The passage Bloch-Dano uses is from Chapter 1. Florent Queno was mistakenly arrested in Paris during Louis-Napoleon’s coup d'état in 1851. Sentenced to Devil’s Island, he escapes and returns to Paris, where his half-brother helps him get a job as fish inspector in Les Halles, the city’s new central market. Florent is seeing the market for the first time, giving Zola the opportunity to chronicle its bounty. Bloch-Dano quotes Zola (in the translation by Brian Nelson, Oxford World’s Classics, 2007):
“Lettuces, endives, chicory, open and with rich soil still clinging to their roots, exposed their swelling hearts; bunches of spinach, sorrel, and artichokes, piles of peas and beans, mounds of cos lettuces, tied up with straw, sounded every note in the scale of greens, from the lacquered green of the pods to the coarse green of the leaves; a continuous scale of rising and falling notes that died away in the mixed tones of the tufts of celery and the bundles of leeks. But the highest notes, at the very top of the scale, came from the bright carrots and snowy turnips, scattered in tremendous quantities throughout the markets, which they lit up with their medley of colours. At the intersection in the Rue des Halles, mountains of cabbages were piled up; there were enormous white ones, as hard as cannon balls, curly ones with big leaves that made them look like bronze bowls, and red ones which the dawn seemed to transform into magnificent flowers with the hue of wine-dregs, splashed with crimson and dark purple. On the other side of the markets, at the intersection near Saint-Eustache, the opening to the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barricade of orange pumpkins in two rows, sprawling at their ease and swelling out their bellies.”
Much of The Belly of Paris amounts to an epical (and mock-epical) food catalog, a reminder of Homer naming the twenty-nine Achaean contingents, their geographic origins and forty-six captains, and their 1,186 ships. In her chapter “The Pea,” Bloch-Dano again quotes Zola, this time his better-known L’Assommoir  (1877). The scene is the meal offered for Gervaise’s feast day:
“`Now, what sort of veg?’
“`How about peas with bacon?’ said Virginie. `I’d be happy with that and nothing else.’”
“`Yes, yes, peas with bacon,’ the others all agreed, while Augustine, greatly excited, kept ramming the poker into the stove.”
Bloch-Dano adds:
“Fresh peas became an unsurpassable dish in French bourgeois cooking. There was even a market at Les Halles specifically for peas.”

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