publisher colophon
Lawrence R. Schehr - Deipnomachy, or Cooking with Zola - Nineteenth Century French Studies 34:3 Nineteenth Century French Studies 34.3 (2006) 338-354

Deipnomachy, or Cooking with Zola

Department of French
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL 61801

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 Lévi-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 Reynière and Brillat-Savarin through Carême 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 [End Page 338] in Le Père Goriot, bread is the staff of life in Les Misérables, 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 bœuf en daube, the asparagus, the chicken as sale bête, and so forth, all of which relate to the character of Françoise 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 Hungerkünstler," 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 not 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. From Jean Valjean's bread through Balzac's pension food, from the killing of the animals in the Paris Zoo for food during the Commune through Huysmans's A vau l'eau and on to the abject food described by Octave Mirbeau in Le Jardin des supplices, there are a few examples of cuisine modeste.

Standing alone, I think, is one striking literary example in which a true poetics of poverty is explored: Émile Zola's Germinal. Zola uses the dearth and absence of food as a leit-motif for illuminating the subsistence living of his characters in a mining village, characters who barely are part of the nineteenth-century's progress narratives, except insofar as they themselves are fodder for the capitalist machine and its owners. This is the novel of the cuisine du pauvre.2

In Germinal, food is an indication of station and status: roast partridge for the rich (1311), a handful of vermicelli for the poor: "une poignée de vermicelle, qu'elle tenait en reserve depuis trois jours" (1205).3 Even worse, in a parody of a beheading foretold, the semiotics of food becomes a sign of a hand-me-down, a brioche offered to the poor children of the Maheu family; it is second-hand bread (1214) that makes us think of Marie-Antoinette's apocryphal remark: "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche." Thematically, the cycles of food in this novel [End Page 339] are a mark of Zola's set pieces: here, in the attenuation of a banquet, with its procession of courses; there, in the growing hunger, both physical and spiritual, of the crowd. Zola creates a food fight – a deipnomachy – between the haves and the have nots, between those who consume and those who are consumed, a serious version of Rabelaisian, carnivalesque deipnomachies.

Zola's narrative is based on two interrelated codifications of food. The more predictable one is oppositional: the contrast between the food of the rich and that of the poor, seen most blatantly in the studied, structured opposition between any meal eaten at Le Voreux and the Hennebeaus' substantial, opulent, and plentiful meal offered by the maîtresse de la maison (with her complicitous servants) to her guests. The other set of meanings engages the articulation of the cuisine du pauvre for itself within the novel. Zola develops a poetics of this low end of the food scale, one that is, from time to time, both implicitly and explicitly contrasted to the sated high end of the scale, but which, most of the time, he tries to explore as an entity separated by an abyss from even the most basic cuisine modeste. Between the food of those in Le Voreux and even the most humble peasant lies a gulf that is uncrossable within the system, a gulf, Zola suggests, that could only be traversed by a revolutionary change, figured in the anarchist bombing used as a deus ex machina and as a machine de guerre toward the end of the novel. On the poor side of the gulf, different laws apply to food semiotics, laws of divisibility and grouping, laws of availability and absence, laws of no choice, laws of liquidity opposed to and in contrast with the solid materiality of nineteenth-century capitalist culture. In L'Assommoir, the food of the poor is already burnt before the thermodynamics of systems (Serres) or already drowned in an attenuation of the solid into the infinitely dissolvable.

The wedding feast in L'Assommoir and the ducasse in Germinal are both a recognition of the scarceness of bien-être for Zola's economically poorer characters and their false hope of communion, peace, and success: ironic last suppers as it were. The feast for the poor is illusory, the narrator / author seems to be saying; only true social action will solve the social, political, and economic injustices of nineteenth-century French society. Feast is only a temporary stop-gap measure within a continuity of famine, a hunger reflected in the very landscape of Montsou.4

In Germinal, Zola repeatedly links poêle and politics.5 For example, the first two parts of the novel are in part a very literal narrative meditation on Marie-Antoinette's putative remark when told that the peasants were demanding bread. The reported comment betrays not only her political naivete, but also her lack of understanding of the basic principles of baking.6 Beyond that, the scarcity of food, the miracles that have to happen with the minimum amount of food available, and the bonds formed among female characters over food, drink, and provisions all interrelate with the ever-increasing need for revolution: [End Page 340] starvation creates both community and conflict. There is an opposition between those who may be perceived, within the poor community, to have and those thinking they have not, but there is also the sense of community built around absence, self-sacrifice, and vengeance, such as is the case in the moment of sparagmos of Maigrat, guilty of having exacted sexual favors against an extension of credit. In Germinal, empty stomachs are the sites of radical politics and the boborygmic rumblings of empty stomachs are the vox populi crying out for change.7

For Zola, the rhetoric of rich food is characterized by codification – each example being a metonymy of grande cuisine or more modestly, of cuisine bourgeoise, subject to a similar but less excessive code – and by surfeit and excess. No such codification exists for the food of the poor. That food is marked instead by a rhetoric of scarcity, of absence, and of the abject. Food of the poor poetically borders on the inedible, the non-eaten, and the marginal. It borders on chaos, with disorder and liquidity replacing sustenance, solidity, and a metaphysical pneuma that is the secular translation of the Eucharist. With this general plan in mind, I turn to specific examples of the cuisine du pauvre in Zola's novel in order to elucidate his poetics and semiotics of impoverishment: starting with the abject example of using yesterday's coffee grounds to make today's coffee and finishing with the mutilation of Maigrat and the parading of his genitalia as if they were some bit of offal, I should like to develop the amplitude and implications of this double history of the cuisine du pauvre.

Of all the foodstuffs that we face on a daily basis, there is perhaps nothing more abject than coffee grounds: their "sustantifique moëlle" having been extracted, their solidity becomes extraneous, disposable, and superfluous within the realm of the substantial; only a slightly eccentric or penny-pinching person would consider reusing them. And yet Zola makes his point from the very beginning with yesterday's coffee grounds: "le marc de la veille" (1150). There is nothing more desperate or impoverished on a human level than being reduced to using what has already been eaten, chewed, drunk, rejected, or eliminated. "Le marc de la veille" is the sign of the poverty of those who suffer, those whom Zola champions, those eaten by the voracious devouring mine, more than aptly named "Le Voreux" (1135; Mary; Bellos; Brady, 67-68).

In contrast to those who are on a diet that includes yesterday's coffee grounds, and like the bourgeois who consume far more than they need, the mine gluttonously eats countable pieces of food by ingesting people in a gargantuan feasted motivated by the giant tapeworm in its bowels: "Étienne ne comprenait bien qu'une chose: le puits avalait des hommes par bouchées de vingt et de trente, et d'un coup de gosier si facile, qu'il semblait ne pas les sentir passer" (1153). Or again, the mine is hungry, a devouring, gaping hole endlessly being fed: "Pendant une demi-heure, le puits en dévora de la sorte, d'une gueule plus ou moins gloutonne, selon la profondeur de l'accrochage [End Page 341] où ils descendaient" (1154). The mine is the metonymy of an abusive society, but with one exception: like the poor of the hamlet, it too will eat whatever comes its way, expendable humans, the detritus of a willfully malevolent society. Figure of the society, it sits on top of it and the two ends meet: those who are reduced to using yesterday's coffee grounds and that which will consume them; the omnivorous meets the gleaners in a society that is both "avare" and "haineux."

Le marc de la veille is the detritus of a product gathered in exotic lands by hands poorer than those of the miners and their families. Like sugar and cotton, coffee evokes colonial abuse, slavery, capitalist and imperialist profiteering, and, with its triangulated economy, the antecedent of transnationalism. Like salt in imperial Rome, coffee and sugar are coded with a kind of affective surplus value. When we associate "goodness" with such materials, at least within the praxis of our daily lives, we seldom if ever think of the bloody, imperialist, colonial past that implies trilateral trade, massacres of indigenous peoples, the slave trade, and the foundation of nation states at the heart of transcontinental empires. The situation described by Zola in the production of coal from the mines and symbolized as well by the rape of the land is part and parcel of the imperial system in which industry, fueled by that coal, takes the raw products from empire to turn them into disposable goods for the wealthy.

Coffee is roasted, pulverized, and consumed. Like coal, it is a hard, dark substance. One is consumed by heat alone, the other by water and heat. Both provide warmth as long as they last, but there is no storage, no aftereffect, and no carbopacking from either. "Ça passera comme le café," ostensibly a fad, yet the flow implied in that sentence proves to be far more on target than the prediction of faddishness. When abundant, coffee (standing in part as metonymy for the entire imperial economic system) and coal are the dark fodder that stokes the fires; when scarce or absent, coffee and coal are the marks of the failure of the system. To be reduced to using yesterday's coffee grounds is to be marked as marginal and expendable – there will always other workers – but to be necessary to its voracious machine. Eat or be eaten; eat and be eaten: Zola offers little hope for those consuming abject detritus.

Yesterday's coffee grounds are but one figure of the interrelation of substance and the abject, a figure resumed in the vague borderland between the two that is neither solid nor liquid, neither fully whole nor fully pulverized.8 Yet that borderland is not merely defined as that meeting spot but as the defined spheres. So it is not just a question of social Darwinism, but rather of the decomposition of the starved subject to the abject position: eat and be eaten; do not eat and be eaten anyway; it little matters. At the edge of food, at the border between the edible and its others, everything deconstructs, decomposes, and turns into the marginal edibility of "le marc de la veille."

For the poor of Germinal, food exists at the margins, as Zola makes the acts of [End Page 342] eating both central and peripheral to them. The centered action of consumption, that of the mine, or metonymically, the Hennebeau and the Grégoire families, pairs an omnivorous and voracious gullet with an eternal source of food. Consider the mine: "Cette fosse lui semblait avoir un air mauvais de bête goulue, accroupie là pour manger le monde."9 Or again, on the human level, there are countable objects, whole objects, masses and mounds of flesh: in the famous lunch, the characters eat oysters, trout, and partridges, all countable, mounds of eggs, and charlotte aux pommes. Their system is marked by abundance, plethora, excess, and redundancy: why should they need so many kinds of animal protein to survive, when one would do? Simply, their system is not marked as one in which food is eaten for survival, for that is a given, never to be brought up and never to be put into question. Food for them is part of the ordered system in which the only lacks are due to the vagaries of the market or the problems caused by the rowdy crowds preventing them from getting what is "rightfully" theirs. There are no leftover coffee grounds for them, even as the system is marked by a servant to pour coffee. For the rich, food, easily acquired and consumed, has a surface value of sustenance, but its interest does not lie there. Rather, it is in the surplus value of taste, rareness, and exquisite flavor; a brioche instead of ordinary, daily bread brings about no revolutionary thoughts; even the servants share the pleasure of those sated with both food and power: "Ils s'attablaient enfin, le chocolat fumait dans les bols, on ne parla longtemps que de la brioche. Mélanie et Honorine restaient, donnaient des détails sur la cuisson, les regardaient se bourrer, les lèvres grasses, en disant que c'était un plaisir de faire un gâteau, quand on voyait les maîtres le manger si volontiers" (1200). The "creux," as one says in French, is a momentary gap, ever fillable, so there is no need to worry, no need to count out portions, dividing by the number of mouths. There will always be food; it is its surplus, its added value, and its fulfillment of the code of abundance that count.

Such is the role of food in a bourgeois, consumer society. In a society in which food is scarce, the matter is completely different. There is no real construction of an ordered system on a regular basis, though the ducasse here or the wedding banquet in L'Assommoir are the exceptions to the usual, daily, habitual model. And even money, the medium of capitalist exchange, does not always function as it does in the bourgeois model; in its stead is a system of barter with others, with oneself, a practice of gleaning, or receiving material alms, and of making ends meet that temporarily defers the creux. But the creux is always there: the maïs, vermicelle, ratatouille, salade, friture consumed on a regular basis do not signify the dishes, their preparation, or even the original ingredients. Rather, they remark this creux as they pass through it, temporary stopgaps or momentary deferrals or delays of the hunger pangs that are the true index of the food of the poor.

In the cuisine du pauvre, food signifies this gap over and over. The different [End Page 343] dynamic of food and hunger for the poor changes the descriptions or dispositions of food. Food for the poor is always already broken down: "rien, plus un sou, pas même une croûte" (1205). Bread is already its abject leftovers, neither the dough that would become a brioche in the hands of a servant to the bourgeoisie, that Hapsburg-Capétien bread beyond bread, but its aftermath, its leftovers, though able to provide sustenance, are always the faded future of a pathetic past: "Jeanlin avait ramassé les miettes des tartines et trempait une soupe. Après avoir bu, Catherine acheva de vider la cafetière dans les gourdes de fer-blanc" (1150).

Food is first and foremost its absence: an empty larder, death from famine, a sterile land crying out for food, and a population that is eternally hungry: "Et la Maheude continua d'une voix morne, la tête immobile, fermant par instants les yeux sous la clarté triste de la chandelle. Elle disait le buffet vide, les petits demandant des tartines, le café même manquant, et l'eau qui donnait des coliques, et les longues journées passés à tromper la faim avec des feuilles de choux bouillies" (1147-48). Underlined by the repetitive, habitual aspect of the imperfect and the atemporal nature of the present participle, the anaphoric, though irregular sequence of the repeated "et" turns hunger into a litany marked as a repetition: this is neither the first nor the last time that this will occur in the lives of these people or those similar to them. Moreover, hunger is invoked ludically, even at the expense of material and corporeal needs: fooling hunger with one of the bases for slaking it, could, in its delaying tactics, be a temporary solution, if only it were possible. The absence is generalized as hunger meets hunger: "Etienne racontait ses courses inutiles depuis une semaine; il fallait donc crever de faim?" (1136). And the countryside itself, metonymy of its denizens, screams out from its hunger pangs:

Malgré la propreté, une odeur d'oignon cuit, enfermée depuis la veille, empoisonnait l'air chaud, cet air alourdi, toujours chargé d'une âcreté de houille.

Devant le buffet ouvert, Catherine réfléchissait. Il ne restait qu'un bout de pain, du fromage blanc en suffisance, mais à peine une lichette de beurre; et il s'agissait de faire les tartines pour eux quatre. Enfin elle se décida, coupa les tranches, en prit une qu'elle couvrit de fromage, en frotta une autre de beurre, puis les colla ensemble: c'était le "briquet," la double tartine emportée chaque matin à la fosse.


Meted out, counted, divided, the food of the poor is marked as well by its destination: not intended to be eaten as a meal, it is rather the means by which energy, albeit as minimal as possible, is given to further the work for the bosses who themselves idly and luxuriously enjoy meals of excess.

Again, the creux is marked by the false possibilities of satiety and even the mathematical approach to food differs between rich and poor. While the rich can add foodstuffs up or create uncountable mounds, for the poor, food is [End Page 344] divisible or even always already divided into its remainders. A piece of bread is good in that it can be divided once, twice, or more. Soup is good in that it can be endlessly attenuated, yet this has a hidden, deadly irony: whereas a mound of eggs with truffles signifies luxury (1310), the more soup there is, the less there really is. Increasing liquid anywhere, even symbolically, extinguishes life: "Un bruit sifflant de vapeur la fit se tourner. Elle [Catherine] ferma, se hâta de courir: l'eau bouillait et se répandait, éteignant le feu. Il ne restait plus de café, elle dut se contenter de passer l'eau sur le marc de la veille; puis, elle sucra dans la cafetière, avec de la cassonnade" (1150). The watery soup and coffee announce the death by water that is to come, but they also hasten that death now by drowning the solids, dissolving them, and extinguishing the thermodynamic fire that means energy.10

Already in the first chapter, Zola's cuisine du pauvre is broken down into its component parts, an always already lingering abject translation of food into chyme and the edible parts that seemingly having nourished remain or re-sign themselves in a parody of food and hunger. And this brings us to another food substance, vermicelli. These noodles are an exemplary version of the food of the poor. Endlessly staving off the hunger of the children at the beginning of the novel, these noodles, etymologically recalling little worms, are also the thinnest form of pasta, perhaps the most likely to dissolve if overcooked.11 Zola's noodles fade out; there are never enough to feed all and sate everyone's hunger. Held in reserve, they can serve for a moment but will not produce much.

In the second book of Germinal, flour and water, cooked in parallel in two different households, are put to different uses. One is an anabolic use of the material, the other catabolic, if not already beyond that in the non-nutritive. Mme Grégoire's cook can infuse flour and water with air and life, the yeast will make the dough rise, the eggs will make it rich; the brioche will be worth waiting for. We are ready, it is ready, we will and can wait to eat it: "'Mélanie, dit-elle [Mme Grégoire] à la cuisinière, si vous faisiez la brioche ce matin, puisque la pâte est prête'" (1194). From a pâte that rises in which even the air is spiritually nutritious, there is a long distance to the evanescent pâtes that are scarcely there. With the noodles, nothing is ready; the characters have to wait to eat, and even then, there is nothing to sustain them; the noodles are about to collapse as they are divided. For the poor, eating is always already over, an evenemential passé simple contrasted with the pregnant future of food for the bourgeoisie. The irony is palpable: the bourgeois do not have to wait for food: it is always there and will always be there; the poor have to wait for food as it has always already been consumed and there very well may be none in the future. For the poor, if by chance there is something today, tomorrow there will be nothing. Having food means having had it and remarking its finitude: [End Page 345]

Elle [la Maheude] avait rabattu les volets, secoué le feu, remis du charbon. Son espoir était que le vieux n'eût pas englouti toute la soupe. Mais elle trouve le poêlon torché, elle fit cuire une poignée de vermicelle, qu'elle tenait en réserve depuis trois jours. On l'avalerait à l'eau, sans beurre; il ne devait rien rester de la lichette de la veille; et elle fut surprise de voir que Catherine, en préparant les briquets, avait fait le miracle d'en laisser gros comme une noix. Seulement, cette fois, le buffet était bien vide: rien, pas une croûte, pas un fond de provision, pas un os à ronger.

So even if Catherine has left a bit of the butter, the miracle is only one in a kind of momentary elation expressed by discours indirect libre; there are no loaves and fishes in this miracle. Zola makes the butter disappear by rendering it as non-miraculous as possible, a false idol, or a mirage: there is nothing to eat and even the presence of the butter and the noodles mark that incontrovertible fact. So when it is time to eat, fittingly, the noodles are not for la Maheude. The miracle has turned into Christian self-sacrifice. And the tell-tale coffee, that initial sign of the absence, the attenuation, the abject, and the aqueous, reappears to reconfirm the liquidation of food: "Lorsque Alzire et les enfants furent là, elle partagea le vermicelle dans trois petites assiettes. Elle, disait-elle, n'avait pas faim. Bien que Catherine eût déjà passé de l'eau sur le marc de la veille, elle en remit une seconde fois et avala deux grandes chopes d'un café tellement clair qu'il ressemblait à de l'eau de rouille" (1205-06). Not only is the coffee used and reused, it is also compared to rust, a result of decay. Once again, the solid has given way; the action of the liquid makes the solid waste away, rot, and corruptly collapse into uncountable minuscule pieces.

With two exceptions, solids exist only to be melted or broken down, dissolved into some liquid state; it is a wet world that pretends to be food, but that is truly only non-nourishing ersatz. If the coffee grounds and the vermicelli signal the dearth, there are, nevertheless, two star dishes of this cuisine, if we can even say that: soup and ratatouille. Not the late summer, Mediterranean comfort food with which we are all familiar, this ratatouille is a banal dish, thicker than a soup, but not by much. The apotheosis of the ratatouille will be the thickened dishes, stews, ragouts whose substance is sustaining. But the discourse of this food is modified in the paired descriptions that follow. The first, given in discours indirect libre, offers la Maheude's reflective meditation on the food to be, and this, based on the money she hopes for but which she does not yet have in hand: "Elle, tout en marchant, dépensait déjà les cent sous: d'abord du pain, puis du café ; ensuite, un quart de beurre, un boisseau de pommes de terre, pour la soupe du matin et la ratatouille du soir; enfin, peut-être un peu de fromage de cochon, car le père avait besoin de viande" (1209). Liquid still dominates and even overwhelms the bits of solid that she hopes to purchase. When she returns, having obtained not only the food she sought but some money as well that Maigrat the grocer has lent her (1214), the [End Page 346] discourse changes a bit as the illusion of the money, as if it were tangible, produced solids: "Nous aurons du pain jusqu'à samedi, et le plus beau, c'est qu'il m'a prêté cent sous . . . J'ai encore pris chez lui le beurre, le café, la chicorée, j'allais même prendre la charcuterie et les pommes de terre, quand j'ai vu qu'il grognait . . . Sept sous de fromage de cochon, dix-huit sous de pommes de terre, il me reste trois francs soixante-quinze pour un ragoût et un pot-au-feu" (1231). The money, the possibility of exchange, and the belief that the money is hers even though it is not cause her to speculate, as David Bell has shown in his study of Zola's capitalism (Models). Maheude literally speculates on solid food, or on something more solid than the watery soup or the bits and pieces of the ratatouille: a stew and a pot-au-feu, but certainly no longer the cuisine du pauvre.

Speculation allows la Maheude to move mentally from the cuisine du pauvre to respectable, simple cuisine paysanne. Even the once attenuated coffee has been reversed by this illusion of solidity: "Les pommes de terre étaient cuites, le café épaissi d'une bonne moitié de chicorée, passait dans le filtre, avec un bruit chantant de grosses gouttes" (1216). And yet, in carefully orchestrating his scenario of illusion, Zola ironizes the will to solidity. The novel needs to release and dissolve; without a second thought, Zola opts for a diuretic: "Écoute [Maheude à Jeanlin], tu vas aller cueillir une salade de pissenlits pour ce soir" (1230). Certainly the dandelions, like gleanings, are available for free. And yet one cannot help thinking that the choice of foodstuff, whose French name marks that act of micturation, is a sign that things will soon redissolve into the liquid.12

This dissipation is not only a liquefaction, but a sublimation, both psychological and meteorological.13 Psychologically, it is a way of not remembering hunger and of believing that the pangs are not there. It is a repression that marks the subject in a way that rationalizes a course of action or a thought. The general state of food matter in this novel is a liquid, an abject version thereof, or its attenuated abject water, like the "eau de rouille" already discussed. The ratatouille, the soup, and the vermicelli are attempts at solidity, but they can never get there. The potatoes purchased the day one has money and the bit of head cheese made from odd pieces of pork held together with solidified fat and gelatin are the only real moves toward solidity, that solidity of food illustrated by the simplicity of cuisine paysanne, and a fortiori, by cuisine bourgeoise, the cuisine of abundance. But the head cheese and potatoes are ephemera and the poor are soon back to meatless meals.

If the process of solid to liquid to gas is sequentially here one of a logical order of cooking, even if it marks only that momentary solidity, it is the transformation of that solid into gas – the odor of fried onions – that is the rhetorical (or meteorological) sublimation at work. Reminder of the food that no longer exists, the food that has been liquified, that odor of fried onions is [End Page 347] a sign of a past: a sign that there once was food. Lingering signifier, marking both an absent signified and an absent object, the odor of fried onions is a haunting reminder of the abject. It sits somewhere between sign and object in a world that is abject when everything tends to disappear, melt, or sublimate. Wafting through the air, the odor of onions impregnates the space with the absences it marks. This role is given the gaseous sign, which spreads, filling, and marking the space permanently as a space of lack and want; it reminds readers that the space is always moving toward its inscription in absence. Even when there is food to cook and even when cooking occurs, the food is resolved or summarized in that odor. It is the fulfillment of the marc de la veille; it is the essence, as Zola says, of the cuisine du pauvre:

Une salade accompagnerait si bien la ratatouille qu'elle laissait mijoter sur le feu, des pommes de terre, des poireaux, de l'oseille, fricassés avec de l'oignon frit! La maison entière le sentait, l'oignon frit, cette bonne odeur qui rancit vite et qui pénètre les briques des corons d'un empoisonnement tel qu'on les flaire de loin dans la campagne, à ce violent fumet de cuisine pauvre.14

If the odor of the fried onions is a good one when there is food, it soon turns rancid. Like other things, or perhaps leading the way as the Zolian mechanization takes over of the text, good quickly goes bad.15 All these foods of the earth – onions, potatoes, sorrel, leeks – release their sulfurous essence. In no time, the goodness that nourishes turns rancid. And rancidity, on the edge of the edible, finally becomes a haunting poison that will not recede. That conversion, in the space of one sentence, marks the turn from the scarcity of food to its absence. It is a sentence that moves from the ubiquity of that odor to "ce violent fumet de cuisine pauvre." Odor becomes fumet, reduction, or essence, but not as the basis for the master sauces of haute cuisine. That essence of the food of the poor remarks all solid space with itself, penetrating violently: no wonder the fumet is said to be violent. It represents the eternal hunger of the poor and redistributes space according to its own laws of penetration, as it fills space and solids with its own negativity.

One would have thought the solidity of a banquet would have been at the opposite pole from the evanescence, penetration, and violent poison of the fried onions.16 Solid food and solid bonds will collapse. Already, as the banquet is announced, the atmosphere of celebration is tinged by a struggle. It will be a struggle of odors, a struggle between what is always there and some theatricalized version of material wealth: "Et d'un bout à l'autre des façades, ça sentait le lapin, un parfum de cuisine riche, qui combattait ce jour-là l'odeur invétérée de l'oignon frit" (1260). Compared to the dinners of the rich that are marked by the visual and the material, the poor version of the banquet is marked by a noxious odor. And the odor of the onions will win in the end. [End Page 348]

And then there is the rabbit itself or what it has become. In the cuisine of the rich, the material and visual aspects of the food correspond to one another: the oysters that should have come, the pigeons that one sees, the partridges that are presented, and the trout that appear.17 Food for the rich is visible, eternal, moving toward that future of itself, endlessly replenishable unless, by some unfortunate coincidence, the poor appear to upset the proverbial applecart: "'Vous m'excuserez, je voulais vous donner des huîtres . . . Le lundi, vous savez qu'il y a un arrivage d'Ostende à Marchiennes, et j'avais projeté d'envoyer la cuisinière avec la voiture . . . Mais elle a eu peur de recevoir des pierres'" (1309). The only thing preventing the certain future of the food of the rich is the penetration of the food of the poor, the reversal of sublimation as the odor of fried onions is turned into a weapon.

Let us return to the ducasse, one of the last two important figures of the food of the poor. Significantly, Zola structures the description so as to turn the solids immediately awry:

Outre le lapin aux pommes de terre, qu'ils engraissaient dans le carin depuis un mois, les Maheu avaient une soupe grasse et du bœuf. La paie de quinzaine était justement tombée la veille. Ils ne se souvenaient pas d'un pareil régal. Même à la dernière Sainte- Barbe, cette fête des mineurs où ils ne font rien de trois jours, le lapin n'avait pas été si gras ni si tendre. Aussi les dix paires de mâchoires, depuis la petite Estelle dont les dents commençaient à pousser, jusqu'au vieux Bonnemort en train de perdre les siennes, travaillaient d'un tel cœur, que les os eux-mêmes disparaissaient. C'était bon, la viande; mais ils la digéraient mal, ils en voyaient trop rarement. Tout y passa, il ne resta qu'un morceau de bouilli pour le soir. On ajouterait des tartines, si l'on avait faim.18

The scene is duly famous. Suffice it to say that everything points not only to the consumption of the rabbit, but also to that future moment that recalls the past, a moment of hunger. Food is just a temporary truce between moments of permanent hunger. Beyond that, the fundamental ingredient of the cuisine of the rich, meat, the foundation of solidity, is excessive here. Are we better off without meat? It is not at all sure.

Meat, that ultimately foreign substance of which there is never enough or always too much, turns into the ambiguous figure of food: protein and fat, both of which are badly digested by those who do not have enough of them on a regular basis. As there is never enough meat for proper sustenance, when it is present, it cannot be dealt with. Meat becomes an abject dish for those used to the cuisine du pauvre, one that can be eaten only when diluted by quantities of water that will make it pass. Whole and undiluted, it seems to provoke a reaction on the part of the eaters, who can no longer distinguish between what is edible (the meat, theoretically) and what is not edible (the bones).

The banquet is a turning point, a moment of commensurality that turns [End Page 349] into its own undoing. This is not to say that the banquet is inherently problematic, though Zola does lead the characters to excess in a prediction of the devastation to come: "Et il se faisait de longs silences, la cohue buvait, s'empiffrait sans un cri, une muette indigestion de bière et de pommes de terre frites s'élargissait, dans la grosse chaleur, que les poêles de friture, bouillant en plein air, augmentaient encore" (1266). Food will change its semioticity from a world of sustenance to a world of the indigestible. Thus will the elements of the banquet return much later, when the workers are starving, and when food will have fulfilled its role of being almost a poison: "Les femmes avaient aperçu la cuisine, et c'était une tempête d'imprécations contre le faisan qui rôtissait, contre les sauces dont l'odeur grasse ravageait leurs estomacs vides. Ah! ces salauds de bourgeois, on leur en collerait du champagne et des truffes, pour se faire pêter les tripes!" (1439-40). The odor, the fat, and the meat, all of which have led earlier toward dissolution, become associated with violence and explosions for the individual, the verb "pêter" meaning both to fart and to blow up. Thus will food be fantasized for the body of the bourgeois exactly as the explosion in the mine itself will realize the destruction of the means of exploitation. The bourgeois's guts, alternately those of the individual and those of the collective, will be exploded by food itself. If the miners no longer have food, they will be food, but they will be poisonous, exploding in the mine.19

The abject does return before that final explosion in the heavily theatricalized death of Maigrat. The event is set against a basso ostinato, a bobyrygmal rumbling of the stomachs of the poor, a chanted refrain emanating from their empty bowels, pushing under the esophagus, as the stomachs speak ventriloquially, "du pain, du pain, du pain" (1417; 1420; 1423; 1425; 1427, etc.; Sonnenfeld 600; Mossman 31). I shall not dwell on the construction of the event, but merely focus on the final incarnation of food / non-food. As the miners will become the final food for the mine, so does Maigrat stand for food, but in a relation of the abject, the inedible, the complete destruction of any paradigm or pattern:

Déjà, la Mouquette le déculottait, tirait le pantalon, tandis que la Levaque soulevait les jambes. Et la Brûlé, de ses mains sèches de vieille, écarta les cuisses nues, empoigna cette virilité morte. Elle tenait tout, arrachant, dans un effort qui tendait sa maigre échine et faisait craquer ses grands bras. Les peaux molles résistaient, elle dut s'y reprendre, elle finit par emporter le lambeau, un paquet de chair velue et sanglante.

Ripped from its body, sign of manhood, life, and abuse, Maigrat's genitalia are that symbolic bit of flesh, like all other meat that might be suitable for a carnivore or the omnivores that we all potentially are; and there is at least the implication that we are all potentially cannibals. Already, in a simple, symbolic movement, Maheude forces the dead Maigrat into eating the abject, a pica that [End Page 350] expresses his lack of humanity and his fundamental otherness:

De ses dix doigts, elle [Maheude] grattait la terre, elle en prit deux poignées, dont elle lui emplit la bouche, violemment.

"Tiens! mange donc! . . . Tiens! mange, mange, toi qui nous mangeais!"20


Eating non-food, the dead Maigrat is other from them. If he was a cannibal – "toi qui nous mangeais" – they will not be like him. And moreover from eating the same (human flesh), he passes in death to eating the wholly other. Much later, reduced to abjection themselves, Étienne and Catherine will, in last desperate efforts, eat wood after the mining disaster; the dead will eat the dead. So what has la Mouquette ripped off, in what category does it fall, food or non-food, flesh or non-flesh, meat or human flesh? Everything collapses, for no categories will work: "Des gouttes de sang pleuvaient, cette chair lamentable pendait, comme un déchet de viande à l'étal d'un boucher" (1453). Caught between solid and liquid, between what is accepted and what is rejected, that scrap of meat, not even fit for a dog, just hangs there. Maigrat has become what they all become, one way or another in this novel – tatters of the human:

Qu'ont-elles donc au bout de ce bâton? demanda Cecile, qui s'était enhardie jusqu'à regarder.

Lucie et Jeanne déclarèrent que ce devait être une peau de lapin.

Non, non, murmura Mme Hennebeau, ils auront pillé la charcuterie, on dirait un débris de porc.


Of course it is leftover debris of a pig; that goes without saying. But it is so much more. And ever so much less.

In Germinal, Zola has created a poetics and a rhetoric of the cuisine du pauvre; they structure the novel around emptiness and hunger, just as mining depends on the production of emptiness. But coal is seemingly an endless resource: as hollows are created by emptying the veins, new mines can be explored and new lodes appear. Expendable of course are the workers, yesterday's coffee grounds for the bourgeoisie, to be used and used up, replaceable by others, by today's coffee grounds and those of an endless series of tomorrows. [End Page 351]


1. My thanks to David F. Bell, Véronique Cnockaert, Michael Garval, Deborah Harter, and Allen Weiss for their input and comments on previous versions of this work.

2. Albert Sonnenfeld (600), quoting Zola's own Le Ventre de Paris, divides eaters into "maigres" and "gras." As a non-literary example, see Briffault's Paris à table.

3. Cf. this startling contrast: "Elle [the cook] voyait les vol-au-vent bloqués derrière un buisson, assiégés, gonflant les ventres des trois mille misérables qui demandaient du pain" (1444).

4. "N'était-ce pas un cri de famine que roulait le vent de mars, au travers de cette campagne nue ?"(1137) or, ". . . le vent passait avec sa plainte, comme un cri de faim . . ." (1139-40).

5. That food is linked to politics for Zola is fundamental to an understanding of the naturalist system of exchange, whether it be Le Ventre de Paris, L'Assommoir, or Germinal with its drawn out thematic leit-motif of the cuisine du pauvre. For a different analysis of the divisions of this world, see David Bell's excellent analysis of space and power in the novel ("Bifurcations"). On space, see also Mitterand.

6. One might also see a reference to Marie-Antoinette and her fondness for "le hameau" in the following: ". . . Cécile avait eu la fantaisie de boire une tasse de lait, en a-per-ce-vant une petite ferme, qui bordait la route. . . . Mais Lucie et Jeanne voulaient voir traire le lait, on était allé dans l'étable même avec les tasses, on en avait fait une partie champêtre, riant beaucoup de la litière où l'on enfonçait" (1434).

7. David Bell, Models (43-56), sees Germinal as "the most developed of the novels of 'opposition'" (43) in Les Rougon-Macquart. On the implications of the political, see also Petrey (163-201) and Schor (74-76).

8. One could perhaps characterize the fully pulverized as the results of an anarchist bombing of a mine. It is interesting to note that there is even a linguistic ambiguity in the word "pulverize" which in English most often refers to the turning of a solid to a powder and which in French – pulveriser – refers to the carrying of microsolids in a liquid spray, i.e., to atomize.

9. Elsewhere: ". . . toujours des hommes, que la gueule du trou semblait boire" (1158).

10. Zola ironizes about water: "Tous venaient de faire descendre leur soupe d'une grande lampée d'eau fraîche, la bonne boisson claire des fins de quinzaine" (1227).

11. These are not the noodles of Balzac's Goriot, the noodle maker made good who could capitalize on his formless product, who could produce two daughters, ejusdem farinae; his flour was productive, whilst the flour product of Germinal is not.

12. The salad never appears, so one might assume that, for the moment, the characters can keep nutrients in. But even after the richest meal of the poor, the ducasse, there is a quick outflow: ". . . la bière, dont il pouvaient s'emplir, sans autre ennui que de la pisser trop vite, au fur et à mesure, claire comme de l'eau de roche" (1264). That the urine is clear means that nothing has been processed from the meal, no energy assimilated [End Page 352] from the protein, because there has be no nitrogenous waste formed to be excreted in the urine.

13. In meteorology, sublimation has a special meaning: it is a change of state from solid to gas without the substance passing through the liquid state. And in specific the word refers to water: thus it indicates a change from ice to steam without the water ever becoming liquid water itself.

14. But its disapppearance is even worse: "Depuis des semaines qu'on ne mangeait plus, l'odeur de l'oignon elle-même était partie, cette odeur forte qui annonçait le coron de loin, dans la campagne; maintenant, il n'avait que l'odeur des vieux caveaux, l'humidité des trous où rien ne vit" (1360).

15. Elsewhere, relative to his construction of plot and structure in L'Assommoir, I have (Flaubert) has argued that Zola sets creates a kind of infernal machine in his writing, one clearly informed by his concepts of naturalism, positivism, and determinism: past a certain point in a number of the novels (and somewhat like the impetus in a classical tragedy), what follows is inexorable. In Zola's case, as the characters are subject both to external forces and to internal proclivities, the juggernaut of the plot takes the form of a machine that impels the characters and plot toward their unavoidable conclusion.

16. It is no secret to readers of Zola that his banquet scenes are often a mark of some disaster and destruction to come, a secular and poor version of a some lay last supper. Seemingly happy, the celebrants will soon meet their fate; the companionship symbolized by the sharing of bread and wine will become a dissolution of itself.

17. The only exception to the solidity of the food of the rich seems to be a singular odor, that of pineapple, which pleasantly permeates the room, yet the pineapple is visible, in a crystal bowl at the same time. I would argue that it is the exoticism of the product that is at work in this exception: something to be admired in and of itself, with an exquisite and exotic rarity. Compare, for example, the later pineapple and truffle salad in Proust's "Combray" or again, Mme Verdurin's comment to Charlus: "'Vous avez donc un oncle ou un neveu d'Amérique, M. de Charlus, pour recevoir des ananas pareils" (316).

18. As with the question of the brioche, recalling Marie-Antoinette, digestion or indigestion relates to the political: "Des lectures mal digérées lui revenaient, des exemples de peuples qui avaient incendié leurs villes pour arrêter l'ennemi . . . les hommes se laissaient mourir d'inanition plutôt que de manger le pain des tyrans"(1335).

19. For Jean Borie (81), Zola plays on the double meaning of mine, as a hole / well and as a bomb.

20. There are earlier references to cannibalism, as Étienne explains to Catherine, "'. . . quand je bois, cela me rend fou, je me mangerais et je mangerais les autres. . . Oui, je ne peux pas avaler deux petits verres, sans avoir le besoin de manger un homme . . . " (1170). There is an earlier, figurative reference to eating the inedible: "[Étienne] avait mordu au charbon, pour ne pas crever de faim" (1250). Further on, it is Étienne who is eaten: "Aussi les riches qui gouvernent, avaient-ils beau jeu de s'entendre, de le vendre et de l'acheter, pour lui manger la chair: il ne s'en doutait même pas" (1276-77). [End Page 353]

Works Cited

Bell, David F. "Bifurcations: Espace et pouvoir dans Germinal." Les Lettres Romanes 45.4 (1991): 307-17.

—. Models of Power: Politics and Economics in Zola's Rougon-Macquart. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Bellos, David. "From the Bowels of the Earth: An Essay on Germinal." Forum for Modern Language Studies 15 (1979): 35-45.

Borie, Jean. Zola et les mythes ou de la nausée au salut. Paris: Seuil, 1971.

Brady, Patrick. Le Bouc émissaire chez Émile Zola. Quatre essais sur Germinal et L'Œuvre. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1981.

Briffault, Eugène. Paris à table. Paris: Hetzel, 1846.

Duchet, Claude. "Le Trou des bouches noires: Parole, société, révolution dans Germinal. Littérature 24 (1976):11-39.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Marel, Henri. "Onomastique et création dans Germinal." Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France 85.3 (1985): 401-11.

Mary, Georges. "Le Voreux dans Germinal: La Dynamique d'un lieu." Littérature 53 (1984): 104-118.

Mitterand, Henri. "Le Roman et ses 'territoires': l'espace privé dans Germinal." Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France 85:3 (1985): 412-26.

Mossman, Carol A. "Etchings in the Earth: Speech and Writing in Germinal."L'Esprit Créateur. 25.4 (1985):30-41.

Newton, Joy and Claude Schumacher. "La Grande Bouffe dans L'Assommoir et dans le cycle Gervaise." L'Esprit Créateur 25.4 (1985):17-29.

Petrey, Sandy. Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola and the Performances of History. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Proust, Marcel. Albertine disparue. Paris: Gallimard [Folio], 1990.

Schehr, Lawrence. Flaubert and Sons. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.—. "Savory Writing: Marcel Rouff's Vie et Passion de Dodin-Bouffant." French Food: On the Table, on the Page, and in French Culture. Ed. Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss. New York: Routledge, 2001. 124-39.

Schor, Naomi. Zola's Crowds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Serres, Michel. Feux et signaux de brume. Zola. Paris: Grasset, 1975.

Sonnenfeld, Albert. "Émile Zola: Food and Ideology." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 19.4 (1991):600-11.

Spang, Rebecca. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Zola, Émile. Germinal. In Les Rougon-Macquart. Paris: Gallimard [Pléiade], 1964. 3:1131-1591.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.