Whether you’re reading a Russian classic or a Great American Novel, Big Books tend to make big demands: on your time, your concentration, your upper arm strength. Just cracking one open can seem daunting … until you imagine writing one. Reading Les Misérables might take me a few months. It took Victor Hugo 17 years to write the Big Book that became his most enduring work, one that was fueled by a seriously Big Appetite.
“The world and his waistcoat are not wide enough to contain the glory of Victor Hugo—or his corpulence,” Théophile Gautier joked, after his friend had become a national literary star. It’s hard to tell what about the author attracted more attention: his body of work or his bodily girth. Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening. Most everything in the Hugo household was large, including Hugo himself.
Not only was Hugo’s hunger unstoppable, it was also indiscriminate. Anything that could be eaten whole, would be—even lobsters in the shell. (Why waste a perfectly good shell?). Even orange peels went down the hatch. A fellow author remembered, “At the end of the meal he dipped orange quarters into his wine and ate them with marked satisfaction. Everything about Victor Hugo was extraordinary, even his digestion.”
The problem with a ravenous appetite, though, is what happens when there’s nothing left to feed it. Hugo was famously forced to slim down during the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army blockaded the capital and waited for the city’s residents to slowly starve. But Parisians never say die, especially where cuisine is concerned. Throughout the siege, restaurant menus still touted delicacies like begonias au jus and rat salami with sauce Robert.
With his taste for excess, Hugo took the restrictions particularly poorly. “Decidedly horse is not good for me,” he wrote, not that it stopped him (“I ate some”). Yet, while he sampled rat and other reject proteins most Parisians called dinner, his fame gave him special access to choicer meats. When the city zoo began to sacrifice its animals to the cause, Hugo’s kitchen got first dibs. “Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelopes,” he wrote. Hemingway may have hunted elephant, but Hugo ate it first.
Even in peacetime, Hugo liked his meat, with an ardor that impressed his fellow writers. “Hugo is one of the forces of nature!” Gustave Flaubert wrote after dinner together. “You should see the fabulous medley he makes on his plate of all sorts and conditions of viands,” Gautier added. “Watch him devour them very fast, and during a long time.” When it came to eating, Hugo was both a sprinter and a marathoner.
The best place in San Francisco to find a Hugo-esque protein smorgasbord is Golden Gate Meat Company, in the Ferry Building market. Looking for pheasant? Rabbit? Wild boar? Unless you’re going hunting or are getting chummy with some zookeepers, this is your best bet.
Of all the meats Hugo sampled, venison was the most appealing to recreate here (not to mention the least … illegal). Having never cooked it before, I was surprised by how lean it was, and how quickly it was done. A hard sear and a blackberry-tarragon sauce with the pan drippings make this a quick fall dinner.
1/2 pound venison strip loin, cut into medallions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 tablespoon honey
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 ounces blackberries
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
1. Season venison with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add venison and sear 2 minutes, then flip and cook 1 minute more. Set aside under foil to rest.
2. Return pan to heat and add balsamic vinegar, chicken broth, honey and garlic. Stir to combine, scraping any brown bits off the bottom of the pan, then simmer uncovered until liquid is reduced by half.
3. Add blackberries and tarragon and cook 1 to 2 minutes more, until berries begin to soften. Spoon sauce over venison and serve warm.