Gustave Flaubert and George Sand: Potato and Gruyère Galette

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When asked “What famous writer would you invite to a dinner party?” famous wits like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain definitely come to mind. But even the fictional dinner cast of my dreams pales in comparison to a real-life guest list: George Sand’s house parties in Nohant, France, in the 1860s and 70s. Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin were a few of the mouths at Sand’s table. But one of her favorite guests was not only another giant of the arts, but her de facto gym buddy: Gustave Flaubert.

Although Sand loved to cook, she found herself with regular digestive problems, and kept trying different eating regimens in an attempt to find what would make her feel her best—an “elimination diet,” before they were cool. This included cutting out red meat, and occasionally trying vegetarianism. “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach,” she wrote Flaubert. Her approach to cutting out alcohol was more moderate: “I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.”

Flaubert followed his friend’s lead; after all, a diet’s always easier when someone else is suffering with you. Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert’s protege, observed, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate … finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Flaubert and Sand would collaborate on their meal planning through their correspondence, sharing tips with each other. “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee,” Sand wrote.

Not only did the two writers share diet strategies, they also encouraged each others’ fitness habits. “I have followed your counsel, dear master, I have EXERCISED!!! Am I not splendid; eh?” Flaubert bragged in a letter to Sand—the 19th-century equivalent of posting your daily step count on Fitbit.

Despite living 300 kilometers apart, Flaubert and Sand would visit each others’ cities specifically to eat together. “I shall make a great effort and shall leave at eight o’clock Sunday, so as to lunch with you,” Sand would write. “When you arrive in Paris, give me a rendezvous. And at that we shall make another to dine informally tete-a-tete,” Flaubert encouraged.

“I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. … What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”The best thing about getting healthy with friends is that, even if your weight never budges, you’ve still spent many hours sharing meals with someone you love.

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Marcel Proust: Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

Marcel Proust - Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

You were waiting for this, right? Authors and food equals Proust and madeleines. It’s arguably the most recognizable culinary pairing in literature, and definitely the one I’m asked about the most. (This site was almost named “Proust’s Madeleine,” or something equally pretentious, until the idea was greeted by faux barfing noises from my focus group/boyfriend.) So why hasn’t Marcel appeared here yet?

The thing is: There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that Proust really ate madeleines. Although his vivid memories of the delicate cookies from In Search of Lost Time have become iconic, early versions of the novel actually don’t include madeleines at all. Instead, we see Marcel biting into a humble biscotte – a piece of dry toast. And as Edmund Levin’s meticulous experiments in tea-dunking and crumb-making reveal, Proust’s description of the famous treats doesn’t seem to match up with any known recipe. It’s likely that the madeleines of our imagination were just that: a figment of Proust’s culinary mind.

So what was Proust really eating? He’d be so glad you asked. Before asthma reduced his appetite (and even for an unhealthily long time after), Proust was a notorious glutton, stuffing himself so full that he sometimes resorted to wearing a corset. He blissfully described one of his meals, which included “two tournedos steaks—I ate every scrap—a dish—of chips (about twenty times as much as Félicie used to make), some cream cheese, some gruyère, two croissants, a bottle of Pousset beer.” He summed it up more succinctly in a letter to his mother: “Lunch is my favorite moment.”

But as his illness worsened, his need to write began to subsume his desire to eat, and breakfast became Proust’s meal of choice. Instead of the madeleines and tea we know from his fiction, the real Marcel demanded croissants and cafe au lait, brought to him in bed while he read the paper and began his work. He would dunk his croissant in the coffee (just as his fictional self would mimic with a cup of tea) and ate little else for the rest of the day.

Céleste Albaret, Proust’s trusted servant, later marveled at the writer’s ability to live on so little, after years of hedonistic eating. “The most extraordinary thing was how he could survive and work, ill as he was, … by living on the shadows of foods he’d known and loved in the past.” In the absence of beef and beer, Proust’s writing (and those morning croissants) was all that remained, evoking those tantalizing sense memories of meals gone by—his own personal madeleine moments.

Easy Croissant Recipe with Coffee Glaze

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Jane Austen: Brown Butter Bread Pudding Tarts

Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake

Even when you love to cook, there are those times when it would be nice to have just a little help: when you promised to make something for the office potluck but forgot to go shopping; when that dinner party you’re hosting sneaks up on you; when your in-laws you dearly want to impress are in town and all you have in the pantry are the three jars of peanut butter you bought before Hurricane Sandy.

Wouldn’t it be easier to live in Jane Austen’s world, where you could hand off such tasks to a very capable cook? Remember poor Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who, when asking which of the Bennets had prepared the meal, “was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity… that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.”

Like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen wouldn’t be caught dead with a roasting pan—but she did know her way around one. After all, she wrote her novels in the middle of the drawing room, constantly interrupted by household demands. “I carry about the keys of the wine and closet, and twice since I began this letter have had orders to give in the kitchen,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra. Maybe that’s why her novels are full of meals: she couldn’t write a few sentences without being asked to approve a dinner menu.

Austen was in charge of sourcing ingredients, preferring to grow fresh produce on the property. “What kind of kitchen garden is there?” she writes anxiously when her family is contemplating a move to Chawton. “I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden.” She also oversaw what was to be planted, and where. “The Border under the Terrace Wall is clearing away to receive Currants & Gooseberry bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries,” she reports.

Then there was the entertaining: a long parade of tea parties and dinner chats, so elegant in books but exhausting in the offing. After one particularly tiring evening, Austen wrote to her sister, “When you receive this, our guests will be all gone or going; and I shall be left … to ease the mind of the torments of rice pudding and apple dumplings, and probably regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.” Of course, she could always blame the cook if things didn’t work out. But that’s the upside to doing all the cooking yourself: When it’s good, you get to take all the credit.

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Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake Recipe

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