Emile Zola, The Paris Review, and The Bonne Femme Cookbook

L’Assommoir, by Emile Zola. It’s nearly impossible to translate the title, but the cover gives you an idea: Un assommoir is the kind of bar you go into for one purpose: to get loaded.

When I was in my 30s, I began reading novels in Émile Zola‘s “Rougon-Macquart” series. These novels followed an extensive sprawl of characters, all from two branches of one family (the Rougons and the Macquarts)—living in mid-19th-century France.

My fascination with these novels began quite by chance one day when I happened to pick up L’Assomoir in a used book shop. The book told the a heartbreaking story of Gervaise, a hard-working laundress who, along with her second husband Coupeau, comes so close to breaking out of a cycle of alcoholism and poverty, only to have a crushing setback—her life turns on a dime and begins a downward spiral.

I loved the book…I cared deeply for Gervaise, and appreciated the way the novel took me right into the utterly non-romantic underside the workaday Paris slums in the 1870s (these were not “very, very poor, but very, very happy” people). The book deepened my appreciation for Paris—now, when I walk down less-traveled little streets, they feel more fully haunted by the weight of history and the forgotten lives that came before us.

After L’Assommoir, I read a spate of other Zola novels: Nana, the story of Gervaise’s daughter, who becomes a celebrated prostitute; Germinal, the story of Etienne Lantier, Gervaise’s son, who becomes a coal miner in Northern France; Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Paradise), which recounts the story of the rise of department stores. I also read “The Masterpiece,” a bleak story about an artist (another of Gervaise’s sons) who, in effect, fails to produce his life’s true masterpiece.

I vowed to read all 20 of the novels before I turned 40.…but a setback occurred when, slogging through a clunky translation of one of them, I put the the half-unread novel down and just never picked it back up again.

Another one of my favorite Zola novels is “The Ladies’ Paradise.” The store that it’s based on, Le Bon Marché, still stands in Paris. See those little windows on the top floor? That’s where the clerks and other employees used to board.

I have The Paris Review to thank for getting me back on track. The other day, I happened to note that my sales ranking for The Bonne Femme Cookbook had risen substantially in the past few days. So, I did what any author does when this happens: I googled myself. And up popped this great story on the Paris Review’s Website.

The post, entitled “Cooking with Emile Zola,” uses Zola’s famed novel, The Belly of Paris, as a springboard for presenting a spring menu.

The menu includes two of my recipes, which of course, made me very happy.

This led me to a new discovery: The writer, Valerie Stivers, often posts meals inspired by books she has read. I’ve started following her on Twitter, and if you (like me) enjoy recipes inspired by stories, you might enjoy following her as well. Most recently she’s written menus inspired by Langston Hughes, Angela Carter, and Alexandre Dumas.

The Paris Review’s culinary writer Valerie Stivers shot this beautiful photo of my Tagliatelle with Goat Cheese. She posted the recipe in her Cooking with Emile Zola post.

Back to Zola: What’s shocking (given my métier)  is that while I’ve read about 10 novels in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, I have not read The Belly of Paris! Dumb, I know. But Thanks to Ms. Stivers, I definitely plan to do so. The novel concerns life in Paris’ central food market of Les Halles—so it pretty much revolves around food.

Don’t think for a minute, however, that this book is going to be a blissful culinary romp through the food life of France and a love song to the slow-food, fresh+local movement. It will tell a more complex story, I’m sure. When the book became available in the U.S. for the first time (in 2009), Publisher’s Weekly wrote that Zola describes how “into the markets, there flowed great rivers of vegetables, cheeses, butter, fish and meats, and out of it, sewers of blood and putrefaction.”

So. If you loved the movie “Paris Can Wait,” and are seeking another gleeful food-larded narrative like it, this is not that.

But I’ve always been a fool for realism…and I’m ready to get back onto my Zola kick, starting with The Belly of Paris. Amazon, here I come.

P.S.: Have you read The Belly of Paris? If so, I’d love to hear what you think of it.



Disclosure: This post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you buy anything via one of these links, I will receive a small commission. Thank you for your support.

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7 comments to Emile Zola, The Paris Review, and The Bonne Femme Cookbook

  • I love your cookbook. I love your recipes and that the portion are reasonable. If a recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar and a cup of butter I am pretty sure it is too much for my lifestyle.

  • Barb

    Confession: I never ready anything by Zola. Now I must find a copy of The Belly of Paris. I remember the description of the market in the opening chapter of Perfume. Thank you for a great post. I am now following Stivers’s blog.

    • Wini

      Don’t feel bad about not reading anything by Zola, Barb. His books can be quite the slog, in that detailed 19th-century way! Maybe that’s why I put his books on the back burner, after having read most of his best-known works.

      Still, “Belly” sounds really good. I’ll be reading it. If you read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!



    Thanks Winnie, you have encouraged me to return to my Zola too!
    Regards, N. LoBalbo

  • Patricia Flournoy

    Merci…looks like another of your “winning” recipes. Your Beef Bourguigon is the best ever..So much so that after eating it my Daughter in law bought a braise to make it herself…
    ..Off to France for the summer and your recipes go with us!

    Again, MERCI

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