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Culinary Historians of Boston
NEWSLETTER VOLUME XVIII NUMBER 4 MARCH 1998
http://www.foodbooks.com/chob_398.htm (archive)

Food and Drink in Literature
The role of food and drink in literature provides a rich source for research. The following brief study is one example of what awaits in the works of many well known authors. For reasons of space, citations have been omitted. If you are interested in having the footnotes and bibliography, please let us know. A further note - this study was undertaken using the English translations of Simenon's novels. A proper study should be done using the French works. Nuances of language are often missed in translation.

 

The Role of Alcohol and Drinking in George Simenon's Maigret Novels

Georges Simenon was a master, a prolific one, of the psychological novel, producing more than three hundred books over a forty-year period. Though all of his works possess a tangible richness, his Inspector Maigret books remain the best known of his works and it is through a sampling of these works that we will examine how Simenon uses food/eating and alcohol/drinking in his writings.

Simenon had the ability to paint a picture so vivid that the reader can hear, feel, see, taste, and smell the place and/or time so portrayed, whether it be Paris in spring time, a small inn along the coast, a provincial hotel dining room, or a bargee's bar along the canals. Food and drink are key in Simenon's scenes, serving many divergent roles, often simultaneously.

Since Simenon's works span forty years, there are several approaches to be taken in examining the role of food and drink in them. One could look at the scene portrayed, such as the seaside fishing town of Fecamp, and question whether it was an accurate historical depiction of Fecamp at that time and thus, an accurate portrayal of what was eaten and drunk, or one could look directly at the food and drink to see what role they play in the book independent of the historical reality - or both. For this brief work we will be looking at the role of food and drink in the novels per se.

The Maigret mysteries take place primarily in the mind of Maigret and in his interchange with the characters he encounters in the course of his investigations. Bistros, bars, cafes, inns, dining rooms, the streets of Paris and little villages form the backdrop for Maigret's ruminations and help to create a mood and a picture. Food and drink are essential to such venues and are very important in helping to set the mood.

Food and drink are used in the following manner among others: to depict who drinks with whom and when, to present the rituals involved with eating and drinking, to establish ethnicity and class, to provide a time frame within the novel, to evoke a past experience, to create a specific feeling, as metaphor, to enhance the sense of weather, to portray the differences between men and women, to define the relationship between Maigret and his wife.

Since space is at a premium, this paper will confine itself to some of the roles played by liquor and drinking in the Maigret novels. This is more than reasonable considering the large amount and variety of wine, beer and spirits consumed by Maigret and the people he encounters. Even the drunk and the nondrinker play a significant role. The importance of liquor to Maigret and in the novels is reflected well in the following interchange in which Maigret is speaking with an American policeman who has come to observe French police techniques. It is one of the few scenes in Simenon's works which portrays a sense of humor.

Maigret asks, "How about dropping into that bistro over there for a glass of something, while we're waiting for our streetcar? It's where all the local workmen eat. I'll have a Calvados. What about you?"
Would they have such a thing as a glass of milk, I wonder?" Maybe that explained how a man of thirty-five had managed to retain a complexion as rosy as the muzzle of a young calf.
"A large glass, barman!"
"Of milk?"
"No! Of Calvados."
Here, drink serves to define each character and the act of drinking is portrayed as a way to pass time or conversely, is something done whenever there is a spare moment. It serves many other roles also and here we would like to dip into a few of the roles of alcohol and drinking in Simenon, leaving out many others by necessity.

The aroma of a specific drink or the memory of a drink tied to a place and time serves a number of purposes in Simenon. Both serve to tie a story together, to set a mood, to define a character. For instance, the opening scene in Maigret and the Spinster creates both a mood and framework for the book and is carried through to the end as a common thread.

"One impression above all remained with him, though he could not have explained why. Having crossed the Place de la Bastille, he was passing a little bistro on his way down Boulevard Henri IV. The door, like the door of most cafes on this cold morning, was shut for the first time for months. As he went past, someone opened it, and Maigret's nostrils were assailed by a gust of fragrance which was forever to remain with him as the very quintessence of Paris at daybreak: the fragrance of frothy coffee and hot croissants spiced with a hint of rum." Later on that same day Maigret downs a glass of rum at a bar, because of the memory of the smell of rum, croissants and coffee.

Smells also serve to define a place in Simenon's works. "Every little restaurant in Paris has its particular smell, and here, for example, against a background of aperitifs and spirits, a connoisseur would have distinguished the rather tart scent of the plain wines of the Loire. As for the kitchen, tarragon and chives were the predominant aromas." Wherever Maigret happens to be, the reader is introduced to the aroma defining that place whether it be the pungent smell of rotting fish in Fecamp or a description of Maigret's own brasserie, the Brasserie Dauphine with its wines of the Loire.

In Maigret and the Burglar's Wife, the aroma of pernod is tied up with Maigret's memory of a case he had dealt with seventeen years before because he had been drinking pernod while he worked on the case. When he encounters the woman involved with the case again after so many years the entire memory becomes present and he again orders pernod. "It brought back to him not only a whiff of the rue de la Lune period, but also a whiff of the South of France, particularly of a little dive in Cannes where he'd once been on a case and, all of a sudden, the whole affair was lifted out of the general rut and took on a holiday aspect." The aroma, tied to place and time has the power to recreate the feeling of that place and time.

The language used with reference to aromas also serves a purpose. After a wonderful seafood dinner at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter with "a glassed-in terrace pleasantly warmed by a charcoal heater" Maigret and his wife "had reached dessert. They had drunk a bottle of Pouilly Fume with their grilled mullet, and its aroma still surrounded them." They are enveloped in contentment. That same contentment is conveyed in the Maigrets' apartment when Mme Maigret's sister comes to visit from the Alsace bringing with her her homemade plum brandy. After dinner and cards the dining room was "redolent of plum brandy." (Plum brandy appears repeatedly throughout the Maigret stories associated with his home, his wife and her Alsatian background. It appears nowhere else to our knowledge.) The same feeling with different language is created in Maigret and the Spinster. "They walked along the shadow of the Palais de Justice and went into the Brasserie Dauphine, which was quiet and warm, and redolent of draught beer."

An entirely different aromatic impression, a negative one, is presented through the use of different language. "The man who had used the telephone before Maigret must have drunk a great deal of Calvados, because not only the telephone booth but the instrument as well reeked of fermented apples." "It seemed that he had had a few drinks to give himself courage....[his] breath reeked of alcohol." In another Simenon novel Calvados might provide a redolent backdrop to a comfortable evening. Here it conveys the sense of too much of a spirit spoiling the special pleasure of a special brandy.

The memory of a time and place with its food and wine is not always tied to aroma but serves much the same purpose in Simenon's work. When Maigret is visited by a poor school master from the Charentes seeking his help, Maigret recalls "the beach at Fourras, in the sunshine, the oysters he had eaten about this time, half past ten in the morning on the terrace of a little bistrot (sic), washing them down with a bottle of the local white wine, at the bottom of which lay a few grains of sand." Because of this memory, Maigret decides to go to the Charentes and phones his wife "gleefully" to tell her that he is going to "the seaside, in the Charentes. Right among the oysters and mussels."

Maigret's desire to eat oysters and drink the local white wine recurs throughout the book, providing a reason for his being where he is and creating a sense of place. On the first morning after his arrival, he was wondering whether to ask for a glass of white wine after his morning coffee. While pondering on the matter the village doctor invites him to his home for a drink. "Come in! What would you like to drink?"

"Ever since I left Paris I've been longing for oysters and local white wine."

...The doctor raised his glass. The wine had greenish lights in it, it was dry and light, with a strong local flavor.

Later in the book when Maigret has drunk more than his share of the local white wine, when the smell of it sickens him, he orders a chopine of wine, again because that is what he intended when he left Paris. From the opening to closing pages of this work, oysters and the local white wine provide a framework.

Having taken a brief look at the role of aroma and memory with reference to alcohol in Simenon's works, we will now turn to the role of alcohol itself other than as an aperitif, accompaniment to meals and after dinner drink. These are the usual roles for alcohol and are significant in Simenon's work. For what is it used in the Maigret mysteries other than these common uses? The characters in the books use alcohol as a treat or reward, for courage, to pay informally for a service, to celebrate something, and for consolation.

There is always a reason to drink for Maigret. On a warm spring day in Paris, Maigret and Lucas, one of his assistants, were walking back to the office after a meeting with a bank manager. In the Place Dauphine, they stopped with one accord.

"Shall we have a quick one?"

It was too early for an aperitif, but they both felt that the taste of pernod would make a wonderful accompaniment to the spring atmosphere, and in they went to the Brasserie Dauphine.

"Two pernods, quickly!"

To celebrate that same spring sunshine Maigret has lunch at the Brasserie Dauphine where he treats himself to a pastis at the bar. When things are going well or when there is good news, Maigret treats himself. Once, when interrogating a wealthy foreigner, Maigret feels that he is holding his own well with the man and "He rewarded himself with a gulp of whiskey." These scenes with many variations are replayed throughout the novels.

There are characters other than Maigret who drink to celebrate. The sailors at Fecamp who were about to ship out on a fishing trip and had just gotten an advance "were going on a binge." When those same sailors sailed back into harbor after a few months at sea, as "The ship came alongside. All the men jumped off and made for the Rendez-Vous de Terre-Neuvas, where they could at last get a drink of spirits."

Many of Simenon's characters drink to give themselves courage. Sometimes others give them drinks for the same reason. A young man whose co-worker has been found dead downs three fingers of brandy at 10:00AM. A man who found his wife dead spends the rest of the evening before going to the police drinking. "Once you've begun [drinking], you keep thinking one more glass will see you right." "I wanted a drink. It became an obsession. I was sure that even though it hadn't helped before, a little alcohol would restore my self-control."

The concierge in Maigret Sets a Trap, like so many other Simenon characters, "got into the habit, every evening, of taking two or three little glasses of some kind of liqueur that comes from the Pyrenees" after her husband died. Here alcohol begins as consolation and ends as habit and a sense of loneliness is conveyed.

Alcohol, particularly wine is used to pay for small services. A concierge offers the dustmen a drink from time to time and they in turn collect her trash bins from the back yard. Maigret's wife gives the ambulance men who have just brought home a wounded Maigret, a glass of her plum brandy. A bottle of red wine is brought in to the men who have just removed the funeral hangings in another novel.

Habit and/or ritual play a role in drinking patterns. Along the canals at each lock, the lock-keeper, bargee and carter have a drink together after filling out the necessary papers and the carters who walk about twenty miles per day, have a glass of white wine at every lock. The ritual aperitif appears repeatedly in Simenon, so much so that as a topic, the aperitif will not fit here. Suffice it to say that there is a strong ritual/habitual element to it.

There is, in fact a great deal of ritual surrounding drinking, who invites whom to drink, who treats others to a drink, the role of toasting, when is the proper time for a specific drink like an aperitif or a white wine, what is the proper after dinner drink. All of these are important and help to establish characters and their relationships.

There are also alcohol related rituals in the Maigret books which serve to set the scene. When Maigret comes home soaking wet on a raw rainy day he is greeted by his wife. "I have the water boiling to make you a toddy..." She poured some run into a glass, put in some sugar, left the spoon in so that the glass wouldn't crack, and poured in some boiling water. This same simple drink figures in another Maigret under very different circumstances but still in ritualistic fashion. When Maigret finally capture Pietr the Lett after both have fallen into the sea, the innkeeper suggested a hot toddy.

He "brought in a charcoal stove, and a kettle stood singing on it. Close at hand, flanked by two glasses and a sugar basin, stood a tall bottle of rum... So they dropped into their respective chairs and stretched out their hands towards the kettle, staring vaguely at the blue enamel stove, which formed a kind of bond between them. It was the Lett who picked up the bottle of rum and, with deft movements, prepared the two glasses of toddy."

Opening and drinking wine is often presented as a means of setting the mood. When Maigret appears in an ironmonger's home to question a young boy an entire ritual is enacted involving the relationship between the husband and wife, their relationship with a stranger and the relative role of men and women when dealing with a serious matter.

The woman had merely looked at her husband, with the very slightest widening of her eyes, and Julien had understood the message, gone over to the back door, through which his tall figure vanished for a moment. His wife, without waiting for him to come back, had opened the cupboard and taken out two glasses belonging to the best service, those that were kept for when visitors came and she was now wiping them with a clean cloth. When the ironmonger reappeared, he was carrying a corked-up bottle of wine. He said nothing. Nobody needed to say anything. Anyone who had come from a great distance... might have imagined that these actions formed part of a rite. They heard the sound of the cork being drawn from the bottle, the splash of the golden wine into the two glasses.

In the Maigret stories it is primarily the men who are the drinkers. They are in the cafes while the women are at Mass, having their aperitifs while the women prepare dinner, being waited on, with the women sitting in the background in the cafes while their husbands drink and play cards, drawing apart at home after dinner while the men have their calvados or armagnac, carrying in the tray with the bottle and glasses, or, as in the excerpt above, selecting and washing the glasses but not sharing in the drink. While women do drink occasionally, it is usually only wine with a meal.

There are many other roles which alcohol plays in the Maigret stories such as the relationship of alcohol to class for which there is no room here. One brief role which we can address is that of alcohol/drinking as metaphor. Consider the following selected examples:

  • all because of spring and the champagne sparkle in the air.
  • but the air was still cool; you wanted to drink it in like some light, white wine, and it made the skin on your face feel taut.
  • an old pilot with a grog-blossomed nose. an excellent glass of white Macon... Maigret swallowed it with relish.

It should be apparent from these brief samplings that the work of Georges Simenon is rich in allusions to food and drink and that both play multiple roles in his novels. His descriptions are so palpable at times that one can almost taste what he is describing and can feel part of a different time and place.


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