The Belly of Paris

“Respectable people… What bastards!”
Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris

Cover of The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola, translated by Mark Kurlansky

I am now a good chunk (have been reading for about a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Belly of Paris.

One reason I am reading this long series is that the books are available in ebook form for free from project Gutenberg. This is a good thing… a fantastic thing actually, but there is only one catch. The free, public-domain English Zola texts from Gutenberg are all contemporaneous translations by Henry Vizetelly (and his son Ernest Alfred Vizetelly). Now Vizetelly was a hero – he believed in the Zola books and paid a huge price for translating them and publishing them in England, however, the translations aren’t really all that good. They are written in an anachronistic language, hard on the modern eye, and, worst of all, are censored. The original French stories can be pretty racy and he had to cut the best parts out to get the books published in England. Still, he was prosecuted twice and imprisoned  for obscene libel because of his translations of Zola’s work.

Before reading The Belly of Paris (also know as Une Page d’amour, The Fat and the Thin, Savage Paris, The Markets of Paris) I discovered that there was a modern translation by Mark Kurlansky. I have read two of his non-fiction books, Salt and Cod and really liked them. Salt in particular was very interesting to me, my first job out of college was working as a chemist at a salt mine and evaporation plant in Hutchinson, Kansas (the plant is gone now – but the mine is still working and you can take a tour).

So, I bought a copy of the Kurlansky translation and it was very good.

There is a plot arc to The Belly of Paris – Florent escapes from Devil’s Island (similar to the more famous modern story of Papillon)  and returns to Paris. He spends the book trying to reestablish his life and struggling with his radical political leanings. This story is really a framing device to enable Zola to immerse the reader in the eponymous Belly of Paris. The Belly of Paris is the immense food market at Les Halles.

The vast food market at Les Halles in Paris, the setting of The Belly of Paris

Design of Les Halles in 1863, By Victor Baltard – Image from Wikimedia

Constructed in the 1850’s, Les Halles was a series of gigantic sheds full of stalls where every kind of food was sold – and Zola uses every excuse to tour every nook and cranny of the market – from vegetables to poultry, meat to fish, bread to spices, candy to charcuterie, the movement, preparation, and sale of every imaginable foodstuff is set down in detail. The people involved are hard working and full of human foibles – gossipy, jealous, and headstrong. These complex relationships form the real heart of the story and the conflict of the novel.

Imagine a huge city, a Paris of millions of (French, and food-obsessed) inhabitants that have to be fed, every day, in a world without gasoline, trucks, electricity or refrigeration. It starts in the dead of night with horse-drawn carts drawn to the city in caravans carrying the bounty of the countryside. The vegetables are prepared, the animals are slaughtered, the fish are cleaned, the salted meat is salted, the charcuterie is cured, the bread is baked – then everything is set out for sale as the population of Paris descends to buy their daily meals. Zola lays it all out in a fantastic kaleidoscope of food – sights, sounds, smells, and taste – and the characters that handle it.

The book is full of contrasts – the Fat and the Thin, Beautiful Lisa and The Beautiful Norman, political radical Florent and his comfortable brother. The Belly of Paris isn’t known as one of the series’ best – but I found it fascinating. Like The Ladies Paradise and modern retail I can’t help but compare the market at Les Halles with a modern Whole Foods or other mega grocery store.

Interesting stuff. And now on to La Joie de Vivre.

 

Lawrence of Arabia

The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

—-Lawrence of Arabia

One thing that I like is Fathom Events. It’s a company that shows special screenings on modern theaters. I usually go to their opera events – they stream the New York Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters everywhere.

Upcoming Fathom Events come to me in my email and one caught my eye. They were going to show Lawrence of Arabia. I have seen the film on television now and then – but I’m not sure I had ever watched it start to finish in one setting. I’m quite sure I had never seen it in a theater – especially not in a large modern screen with comfortable seats and food delivered to your seat… and beer.

“I’ve always wanted to see Lawrence of Arabia in a theater,” I told Candy.

“I’ve never heard anyone say that,” was her reply.

So I bought a ticket. I was worried that it would sell out so I bought it a week ahead, and chose a good seat.

On the day I settled in, ordered some chicken wings and a beer. Two guys came in, they had the two seats to the left of me. Another couple was behind us a few rows and a group of four off to the side.

That was it. I can’t believe more people didn’t want to see such a classic film in such a setting. The guy right next to me said, “Um, I’m going to move, nothing personal, but we might as well have some room.” He moved down a few seats on the other side of his friend. I wasn’t offended, of course, but it wrecked havoc with the waiters and the food and the bills and such.

The movie was great, of course. The desert scenes were the real heart of the film, spread out in glorious color across the vast curved screen. The movie is so unique, too. There are no female parts in the movie at all. It doesn’t have the usual epic arc – it’s really a personal story told across an enormous canvas. Key parts of the film are mysterious – it’s hard to say exactly what happened – and that’s another part of the genius.

All in all, a nice afternoon.

A Cloud Flower

“Mushrooms were the roses in the garden of that unseen world, because the real mushroom plant was underground. The parts you could see – what most people called a mushroom – was just a brief apparition. A cloud flower.”

― Margaret Atwood,  The Year of the Flood

Mushrooms along the creek in back of my house.

When I was a little kid, my parents had a friend that knew what eatable mushrooms looked like, in contrast with poisonous ones. We lived next to a golf course and I remember him coming over with some others, they woke me up at four in the morning and we headed out to the golf course with flashlights and little plastic buckets. I’m not sure why (or even if I remember this accurately) but there were mushrooms everywhere. I didn’t even need my flashlight – it was if they glowed in the moonlight. We filled up our buckets and headed home. The expert examined the pile… one by one, to insure we all had “good” mushrooms.

What an odd memory. Maybe it never even happened… but I hope it did. I don’t remember eating the mushrooms… but back in those days the adults kept the delicacies for themselves.

A Thin Layer Of Icing

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Modern Pastry, Boston

Modern Pastry, Boston

There is nothing as beautiful as the display cases in an Italian pastry shop. They may even… especially en masse… look better than they taste.

These photos are of the cases in Modern Pastry, in Boston’s North End. We bought Napoleons and Carrot Cakes – both visible in the second photo. We ate them walking in the street – which isn’t ideal.

We had gone to Mike’s Pastry, which is very famous, first – but the place was packed with a line down the street, so we walked down another block to the Modern, which was full, but without too long of a wait.

The funny thing is, sixteen or so years ago, in 2003, Candy and I had gone to Mike’s for a pastry, and an older gentleman came up to her on the street and told her to go somewhere else, other than Mike’s…. I think he said that Mike’s was, in his word, “A tourist trap!” I can’t remember where he recommended… I don’t think it was the Modern. Candy is from Texas, and he… well, he was not – so I had to translate, they couldn’t understand each other.

Candy and the older man in front of Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End. This was in 2003 – it still looks exactly like this today.

Khao Noodle Shop

When I was a student in Vientiane, street food was a huge part of my daily life. There was always a woman at a stand under a tree selling different delicious foods; Kua Mee, stir-fried noodles with pork and egg, was one of them.

She would sell it on banana leaves or newspaper. I would order one and eat it with my hands while walking home.

Even after all these years traveling back to Laos, I still find it on the streets; perfectly cooked and served traditionally.

—- Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown

Diners at Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

I was wasting some time staring at my computer when a notice came across the interwebs of a Dallas Observer review of a new Laotian Noodle restaurant in East Dallas. The article caught my eye. It said things like:

A Laotian Noodle Shop in East Dallas Is One of Texas’ Best New Restaurants

It feels irresponsible to hype a restaurant as small as Khao Noodle Shop. With just four tables and a counter, this isn’t a dining room meant to handle legions of fans, and the pint-sized kitchen isn’t meant to attract national attention. But national attention is coming, and Khao — with its modest strip-mall space in Old East Dallas, just across the street from Jimmy’s Food Store — is a new milestone in Dallas’ culinary history.

Few restaurants cultivate such an intimate connection between the food on the plate and the broader context in which it is served. Go ahead, take a bite of Khao’s Laotian noodles and snacks — and pair that bite with a side of Dallas cultural history.

Bold words….

I know that neighborhood (though I get hopelessly lost every time I go there… the streets are all on these crazy diagonals) – I’ve written about Jimmy’s Food Store (seven years ago!) and only a few blocks away is another set of excellent restaurants that we visited only a short time ago. The area is becoming a hotbed of Laotian food and culture. And now this Khao Noodle Shop – one of Texas’ best new places – have to give it a try.

I texted my son Nick – “Noodles!” and I drove by, picked him up, and wandered the streets (lost, as always) until we found the Khao Noodle Shop. It was full at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, but there were a couple spots at one of the six-tops. It is small – it looked like there were as many cooks and waiters scurrying behind a glass partition as there were customers. I had read the review and knew what to expect as the waitress handed out menus. The idea is to order a number of small bowls of noodles and shareable appetizer plates.

Menu at Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

We were in the mood for noodles – so we ordered four bowls and only one appetizer. The food was fantastic.

Boat Noodles from Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

 

These were our favorites – the Mee Katee, rice noodles with coconut curry, pork, egg

Especially wonderful were the Sakoo – tapioca dumplings. They had an amazing texture – gooey, yet firm, with bits of radish inside to add some crunch.

Sakoo dumplings from the Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas. The waitress told us to remove the red rings if we didn’t want spicy. We, of course, left them on.

Making the noodles disappear, Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas.

We could have ordered a lot more. We asked the waitress what was the record for noodle bowls at a six top table. She said, “Forty or Forty One.” Nick and I and four friends? We could do forty without trying. No problem.

That sounds like a plan.

A small unassuming place on the outside – but deliciousness is hiding within.

Another Christmas, Another Bowl of Pho

2018 Christmas Bowl of Pho, Bistro B, Richardson, Texas

Everyone has their Christmas traditions. I’ve been keeping this incarnation of a blog since 2011 and we went to Bistro B for Christmas that year, so it’s been at least seven years. I think this is the first year we actually received what we ordered.

Nothing much has changed, so I’ll copy what I wrote then. The only difference is this year I ordered #33 Special Pho with Sunny Egg, and #395, Vietnamese Iced Coffee – in addition to a shared double order of #9 – Vietnamese Spring Rolls.

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The wrapping paper has been rent and Santa has been sated. The day now stretches sleepily on – sports on television, fudge on the kitchen table, a cold, gray spitting rain day outside. What is there to do other than lounge around in a mouldering Snuggie® and watch the entropy increase?

For my dollar, there is no better way to spend a few hours on the Christmas Holiday than to go for an afternoon lunch at Bistro B. Actually, I like the pho at Pho Pasteur near our house (the broth is just right) but Bistro B is such a hopping place, even on a holiday, that is impossible to pass up. Plus, Pho Pasteur isn’t open on Christmas Day.

The place, as always, was packed. We waited for a few minutes, which I enjoyed. I stood by the little altar with the burning incense spiral, the electric-powered prayer wheels, and the little shrines decorated with offerings of change. I looked around at the tables to see what other folks were ordering. There were a lot of butane portable table burners heating hot pots that were being shared by a whole family – three generations or more – packed around the big round tables. I love watching a family eat, the heads bent, concentrating on the food, with a ballet of chopsticks dancing in a circular chorus while everyone picks up their food, talks, and laughs.

Its a noisy, happy place, with an army of black-clad waiters rushing, cleanup crews pushing a big square cart, a thick crowd at the registers – some clutching inscrutable bills, but most there for take-out. Some odd genre of electronic dance music pulses… loud but barely audible over the conversations, and a phalanx of flat-screen televisions incongruously simultaneously shine out an NFL documentary. The kids reported that the restroom was, “Like a nightclub.”

It didn’t take long before we were seated and began to attack the menu. There are too many choices at Bistro B – the menu is a little spiral bound plastic laminated book, with page after page of wonders, many with photographs of the food. It is intimidating. Lee recommended shutting my eyes, thumbing through the menu blindly, and then picking something at random. He said he did that a couple of times – once he had something good, but the second time the waiter had told him, “No, you don’t want to order that.” I tried it and came up with Chicken Curry… no, too tame.

The menu items are numbered and the numbers go up 523 – though there seems to be some gaps here and there.

It was cold outside so I thought about some hot soup. I ordered the #43, Special Bistro B Noodle Soup. The waiter asked what type of noodles and I asked for rice. The kids had smoothies and Candy and I hot tea. Nick had Pho, Candy and Lee had chicken. We sent for a couple orders of spring rolls… it was too much food.

Spring Rolls and dipping sauce

My soup as it arrived. What mysteries await in these warm and fragrant waters?

But it was delicious. My Special Bistro B Noodle Soup didn’t have the perfect simple balance of subtle flavors that I like in Pho – but it was like eating a Forest Gump box o’ chocolates – you never know what you are going to get. Every time my chopsticks would dive into the spice-murked liquid they would emerge with a new surprise. After eating whatever came to the surface – I was able to figure out more or less what it was about half of the time.

Like all Pho – serving places, the table was equipped with a bounty of condiments and additions. Plates of bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, Thai basil, and cilantro. Bottles of soy sauce, fish sauce, rooster sauce, hoisin, and two unlabeled bottles of mysterious somethings. Plus little containers of chopped garlic, pepper oil, and the most flavorful (and hot) chili paste I’ve had in a long time. I spent some time working on the flavor balance of hot and sweet, salty and savory, in my broth. Then I used the hoisin and rooster sauce to draw a bright red and dark caramel ying-yang symbol (for good luck in the coming year) in one of the little plates they supply and used my chopsticks to dip various morsels in there before I ate them.

The soup after I added sprouts and other vegetables. Those little eggs were hiding down in a nest of rice noodles. I don’t know what creature they originally came from

I ate ’till I was full and then I ate some more. And it was good.

There was a separate menu on our table that outlined the group meals. We thought about the dinner for four – but there were too many fish items on it for Candy. They had a dinner for ten that looked fabulous. I need to get ten people together to go down and do it. That sounds like a plan. Drop me an email if you want in.

The outside of Bistro B – complete with a vaguely unnerving inflatable snowman.

A Street In East Dallas

“I say it must have been great to grow up when men were men. He says men have always been what the are now, namely incapable of coping with life without the intervention of God the Almighty. Then in the oven behind him my pizza starts smoking and he says case in point.”
― George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

East Dallas is a confusing web of intercrossing diagonal streets – impossible to keep north, south, east and west straight. It’s a neighborhood of constant change, mixed wealth, and diversity. It’s a favorite part of town to me.

Last night, as a Christmas present the kids bought all of us tickets to the Dallas Stars hockey game and because it was four of us, it was late, and I know of a good place to park I drove downtown rather than take the train or Uber. The game was fun even though the home team lost in a futile flurry of razor sharp blades, sticks, and ice.

One cool thing was that, at the very end when all seemed lost, right before the Stars pulled their goalie the stadium played the “Horn of Helm Hammerhand” clip from “The Two Towers” on the big video boards.

It was inspirational and Lee stood up and yelled, “I’ll follow you anywhere Aragorn!” Unfortunately, right after that the visiting team pushed in an empty net goal – it was all for naught.

After the game, we wanted to eat, and we wanted pizza. It was late and a lot of spots downtown were closing, but Nick knew of a place open really late so we drove down Fitzhugh to Za*Lat Pizza. They had a very impressive list of crazy pizzas – but we weren’t in an overly adventurous mood and settled on a large pepperoni.

Za*Lat Pizza Sign

Za*Lat Pizza Menu Board

I’m going to have to go back, maybe ride my bicycle there, and try the Pho Shizzle Pizza…. and maybe the Elote Pizza… or maybe a bunch more.

Za*Lat is designed for take-out, but there is a Vietnamese place next door and they said we could take our pizza there, sit at the bar, eat it and get something to drink. The place is called DaLat. I asked the bartender if the same person owned both places and he said, “Did the fact that the two names only differ by one letter give you a hint?”

DaLat Vietnamese in East Dallas.

Slice of pizza and a Peticolas Velvet Hammer.

Outside of DaLat.

A very nice evening. I love that stretch of Fitzhugh in East Dallas – even if it is rapidly gentrifying (there are new upscale apartment blocks going up willy-nilly) – it still has an old lived-in feel with plenty of cheap places to eat (taquerias  on every block) – Jimmy’s Food Store is a few blocks on down the road – it’s all very bike friendly. I do get lost on all those diagonal streets, though. But lost in a neighborhood on a bike is a great way to find new stuff, maybe a new adventure.