Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Count Rostov Entertains

"Well, little countess! What a saute of woodcocks and Madeira we're to have, ma chere! I've tried it. I did well to give a thousand roubles for Taras. He's worth it!" (p. 48)
So says Count Ilya Andreitch Rostov to his wife. In this early part of War and Peace, Countess Rostov doesn't pay much attention to her husband's preparation for celebrating the name-day of the countess herself and their young daughter Natasha. She points out that some of the sauce he has tasted has dripped onto his waistcoat, and then goes on to ask him for a large sum of money that she wants to give to a friend.

Tolstoy provides a detailed description of their activities on the name-day, introducing many of the important chaacteristics of these protagonists. The count's love of entertaining and the family's unfortunate habit of spending, gambling, giving away money, and mismanaging their vast fortune are all suggested as we get to know them. Not to mention their ownership of serfs -- humans who are bought and sold at a price.

That evening, one of the guests at the feast is Pierre Bezuhov -- another key character in the novel:
Pierre said little, looked about at the new faces , and ate a great deal. Of the two soups he chose a la tortue, and from that course to the fish-pasties and the grouse, he did not let a single dish pass, and took every sort of wine that the butler offered him. (p. 53)
And the Rostov's little daughter Natasha, dared by her brother, attracts the attention of all the dinner guests when she asks "Mamma! what pudding will there be?" -- her mother answers "Ice-pudding, only you are not to have any." Natasha keeps asking about it until she learns it is pineapple ice. (p. 55-56)

At many other dinner parties and entertainments in the book, Tolstoy doesn't name a single course or give any descriptions of the food. Only Count Rostov's interest in exactly how his guests are to be entertained leads to a detailed mention.

For example, another banquet is organized by the count, who gives the cook instructions about "asparagus, fresh cucumbers, strawberries, veal, and fish." Scallops in pie-crust, cold entrees, mayonnaise, all worry him. The strawberries and pineapple have to be obtained from another noble's greenhouses. (p. 270-271) At the banquet, the count still feels responsible:
His labours had not been in vain. All the banquet -- the meat dishes and the Lenten fare alike -- was sumptuous, but still he could not be perfectly at ease till the end of dinner. He made signs to the carver, gave whispered directions to the footmen, and not without emotion awaited the arrival of each anticipated dish. Everything was capital. At the second course, with the gigantic sturgeon ..., the footman began popping corks and pouring out champagne. (p. 282)
Food also illuminates the hospitality of an elderly relation of the Rostovs. After a day of hunting, he invites Natasha, her brother, and their companions into his simple home where they are served a tray with "liqueurs, herb-brandy, mushrooms, biscuits of rye flour made with buttermilk, honey in the comb, foaming mead made from honey, apples, nuts raw and nuts baked, and nuts preserved in honey." And then "preserves made with honey and with sugar, and ham and a chicken that had just been roasted." These simple -- Russian -- foods were all made by the housekeeper Anisya Fyodorovna, and recalled her "buxomness, cleanliness, whiteness, and cordial smile." Natasha feels she has never seen or eaten such wonderful foods: she has a moment of extraordinary happiness. (p. 474-475)

In contrast to the nobility, Tolstoy describes peasants who turn over their empty tea glassses leaving "an unfinished piece of nibbled sugar," (p. 319, 358); peasants who show hospitality with bread and salt (p. 347), a pilgrim woman who spends two days in the catacombs with only some dry bread (p. 360), and occasional mentions of other foods of poor people.

During the war, armies before battle cook porridge. Hungry soldiers try to find potatoes in abandoned villages:
Everything had been eaten up, and all the inhabitants of the district had fled; those that remained were worse than beggars, and there was nothing to be taken from them; indeed, the soldiers, although little given to compassion, often gave their last ration to them.
Fever and swelling resulted from bad food, but soldiers stayed at their posts in fear of the hospitals. They ate a very bitter asparagus-like plant called Mary's sweet-root, which also sickened them. Their few remaining rations were scarce biscuits and potatoes that were rotten and sprouting. They "assembled for dinner round the cauldrons, from which they rose up hungry, making jokes over their vile food and their hunger." (p. 363)

Food can be a vice, as for Pierre who "liked a good dinner and he liked strong drink; and, though he thought it immoral and degrading to yield to them, he was unable to resist the temptations of the bachelor society in which he moved." (p. 399) Food can be virtuous, as for one of Pierre's fellow masons, who works at masonic science "from morning till late at night, except for the times when he partakes of the very plainest food." (p. 403)

I'm halfway through reading War and Peace. I'm overwhelmed by its excellence. Critics generally find a way to highlight Tolstoy's unbelievable facility at presenting human nature, historic reality, and the flow of events on a personal and political plane. Looking at one type of detail -- food -- is my way of appreciating his unique and famous ability.

Page numbers refer to my ancient Modern Library edition, which has no date, no introduction, and no front or back material.


Jeanie said...

You know, I've never read War and Peace -- always been a little ashamed because it seems like one of those things you SHOULD read. In college or something. And I just came across my copy in the basement a couple days ago. Mom's, actually. Well, reading this is a good motivator and as soon as I finish what I'm on now, I just MAY (or MAE) get it out! Thanks!

Mae Travels said...

I don't think you should read it out of a sense of obligation. It's a fabulous book. But only if you want to read it.