Un oeuf, Victor Hugo

January 25, 2013

Last Friday, at a colleague’s house we were eating mini-pizzas and there were two left. The hostess urged us to finish them.

No, I said in my best possible French, you should have them tomorrow for breakfast with an egg.

Savory breakfast? my companions replied aghast.

The eating habits of continental Europe and the United States are in general not so different, barring the crucial exception of breakfast foods. While eggs have made recent leaps and bounds into menus for lunch and dinner in fancy restaurants in America, they remain strongly associated with the crack of dawn and the crowing of roosters. Here in France, and I suspect in most of Europe on most days, eggs are for lunch or dinner. Breakfast is bread (or pastries) and coffee (or tea or hot chocolate).

But while we were on the subject of eggs I had a few questions to ask with respect to translation. Omelets are omelettes–that much I knew. For the others, in both real and literal translation:

Sunny side up (on the plate):


Soft-boiled (in the shell) or Hard-boiled (hard):


Poached (poached):


Scrambled (scrambled, but also could mean a quarrel or a scuffle):


My favorite way is naturally the most difficult–poached. If I did succeed in poaching an egg one of these mornings (or evenings, more like these days), I would plop it on a piece of Poîlane toast and invite Monsieur Victor Hugo for supper.


Victor Hugo has not been round to my place, but I’ve been to his. The permanent exhibit of the Maison de Victor Hugo is free to the public on the Place des Vosges. In the rooms of his former apartment (for 8 years I believe), one can see his furniture, wallpaper (inspired by Chinese decorations), photographs (he was an early enthusiast), and family heirlooms. I was especially struck by his writing table both for its historical significance and also for its height. Hugo must have been a very tall man, unless he wrote while wearing platforms…doubtful. Sadly, the tour does not include the kitchen or the toilet–both of which are much more historically interesting than beds and dressers.

I began reading Les Misérables in its original a few years ago and found it surprisingly funny. If I can figure out the lending system at the libraries here (or if I buy a copy at Victor Hugo’s apartment where it was available used–très parisien), I might give it another shot. The prolific meanderings away from any plot were frustrating 15 years ago when my mother and I undertook the English translation. Now, I might better appreciate their cultural significance.

Of course, the only way to firmly ensnare a jemma into reading your book is to include some sort of food reference, and Les Misérables includes this curious nugget:

But you are good-natured princes, and you do not think it a bad thing that belief in the good God should constitute the philosophy of the people, very much as the goose stuffed with chestnuts is the truffled turkey of the poor.

Well, if a goose stuffed with chestnuts is the poor man’s feast, maybe it is not so bad to be miserable after all. Along the lines of this logic, poached eggs might be the caviar (a word which needs no translation) of the working class.

I explained this analogy to V. H. when he showed up for the very humble supper. As might be expected, this prompted him to speak for hours on another topic altogether. Happily he did not let his egg go cold in the process. Unfortunately, I could not put another word in edgewise. If I might have I would have asked what his kitchen was like, if he had ever cooked anything, and whether, truly, he knew the cost of a goose.