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Banquet des Maires 1900

Banquet des Maires

Who do you call when you need to throw a party for the Queen of England or the G7 summit? There is only one caterer that will do. The firm has a list of experiences reaching as far as 1856 on the occasion of the Prince Imperial’s baptism celebration. Potel et Chabot satisfied the demands of Napoleon III and since then they have been firmly established as the best in the world. In 1900, Potel et Chabot reached a culinary record that remains unsurpassed to this day. The legendary feast is known as the Banquet des Maires. Twenty-one thousand French mayors, including those from the colonies, responded to President Émile Loubet’s invitation to celebrate the success of the Exposition Universelle.

banquet cuisine

The area of the banquet in the Jardin des Tuileries covered 10,000 acres. 24,000 meals were served by the staff of 3,600. One car and six bicycles circulated between the tables to transmit orders. Over 6 miles of table-cloth was needed as well as 125,000 plates, 55,000 forks, 55,000 spoons and 60,000 knives. The nine-part menu was washed down with 39,000 bottles of quality wine including champagne. 3,000 bottles of gros-rouge were allotted to the perspiring staff.

Departure of guests

Departure of guests

I don’t know who paid the bill, but I bet that in today’s economic situation the question would be on every taxpayer’s lips.

A satisfied mayor

A satisfied mayor

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Victor-Gabriel Gilbert: Les Halles, Paris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of Père Fabrice, who amassed a fortune in Paris, is told in Paris with Pen and Pencil by David W. Bartlett, published in 1854. Caution: Do not read this before or immediately after a meal.

_____

Fabrice had always a turn for speculation, and being a private soldier he made money by selling small articles to his fellow soldiers. When his term of service had expired, he entered the employ of a rag-merchant, and in a little while proposed a partnership with his master, who laughed at his impudence. He then set up an opposition shop, and lost all he had saved in a month.

He then became a porter at the halles where turkeys were sold. He noticed that those which remained unsold, in a day or two lost half their value. He asked the old women how the customers knew the turkeys were not fresh. They replied that the legs changed from a bright black to a dingy brown. Fabrice went home, was absent the next day from the halles, and on the third day returned with a bottle of liquid. Seizing hold of the first brown-legged turkey he met with, he forthwith painted its legs out of the contents of his bottle, and placing the thus decorated bird by the side of one just killed, he asked who now was able to see the difference between the fresh bird and the stale one? The old women were seized with admiration. They are a curious set of beings, those dames de la halle; their admiration is unbounded for successful adventurers—witness their enthusiasm for Louis Napoleon [Napoleon III]. They adopted our friend’s idea without hesitation, made an agreement with him on the principle of the division of profits; and it immediately became a statistical puzzle with the curious inquirers on these subjects, how it came to pass that stale turkeys should have all at once disappeared from the Paris market? It was set down to the increase of prosperity consequent on the constitutional régime and the wisdom of the citizen-king. The old women profited largely; but unfortunately, like the rest of the world, they in time forgot both their enthusiasm and their benefactor, and Père Fabrice found himself involved in a daily succession of squabbles about his half-profits. Tired out at last, he made an arrangement with the old dames, and, in military phrase, sold out.

 Possessed now of about double the capital with which he entered, he recollected his old friend, the rag-merchant, and went a second time to propose a partnership. ‘I am a man of capital now,’ he said; ‘you need not laugh so loud this time.’ The rag-merchant asked the amount of his capital; and when he heard it, whistled Ninon dormait, and turned upon his heel. ‘No wonder,’ said Fabrice afterward; ‘I little knew then what a rag-merchant was worth. That man could have bought up two of Louis Philippe’s ministers of finance.’ At the time, however, he did not take the matter so philosophically, and resolved, after the fashion of his class, not to drown himself, but to make a night of it. He found a friend, and went with him to dine at a small eating-house. While there, they noticed the quantity of broken bread thrown under the tables by the reckless and quarrelsome set that frequented the place; and his friend remarked, that if all the bread so thrown about were collected, it would feed half the quartier. Fabrice said nothing; but he was in search of an idea, and he took up his friend’s.

 The next day, he called on the restaurateur, and asked him for what he would sell the broken bread he was accustomed to sweep in the dustpan. The bread he wanted, it should be observed, was a very different thing from the fragments left upon the table; these had been consecrated to the marrow’s soup from time immemorial. He wanted the dirty bread actually thrown under the table, which even a Parisian restaurateur of the Quartier Latin, whose business it was to collect dirt and crumbs, had hitherto thrown away. Our restaurateur caught eagerly at the offer, made a bargain for a small sum; and Master Fabrice forthwith proceeded to about a hundred eating-houses of the same kind, with all of whom he made similar bargains. Upon this he established a bakery, extending his operations till there was scarcely a restaurant in Paris of which the sweepings did not find their way to the oven of Père Fabrice. Hence it is that the fourpenny restaurants are supplied; hence it is that the itinerant venders of gingerbread find their first material. Let any man who eats bread at any very cheap place in the capital take warning, if his stomach goes against the idea of a réchauffé of bread from the dust-hole. Fabrice, notwithstanding some extravagances with the fair sex, became a millionaire; and the greatest glory of his life was—that he lived to eclipse his old master, the rag-merchant.

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The following anecdote from Paris: With Pen and Pencil by David W. Bartlett published in 1854 tells the life story of two women, but the same fate was dealt to an entire class of poor Parisians for whom marriage was an unattainable goal. The author does not mention that the free unions produced children (about 15 thousand a year) which were often abandoned at the door of orphanages.

***

One evening while walking in the Luxembourg gardens, the band playing exquisite music, and the crowd promenading to it, I met a friend, an American, who has resided in Paris for seventeen years. Taking his arm we fell into the current of people, and soon met a couple of quite pretty looking ladies arm-in-arm. They were dressed exactly alike and their looks were very much of the same pattern, and as to their figures, I certainly could not tell one from the other with their faces turned away.

“They are sisters,” said my friend, “and you will scarcely believe me when I tell you that I saw them in this very garden ten years ago.” I replied that I could hardly credit his story, for the couple still looked young, and I could hardly think that so many years ago they would have been allowed by their anxious mamma to promenade in such a place. I told my friend so, and a smile overspread his countenance. He then told me their history. Ten years ago and they were both shop-girls, very pretty and very fond of the attentions of young men. As shop-girls, they occasionally found time to come and hear the music in the gardens of an evening, and cast glances at the young students. Soon they were student’s mistresses. Their paramours were generous and wealthy young men, and they fared well. For four years they were as faithful, affectionate, and devoted to the young men as any wives in all France. They indulged in no gallantries or light conduct with other men, and among the students were reckoned as fine specimens of the class. Four happy years passed away, when one morning the poor girls awoke to a sad change. The collegiate course was through, and the young collegians were going back to their fathers’ mansions in the provinces. Of course the grisettes could not be taken with them, and the ties of years were suddenly and rudely to be snapped asunder. At first they were frantic in their grief. When they entered upon their peculiar relations with the students, they well knew that this must be the final consummation, but then it looked a great way off. That they really loved the young men, no one can doubt. It would not be strange for a little shop-girl to even adore a talented university student, however insignificant he might be to other people. To her he is everything that is great and noble. These girls knew well that they were not wives, but mistresses, yet when the day of separation came, it was like parting husband and wife. But there was no use in struggling with fate, and they consoled themselves by transferring their affections to two more students. Again after a term of years they were forsaken, until the flower of their youth was gone, and no one desired to support them as mistresses. Then a downward step was taken. Nothing but promiscuous prostitution was before them—except starvation. And still they could not forget their old life, and came nightly to this public promenade to see the old sights, and possibly with the hope of drawing some unsophisticated youth into their net. While my friend repeated their story, the couple frequently passed us, and I could hardly believe that persons whose deportment was so modest and correct, could be what he had designated them; but as the twilight deepened, and we were walking away, I noticed that they were no longer together, and one had the arm of a man, and was walking, like us, away from the gardens.

I do not know as I could give the reader a better idea of a great class of women in Paris, than by relating the brief history of these girls, and certainly I could not sketch a sadder picture. To the stranger the social system of France may seem very pleasant and gay, but it is in reality a sorrowful one. While the mistress is young, she has a kind of happiness, but when she loses her beauty, then her wretchedness begins.

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The following text was published in 1854:

The French generally have been celebrated for possessing no inconsiderable share of conceit, but in regard to a most exalted respect for themselves, the Parisians far surpass all their provincial brethren; the very circumstance of their happening in Paris, they imagine at once confers upon them a diploma of the very highest acme of civilisation, causing them to feel a sort of pity for a person who is born elsewhere; however, as one of these enlightened spirits once observed to me, that a person might by coming to live at Paris in the course of time imbibe the same tone of refinement. Now this was said in all the true spirit of human kindness; he knew that I was not born in Paris, and conceiving that I might feel the bitterness of that misfortune, though it might afford me a degree of consolation to be assured, that there were some means of repairing the disadvantages under which I laboured, from not having made my entrance to the world in the grand metropolis of France.

It matters not how low may be the calling of a Parisian, he will still flatter himself that the manner in which he acquits himself in the department in which he is placed, evinces a degree of superiority over his fellow labourer, and gratifies his amour propre with the thought. Even a scavenger would endeavour to persuade you that he has a peculiar manner of sweeping the streets exclusively his own, and that his method of shovelling up the mud and pitching it into the cart is quite unique, and in fact that his innate talent is such that, it has eventually placed him at the summit of his profession. This may appear, perhaps, to some of my readers rather overdrawn, but the following instance which came under my own observation is not much less extravagant.

A man who was in the habit of cleaning my boots, had a most incorrigible propensity for garrulity, and as I like in a foreign country to obtain some insight into the ideas and feelings of all classes, I did not care to check the poor fellow in the indulgence of his favourite penchant, particularly as his remarks were always proffered with a tone of the most profound respect for my august person. Finding one morning that my boots had not been polished quite so well as usual, the next time I saw the shoeblack I mentioned the circumstance to him. “Ah! Sir,” he exclaimed with a deep sigh, “that is one of the many instances of the ingratitude of human nature; I confided those boots to the boy whom you must have seen come with me to fetch yours and the other gentlemen’s shoes or clothes for brushing, etc. Well, sir, that young urchin is a protégé of mine; I took him, sir, from the lowest obscurity and made him what he is; I taught him my profession, I endowed him with all the benefit of my experience, and with respect to blacking shoes, I have initiated him into all the little mysteries of the art, and can declare that there is not one in the business throughout all Paris that can surpass him, when he chooses to exert his talents; and therefore it renders it the more unpardonable that he should slight one of my best customers.” Judging, I suppose, from the expression of my countenance that I did not appear to be deeply infused with a very exalted idea of what he termed the mysteries of his art, he continued, “You may think as you please, sir, but there is much more ability required in blacking shoes than you may imagine, and that boy is well aware of it; he knows how I began by first instructing him in all the fundamental principles of the art; and gradually led him on until I accomplished him in giving the last polish, and can now proudly say he is a true artist in the profession.”

David W. Bartlett,  Paris: With Pen and Pencil

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This drawing of tarts in a low-class brasserie provides food for thought. In the Victorian era, destitute women had few choices for making a living: servitude, drudgery in sweat-shops or, failing that, prostitution.  I think that in our time the four women in the scene could be a real-estate agent, a hairstylist, a marine biologist and a police officer. Or perhaps they’d be tarts again. Who knows? The difference is that women have more choices now.

In July 1865, one of the Goncourt brothers (more about them in a future post) records his visit to a brothel where both the surroundings and the women were a step above the previous bleak picture:

“Just past the Ecole Militaire, a front shop with white curtains. Another story above a large number on the door. The Big 9. A large room lighted from above by the van daylight. Some tables and a bar lined with bottles of liquor. There are Zouaves (*), soldiers, and workmen in smock and grey sitting at the tables with tarts perched on their knees. The girls wear white or colored blouses and dark skirts. They are young and pretty, with pink fingernails and their hair carefully dressed with little ornaments in it. Smoking cigarettes or drawing on a friend’s Maryland, they walk up and down in pairs between the tables, playfully jostling each other, or else they sit playing draughts. Singers turn up now and then to sing some dirty ditty in a bass voice. The waiters have big black mustaches. The girls call the pimp who runs the establishment “the old marquis”. A negress goes by in a sleeveless dress.

“One the first floor, there is a long corridor with a lot of tiny cells just big enough to contain a little window with broken blinds, a bed, a chest of drawers, and, on the floor, the inevitable basin and jug of water. On the wall there is one of those colored pictures entitled Spring or Summer that you win at a fair and, hanging from the mirror, a little Zouave doll.

“These twenty-sou women are not at all like the terrifying creatures drawn by Constantin Guys, but poor little things trying to ape the language and dress of the higher class prostitutes.”

Constantin Guys: Girls in a Bordello

Moving up the scale of prostitution to the very top, the Goncourts report the following:

“April 7, 1857

Anna Deslions

“Rose [Goncourts’ housekeeper] has just seen in the concierge’s lodge the night-clothes—or morning-clothes if you prefer—that our neighbor La Deslions (see the post Dinner with Courtesans) sends by her maid to the house of the man to whom she is giving a night. It seems that she has a different outfit for each of her lovers in the color that he prefers. This one consists of a white satin dressing gown, quilted and pinked, with gold-embroidered slippers in the same color—a dressing gown costing between twelve and fifteen hundred francs—a nightdress in batiste trimmed with Valenciennes lace, with embroidered insertions costing three hundred francs, and a petticoat trimmed with three lace flounces at three or four hundred francs each, a total of some three thousand francs taken to any house whose master can afford her.” (For comparison, the daily wage of a maid was one franc.)

(*) Zouaves: Body of light infantry in the French army, composed of Algerian recruits, popular for their exotic uniform.

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Excerpt from the Goncourt Journals 1851-1896

2 June 1868

Dinner at Magny’s. We heard some curious details about the German scholars Froenher and Oppert, a couple of pedants who are no more learned than anybody else but to whom the present-day cult of Germanism in the world of learning has brought ironic blessings—to the first a cosy sinecure in the Louvre, and to the other a prize of a hundred thousand francs for his work on cuneiforms, a language of which he alone knows the secrets and which nobody has ever been able to check.

One of our number had known Froehner when he was humble, poor, and wretched, and, like all Germans, played a piano in his garret. When he met him again, Froehner was wearing a cravat with pink spots and an astonishing suit, the sort of suit you can imagine a German scholar turned dandy would wear. “I dare say you find me changed, my dear fellow,” he said. “The fact is that I discovered that hard work, application, and all that was just nonsense. Hase told me that the only way to get to the top here was through women. Look at Longpérier: if he hadn’t begun frequenting drawing rooms…”

On another occasion Froehner got hold of our guest, taken him into a window recess and anxiously asked him if he thought that a German like himself, Froehner, would ever be able to talk smut to women as Frenchmen did, saying that he had tried but that what he said always became so coarse and filthy that he could never finish it properly.

What a comic sign of the times, erudition applying this method to achieve success! Erudition represented by these two Germans, these two vulgar natives of the land of artlessness, trying to succeed by means of the delicate corruption of France.

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From the Goncourt Journal

Text written in 1857

***

June 7th

Dinner at Asseline’s with Anna Deslions, Adèle Courtois, a certain Juliette, and her sister.

Anna Deslions, Bianchi’s former mistress and the woman who ruined Lauriston: thick black hair, magnificently untidy; velvety eyes with a glance like a warm caress; a big nose but sharply defined; thin lips and a full face—the superb head of an Italian youth, touched with gold by Rembrandt.

Adèle Courtois, an old, nondescript tart boosted by Figaro.

Juliette, a little pastel-portrait with her rumpled, frizzled hair worn low on the forehead—she is mad about low foreheads—a slightly crazy La Tour, a little blonde with something of the Rosalba picture in the Louvre, Woman with Monkey, partaking of the monkey as well as the woman. And her sister, a dried-up little thing and pregnant into the bargain: looking like a big-bellied spider.

And to provide a piano accompaniment to the evening’s festivities, Quidant, a bordello jester with a thoroughly Parisian sense of humour, a ferocious irony: hoarse-voiced, mealy-mouthed, red-faced, and slit-eyed.

Anna Deslions

The ladies were all wearing long white dresses, with hundreds of frills and furbelows, cut very low at the back in the shape of a triangle. The conversation at first turned on the Emperor’s mistresses. Juliette said:

“Giraud is doing my portrait, and this year he is painting Mme de Castiglione.”

“No, she’s finished,” said Adèle. “I have that on good authority. It’s La Serrano now. La Castiglione  and the Empress have quarrelled. … You know the witty thing Constance said? ‘If I resisted the Emperor, I should have been Empress.’”

Juliette was in a crazy mood, bursting in a nervous laughter without rhyme or reason, and talking with the spirited irony of a professional actress. Some name was mentioned and Deslions said to Juliette:

“You know, that man you were madly in love with and for whom you committed suicide.”

“Oh, I’ve committed suicide three times.”

“You know whom I mean. What’s – his – name . . .”

Juliette put her hand over her eyes like someone peering into the distance, and screwed up her eyes to see if she could not recognize the gentleman in question coming along the highroad of her memories. Then she burst out laughing and said:

“It reminds me of the Scala at Milan. There was a gentleman there who kept bowing to me over and over again.  And I said to myself ‘I know that mouth.’ All I could remember was the mouth!”

“Do you remember”, asked Deslions, “When we went out in that filthy weather to see the place where Gérard de Nerval hanged himself?”

“Yes, and I even believe it was you who paid for the cab. I touched the bar; it was that that brought me luck. You know, Adèle, it was the week after that. . .”

After dinner Quidant did an imitation on the piano of that thrill of cuckoo with one note missing. The ladies started waltzing, the blonde and the brunette, Juliette and Anna, dancing together, all white in a room lined in red rep. With a playful air, Juliette caught Anna’s necklace between her teeth and bit a magnificent black pearl hanging from the end of it. But the pearl was genuine and did not break.

In the midst of this merriment, there was an icy chill, an instinctive hostility between women, who would draw in their claws as soon as someone bared her teeth. Now and then all the women would start talking Javanese, following every syllable with a va. Prisons have got slang; brothels have got Javanese. They talk it very fast and it is unintelligible to a man.

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