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etrennes

In France, Christmas is called Noël. Noël means la bonne nouvelle or “the good news”. Of the visible signs of Christmas in the 19th century Paris, the Christmas tree was not a common sight, but no home was without a crèche, the Nativity scene.
On Christmas Eve, children left their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. Adults received no gifts until the New Year’s Étrennes.

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

Evergreens, such as ivy and mistletoe, decorated the mantel piece and the dinner table readied for Le Réveillon, the after Midnight Mass feast. That’s right: the French have to wait until after midnight to celebrate Christmas with food. What food and how much of it (lots!) is described in The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way.

A Joyeux Noël to all!

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big stomachsThe following text was written by James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888). This American newspaper editor and art critic visited Paris in the early 1850’s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His humor and the clarity of his writing vividly portray the living conditions in mid-century Paris.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, becomes the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation. A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table “toutsuite.” He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the new comers into their warm seats, with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses and all the debris of the previous meal before them. Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The “garçon,” with a dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled table-cloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain. Now commences the “tug of” eating. Each member of the party, except the dog who gravely occupies his chair, too well-bread to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate sized table-cloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder, so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and all the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume. Eating, under almost any circumstances is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler, whose sensibilities have long since had their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess or dominoes, paying for the same by calling for a bottle of beer or glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast coolly throw herself back in her chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated “unprotected females.’

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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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LeRéveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

Le Réveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

The Réveillon is a night-long feast that celebrates the birth of Christ. It starts after the midnight mass in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Thankfully, I experienced the French Réveillon only once. When children are involved – hungry, tired, over-excited and cranky children – the celebration may not be all that joyous. In my humble opinion, the cultures East of the Rhine manage far better by celebrating the Christmas Eve with both dinner and gifts dispatched before midnight. When the little angels fall asleep, replete and hugging their new toys, the adults can enjoy merrymaking on a new level.

This personal experience served me to a degree when I wrote the Christmas chapter in my novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870`s Paris. In the following short excerpt cultures clash over the Réveillon:

Dissent was brewing in the kitchen where Julie sat in a corner with a goose between her knees, plucking the feathers, while Célestine chopped onion with more vigour than the task required.

“Some people I could name have no respect for tradition,” the cook said provocatively as Nelly wheeled Géraldine through the door.

“Listen Célestine,” Nelly said, while parking the wheelchair by the kitchen table, “as far as traditions go, I had to give up mine as well. In America, there’s no midnight feast. If I can adjust, then you can too. It’s unhealthy to eat a heavy dinner past midnight. By the time you’d get back from church, we’d be half-asleep. We’ll eat at nine. That’s late enough.”

“Have it your way,” Célestine grumbled. “As for me and Julie, we’ll wait until after the midnight mass. Won’t we, Julie?”

Julie ripped off the last fistful of feathers and closely studied the goose for any she might have overlooked. She would not be drawn into the dispute.

“I don’t know why you are making such a case of the Réveillon,” Nelly said. “It will be just us and Monsieur Goubert. Thirteen desserts for five people is excess. I must’ve been brain-damaged when I allowed such an expense.”

“That’s for Jesus and his twelve apostles. They must not be denied. Nuts, raisins, almonds,” Célestine counted on her fingers, “figs, dates, nougat, apples, pears, prunes, oranges, and three different tarts.”

Nelly fanned herself. “I feel already stuffed just from listening to you. So what do you want us to do?”

Célestine distributed the tasks and they settled down to work. Potato peels dropped into the waste bucket, chestnut shells cracked, a knife rhythmically stroked the chopping board, accompanied with dull thumps from underneath the table, where Schnitzel wagged his tail, repeatedly hitting a chair leg.

Later on, in the same chapter, Célestine—a former courtesan fallen on hard times— has the last word on what a Réveillon should be like:

The aperitif finished, they entered the dining room. The first bottle of wine was uncorked and Julie served a plate of oysters on a bed of ice, accompanied with lemons and vinaigrette. The company had worked their way through a series of canapés and hors d’oeuvres before the stuffed goose made its appearance, surrounded by a multitude of garnishes. Her back bent under the weight of the giant platter, Julie put it on the table, and a second bottle of wine was opened in its honour. Tongues loosened by degrees and faces glowed with the kind of well-being only a good meal can generate. At the end of the meal, Célestine was coaxed out of the kitchen to hear a well-deserved praise for her culinary art.“It was only a modest dinner,” she said, reaching for a glass of wine. “You should see the réveillons I used to give! Up to eighteen courses. Guests would eat and drink all night long. Those were the times! Ah, life was good under the Empire.”

_*_

 Fame and Infamy is available in print and in all digital formats (see the side bar).

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Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

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What follows here is still done to some degree in today’s France. A few years ago, I watched an eye-popping French TV documentary on the subject. I cannot say for sure whether the athletes of the TV food marathon were actually members of the original Club de Grands Estomachs, but they certainly maintained the tradition of ritual overeating. Remarkably, none of the participants showed any visible signs of ill-health or obesity.

Recently, I came across the Club of Grand Stomachs in an article written in 1867, which describes one of that year’s menus. The twelve club members met each Saturday in the Parisian restaurant Chez Pascal for an 18-hour session that would be lethal for the majority of today’s health- and diet-conscious individuals.

The pantagruelic meal, lasting from 6:00 PM to noon, was divided into three acts. Act One began with Potage à la Crécy (a puréed vegetable soup) preceded by several glasses of bitter wine and followed by several glasses of madeira. Then came a turbot with caper sauce, a beef sirloin, a braised leg of lamb, fattened chickens encased in pastry, maraschino sherbet, creams, pies, and small cakes, all of it washed down by six bottles of Burgundy per person.

Act Two lasted from midnight to 6:00 AM. It began with one or several cups of tea preceding a turtle soup and featured Indian six-chicken curry, salmon with spring onions, deer cutlets with peppers, sole fillets with truffle sauce, artichokes with Java pepper, rum sherbet, Scottish partridge in whiskey, rum puddings, and strongly spiced English pastry. Drinks served with this session consisted of three bottles of Burgundy and three bottles of Bordeaux for each participant.

The final part of the food marathon began at 6:00 AM and ended at noon. They started with an extremely peppered onion soup, followed by a quantity of savory pastries and four bottles of champagne per head. Then they passed to coffee with a pousse-café of an entire bottle of cognac, kirsch or rum.

I will restrain myself from any commentary on the ill effects of overeating. One can only marvel at the extraordinary endurance of the human body under such onslaught of food and drink.

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“Come and See Pretty Pussies” – Street advertisement for a brasserie

Among the big headaches for municipal authorities of Paris in the second part of the 19th century was the appearance of the brasseries à femmes. Until then, drink and sex were generally served apart. A man looking for a drink would go to a café  and, should he feel need for female company, he’d make his choice (and an abundant choice it was!) among the streetwalkers, or he’d visit a brothel. In accordance with the law, the staff of the maisons de tolérance, was kept under a weekly medical supervision and therefore more or less free of venereal disease. However, a licence for opening a brothel was not easy to come by and, should any complaints arise, the business would be mercilessly closed by the authorities. This was not the case with public places offering alcohol. Traditionally, these employed male waiters, but in the 1860’s a few establishments appeared where drink was served by pretty women in seductive garb whose duty was to encourage the consumption of alcohol by being friendly with the patrons. This new way of serving drinks expanded rapidly not only in Paris but in all large cities across France. By the end of the century, in Paris alone, the brasseries employed between 1,500 and 2,000 waitresses. Although the interior of a brasserie might appear above reproach, most of them contained rooms for private encounters.

With the growth of the brasseries à femmes, the statistic of venereal disease shot up accordingly. Unlike registered prostitutes, waitresses were not subjected to medical control and, as there was no shame attached to entering such an establishment, many patrons, who would hesitate to be seen in a brothel, became victims of both drink and disease. Young men were the most at risk. Students and apprentices saw their future dissolve in excesses of drink to the chagrin of their parents and teachers. Patrons became attached to the girls and when a successful waitress crossed the river to “remake herself a virginity” on the opposite bank, some of her clients followed her like faithful dogs.

Serving in a brasserie was no sinecure. Twelve hours a day in the noisy and smoky atmosphere, where the women were required not only to serve, but to sit at the tables and match the patrons drink for a drink, took a heavy toll on their health. Very few lasted more than ten years.  The following is a questionnaire filled by an applicant from Marseille seeking a job in Paris:

An early brasserie poster, circa 1875

Have you already served in brasseries?

Yes, in Lyon and here.

Are you young?

I’m 24.

Pleasant?

Like a jewel.

Pretty?

See my photograph.

Flirtatious?

With art. I offer, I attract, and I hold.

Do you have a good stomach?

I have a robust constitution and if I don’t have sobriety, the virtue of a camel, by contrast I possess the stomach of an ostrich used to all kinds of drinks, even adulterated ones. I have, like many of my co-workers, begun to practice fraud and today I can drink without getting drunk. You will hear my voice, you will see my chic and you will appreciate my talent for manipulation.

She, no doubt, got the job.

Why were these women so keen to apply for a work in which their health and morals suffered an irreparable damage?  The answer, of course, is money. Morals set aside, a smart brasserie waitress made in a day the monthly wages of a factory worker.

After many protests, a law put an end to the brasseries à femmes. With the exception of the owner’s family members, no other female employees were allowed to serve in these establishments. It was also forbidden for a waitress to drink with the patrons.

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The oldest gourmet restaurant in Paris

Early visitors to Paris, unless they were guests of the aristocracy, reported no outstanding culinary experiences. Before the storming of the Bastille, there was only one good restaurant in Paris – the Beauvillier’s, founded in 1782. This changed when the unemployed chefs of the beheaded nobles launched themselves into the hospitality industry. The upper middle class got a taste of sumptuous food and as early as1820, the number of restaurants mushroomed to three thousand. During the Second Empire, Paris boasted twenty thousands cafés and restaurants. By the middle of the 19th century France achieved its status as the paradise for gastronomers.           

What made France, and notably Paris, the cradle of haute cuisine? The main reason was that unlike the males of other nations, the Frenchman did not consider matters of food unmanly. Approached with the same seriousness men devote to science, cooking and eating were–and still are–one of the main topics around the table. Dedicated gourmets and culinary critics discussed the matter at length. The cooks themselves became theorists and many put their pens to paper.

“Because of the art we practice,” a famous chef wrote, “we have the right to respect and consideration because cooking can and must march hand in hand with the liberal arts.”

The illustrious chef Carême claimed that cooks were in fact doctors, with far more influence on their employers’ well-being than the charlatans that posed as doctors.

 Dining became worshipping at the altar of food and as such required a set of rituals.

“One should never talk of politics at table,” admonishes Le Gourmet magazine in the 1830’s. “The conversation should always be light, so as not to distract from the main interest, which is the food. In a dinner of knowledgeable people, the arrival of soup is followed by a silence. Until the third course, there should be no talk about anything except what one was eating, what one has eaten, and what one will eat. But after one has eaten well, one has a duty to make witty conversation.”

In fact, the acquisition of a good recipe became a noteworthy event even among the top artists of the era and could make and break the reputation of such a giant of literature as Alexander Dumas.

Judging by the proportion of advertisements for indigestion and constipation pills of the era, the culinary excesses, both at home and in restaurants, took their toll on the digestive system. To remain true to themselves, the French cannot equate food with vulgar indigestion. The correct term is “la crise de foie”, although a foreigner cannot imagine why only liver should be mentioned in a process in which all parts of the digestive system rebel with equal force.

Anonymous source

Marie-Antoine Carême Wikipedia

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