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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).

More posts about local customs:

Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

The Dead of Paris

 

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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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James Tissot: Too Early, 1873

The occupations of the higher classes in Paris are much the same as they are in other capitals; both sexes are more fond of taking baths than they are in London, and even when they have that convenience in their own houses, the men often prefer lounging to the most fashionable public baths. The young sparks of fashion are very fond of sumptuous breakfasts at the most stylish coffee-houses in Paris, and often begin by taking a few dozen of oysters by way of giving them an appetite; beefsteaks dressed in the English style, a few choice French dishes, two or three sorts of wine, desert, and coffee, generally compose the repast until the dinner hour. The time is filled up with walking, riding, driving, practising gymnastic exercises, pistol-shooting, fencing, etc. After dinner, which usually terminates about eight, and is in fact the same thing as the breakfast on a more extensive scale, they proceed to the theatres; those most in vogue with the beau monde are the Italian Opera, the French Opera or Académie de Musique, the Comic Opera, and the Théâtre Français. After the performances are over, they generally lounge into some favourite coffee-house, and then close the day to recommence another, following much the same course, with some trifling variation. But now the favourite pursuit amongst young men of fashion, is that of riding and everything which is connected with horses, such as racing, leaping, steeple chasing, and discussing their different qualities and the various modes of breaking them in, in England and in France.

Although their pursuits are not so numerous nor so various as those of the men, yet women opportunities of killing time are greater; as shopping alone employs often some hours of the day, the importance attached to a bonnet, a cap, a turban and above all to a dress, causes many and long dissertations. Exhibitions and morning concerts frequently occupy also much of the ladies’ leisure, a little walking in the Tuileries gardens at a certain hour and in a certain part whilst their carriage waits for them, an airing in it, or a turn on horseback, fill up the rest of the day, and after dinner, if not at the theatre, they either receive or pay visits, as it is the fashion to do so of an evening in Paris.

I must not quit this sketch of the Parisians and their occupations without giving my readers some idea of what is called La Jeune France, which consists of a number of young men, who wear comical shaped hats, their hair very long hanging below their ears, and let the greater part of their beards grow; they also have their throats bare and their shirt collars turned down; they have rather a wild look, and their political theories are somewhat wilder than their looks; they are republican in principle, and in manner, adopting a sort of rough abrupt style, as far from courteous as can well be imagined. They amount to perhaps a few thousands in Paris, comprising a number of the students in law and medicine, many of the painters, musical professors, and at least half the literary characters in Paris; some of them are either the editors their subs or the communicators to two-thirds of the newspapers at Paris.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

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The working people in Paris are extremely frugal in their mode of living; bread being full seven-eighths of their food, what they eat with it varies according to the season; if in summer, mostly such fruit as happens to be ripe, and perhaps once in the day they take a bit of soft white-looking cheese with their bread. In winter they often add instead a little morsel of pork or bacon, but more frequently stewed pears or roasted apples. On Sundays they always put the pot-au-feu, as they call it, which means that they make soup, or literally translated, that they put the pot on the fire. Many of the wives of the working people contrive to muster some soup for their husbands when they get home at night, and almost all manage to have a little wine in the course of the day.

On the Sunday in the summer time they contrive to have a degree of pleasure, and go to one of the houses round Paris called guinguettes, something in the nature of the tea-gardens about London, but in Paris and most parts of France the husband takes his wife and even his children with him if they are old enough; indeed, you generally see the whole train together. At these houses they mostly take beer which is not very strong, but they make it less so by mixing it with water, as they do almost every beverage; sometimes they have wine, lemonade, or currant juice, which is called groseille, and that from the black currant cassis; there they will sit looking at the dances, in which they sometimes join, and return home about ten o’clock. This is pretty much the routine of a regularly conducted working-man in Paris, and it must be admitted that they form by far the greater number, particularly those who are married.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

Parisian family going to the “guinguette” (circa 1790)

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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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