Archive for the ‘food and drink’ Category


Today, we’ll talk about a 19th-century Parisian institution of social importance: the bistrot. Not to be confused with a café—which is a frequent occurrence today—the bistrot/bistro was a waiter-less establishment where you ordered your refreshment from the “patron” who ran the place from behind a zinc-covered counter. The birth of Parisian bistros, as the legend would have it, goes back to the defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1814). As a consequence, Paris was overrun by various victorious armies, including the always-thirsting Russian Cossacks. They wanted a drink and they wanted it fast: Bistro! Bistro! The legend is embraced by all, except for the etymologists who still discuss the origin of the world as it does not appear in literature before 1884.




While they take various forms today, Parisian bistros were small unpretentious joints run by so-called “bougnats” – the immigrants from Auvergne who left their poor lands during the Industrial Revolution to settle in Paris. These establishments were recognized for their very popular atmosphere. Designed for the poorer classes, bistros offered a drink and a quick bite. It was in the bistro that the neighborhood problems were discussed. It was a place for the morning coffee and croissant, for an apéritif before lunch and, again, for one before dinner; the bistro was also a haven for working-class lovers to meet during inclement weather and a recreation room for the local prostitute.




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Absinthe: The Rise and Death of the Green Fairy

Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Guide to Gay Paree (1869) – Part 4: Restaurants and Cafés


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Very few liquors deserved so much attention in literature, painting, and poetry as did the absinthe, the favorite drink of the Parisian artistic community. Absinthe drinking involved an ever-fascinating ritual, best described in one of Marcel Pagnol’s novels (Le Temps des Secrets):

“The poet’s eye shone suddenly, and then, in a deep silence, began a kind of ceremony. He installed before him a glass, which was very big, after checking its cleanliness. He then took the bottle, uncorked it, smelled it, and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, whose dose he seemed to measure with suspicious attention, for, after examination and reflection, he added a few drops. He then took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, which was narrow and long, and pierced with cut-outs in the shape of arabesques. He put this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and charged it with two lumps of sugar.

With a hand resting on her hip at the end of her gracefully rounded arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher high enough, then with an infallible address, she dropped a very thin stream of fresh water on the sugar cubes, which began to fall apart slowly.

The poet, whose chin was almost touching the table, between his two hands laid flat, watched closely the operation. The Infanta’s jug was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle was no longer breathing. In the liquid, whose level was rising slowly, I saw forming a kind of milky haze, in twisted twists that eventually joined, while a penetrating scent of anise was refreshing my nostrils. “




Absinthe was also called the Green Fairy as it was believed that it opened the door to a fairyland

The effect of absinthe varies from person to person but it can be described as mind and eye-sharpening.  Some consumers mention impressive dreams. The active ingredient in absinthe is a plant called wormwood.  The most persistent misunderstanding about wormwood is that it is a drug. Although not true, this vision of absinthe as a dangerous intoxicant and hallucinogen grew until the liquor got banned.






The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

Paintings of absinthe drinkers usually depict melancholy and resigned individuals:




The Absinthe Drinkers Au Café By Edgar Degas, 1876

The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, 1901

Absinth Drinkers by Jean Béraud, 1908

Absinthe got popular under the Second Empire (1852-1870).  At the beginning, it was a fashionable drink for the wealthy. Around this time, it became normal to start the meal with an aperitif, and between the 1500 liquors available, absinthe accounted for 90% of aperitifs consumed.




A cozy middle-class moment with absinthe

The consumption of absinthe crested in the years 1880-1910, when its price fell and it became accessible to all, rivaling in popularity with wine. During this time, everyone drank absinthe, from  society ladies to workers. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of wormwood, but in 1910 this figure reached 36,000,000 liters a year. By that time, absinthe was already a major French export. The French colonies were important markets, followed by South American countries like Argentina and Chile.



Posters condemning the consumption of absinthe began to appear. Even the dog shows his disrespect for this working class loser

Absinthe contained 75% alcohol and was not always sufficiently diluted with water. When it began replacing wine, the problems with drunkenness grew and so did the backlash against the liquor. Absinthe was blamed for a syndrome, called absinthism, characterized by hyper-nervosity, epileptic seizures, and hallucinations. According to the anti-absinthe activists, the drink even caused the painter van Gogh’s madness and his ear amputation. (Not true.)




The Green Hour
What we know as the Happy Hour was called the Green Hour because absinthe was the drink of choice. This poster shows the effects of absinthe on the working class (left) and on the better class (right)


Discussions followed discussions. Petitions were signed. The vise slowly tightened around absinthe. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a series of particularly brutal family murders for which absinthe was blamed – largely unjustly. Preceding the crime, the murderer drank not only two glasses of absinthe but also a mint cream, a cognac, six glasses of wine to water his lunch, another glass of wine after work, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine on the way back, then another coffee with brandy. Only absinthe was blamed for his murderous dementia.


Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the United States in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. It was resurrected in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia and is now available in other countries as well

There are two ways of serving absinthe: the meditative and the flamboyant. Both are depicted in this video:




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french watching


The French culinary lifestyle—such as a family eating in a restaurant—surprised many mid-century travelers. In their home countries, eating in a public place made sense only when a person was away from her home and its safe food. This was a habit in France as well until the 1789 revolution. With the aristocrats guillotined or gone to exile, many skilled and creative cooks became unemployed. The only solution was to open public eateries. The well-to-do bourgeois tasted aristocratic cuisine and they liked it.  More than half a century later, when the following text was written, there were hundreds of restaurants in Paris. Eating out made more sense than staying at home. One saved on kitchen fuel, which was a considerable expense at the time, and one could choose from a variety of expertly cooked dishes.

James Jackson Jarves (1818-1888), the author of the text, visited Paris in the early 1850s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His wit and the clarity of his style vividly portray the living condition in the 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, become 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 newcomers 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 the dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled tablecloth 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 for the dog who gravely occupies the chair, too well-bred to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate-sized tablecloth. 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 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 had long since 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 and dominoes, paying the same by calling for a bottle of beer or a glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast, coolly throw herself back in a 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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The colorful Belle Epoque posters make the joy of collectors. Not only are they highly decorative and amusing in their occasional naïveté but they also inform us about the changing lifestyle. New alimentary products appear, such as chemical taste enhancers and food substitutes. Maggi, powdered milk, and margarine became regular ingredients of people’s diet. Chocolat, previously only served as drink, acquired the solid form of tablets as we know them today. Biscuits were produced industrially.



“The French Sardine Says Hello!” Food talked to people before the advertising industry discovered that humanizing animals we eat was not a good idea.



Sausages that “One Eats with Pleasure and Without Fatigue”. A prodigious pig (cochon prodigue) indeed! An animal that happily slices itself for the consumer’s delight would probably turn off today’s viewers. The Belle Epoque folk were made of a tougher stock.



Seen only in greasy spoons today, a bottle of Maggi was a novelty worthy of a bourgeois table.



A bowlful of chemically enhanced soup before the bedtime was a sign of good parenting




This margarine obtained gold medals in Amsterdam {1883) and Le Havre (1887)



Be it cheese, beer, champagne or herb liquor, monks were trusted to produce quality food and drink



In this boy’s mind, solid chocolate is better than solid gold


mucha 1896

Biscuits to be served with champagne. A beautiful poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1896



A boy in a typical school uniform is enjoying sweet biscuits


Cookies could start a romance (1896)

no bras


“No arms, no chocolate”. This bizarre advertising depicts a well-known French saying. One could think that this cruelty hides a wisdom of some sort; that it can be interpreted as “no effort, no reward.” That is not so. This replica is passed on in popular language and is serving to highlight the absurdity of a ban or to make fun of someone faced with a physical impossibility:

“Mom, can I have chocolate?”
“There’s some in the closet. Go serve yourself.”
“But Mom, I can’t, you know I don’t have arms.”
“No arms, no chocolate!”
Obviously, it makes some sense to the French.


Related post:

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene


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noel 0It’s that time of the year again, so Merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël as the French say. Instead of going to bed, looking forward to Christmas morning like the Americans do, the French people will stay wide awake to engage in an eating marathon called le réveillon which starts right after the Midnight Mass.  As for the gifts, they will be delivered by Père Noël. Don’t expect him to come down through the chimney for he is not that keen on getting his outfit dirty. The gifts are dropped from the roof, and that’s that. These days, the Père Noël’s look is pretty much standardized, the red being the only choice, but the old Père Noël came in different colors and had a slimmer frame as you can see in the following fashion show:


noel 5


noel 4


noel 8





noel 1


Related post: The Good News


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You would not want to experience a sultry summer in the 19th century, of that I’m sure. Look at the picture of suffering Parisians. No tank tops for the women, no short pants or sandals for the men. The fashion did not allow for such a relief. The only human being happy with the situation is the lemonade vendor, who is doing brisk business while carrying a pack of ice on his back.

Our ancestors fought back without air conditioning. Some  ways of staying cool are described in Mrs Daffodil’s post How to Keep Cool: 1860 – 1902. The post is an amalgam of heat remedies of the past: some efficient, others humorous if useless, and some downright ingenious. Who would have thought of serving ice cream inside a hollowed out rose? Do read the post and see whether you can find something useful should modern technology fail us.



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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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