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Posts Tagged ‘fast food in 19th century Paris’

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Many ate poorly in a city that was famous for its fancy food. Wages for the unskilled were low and even the skilled workers had to turn every coin twice before spending it. Men could make anywhere from 50 centimes to 4 francs a day. Unskilled women would earn as low as 25 centimes and children even less.

A previous post A Camel Steak Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris mentioned that the poorest inhabitants of the French capital saw meat only on major holidays – if ever. Their basic diet consisted of bread, potatoes, pork fat, and milk. An average restaurant meal would begin at two francs, and such a price would turn away most of the working-class people. Fuel was costly, too, so they did not do much cooking at home. Cheap hot meals could be purchased from street vendors and men of gambling nature would try their luck with meat at the most bizarre establishments ever: the potluck kitchens.

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Potluck Eateries

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In his book Paris with Pen and Pencil (published in 1858) American David W. Bartlett left us a vivid description of a meal at a fortune du pot restaurant:

“Pot-luck, or the fortune du pot, is on the whole the most curious feeding spectacle in Europe. There are more than a dozen shops in Paris where this mode of procuring a dinner is practiced, chiefly in the back streets abutting on the Pantheon. About two o’clock, a parcel of men in dirty blouses, with sallow faces, and an indescribable mixture of recklessness, jollity, and misery—strange as the juxtaposition of terms may seem—lurking about their eyes and the corners of their mouths, take their seats in a room where there is not the slightest appearance of any preparation for food, nothing but half-a-dozen old deal-tables, with forms beside them, on the side of the room, and one large table in the middle. They pass away the time in vehement gesticulation, and talking in a loud tone; so much of what they say is in argot, that the stranger will not find it easy to comprehend them. He would think they were talking crime or politics—not a bit of it; their talk is altogether about their mistresses. Love and feeding make up the existence of these beings; and we may judge of the quality of the former by what we are about to see of the latter.

A huge bowl is at last introduced, and placed on the table in the middle of the room. At the same time a set of basins, corresponding to the number of the guests, are placed on the side-tables. A woman, with her nose on one side, good eyes, and the thinnest of all possible lips, opening every now and then to disclose the white teeth which garnish an enormous mouth, takes her place before it. She is the presiding deity of the temple; and there is not a man present to whom it would not be the crowning felicity of the moment to obtain a smile from features so little used to the business of smiling, that one wonders how they would set about it if the necessity should ever arise.

Every cap is doffed with a grim politeness peculiar to that class of humanity, and a series of compliments fly into the face of Madame Michel, part leveled at her eyes, and part at the laced cap, in perfect taste, by which those eyes are shrouded. Mère Michel, however, says nothing in return, but proceeds to stir with a thick ladle, looking much larger than it really is, the contents of the bowl before her. These contents are an enormous quantity of thick brown liquid, in the midst of which swim numerous islands of vegetable matter and a few pieces of meat.

Meanwhile, a damsel, hideously ugly—but whose ugliness is in part concealed by a neat, trim cap—makes the tour of the room with a box of tickets, grown black by use, and numbered from one to whatever number may be that of the company. Each of them gives four sous to this Hebe of the place, accompanying the action with an amorous look, which is both the habit and the duty of every Frenchman when he has anything to do with the opposite sex, and which is not always a matter of course, for Marie has her admirers, and has been the cause of more than one rixe in the Rue des Anglais.

The tickets distributed, up rises number one—with a joke got ready for the occasion, and a look of earnest anxiety, as if he were going to throw for a kingdom—takes the ladle, plunges it into the bowl, and transfers whatever it brings up to his basin. It is contrary to the rules for any man to hesitate when he has once made his plunge, though he has a perfect right to take his time in a previous survey of the ocean—a privilege of which he always avails himself. If he brings up one of the pieces of meat, the glisten of his eye and the applauding murmur which goes round the assembly give him a momentary exultation, which it is difficult to conceive by those who have not witnessed it. In this the spirit of successful gambling is, beyond all doubt, the uppermost feeling; it mixes itself up with everything done by that class of society, and is the main reason of the popularity of these places with their habitués; for when the customers have once acquired the habit, they rarely go anywhere else.”

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Harlequin Food

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The poor had an opportunity to eat above their means and taste second-hand luxury food by making a purchase at the harlequin merchant’s food stand. The harlequin merchants sold at low prices leftover food they had collected in the kitchens of wealthy Parisian houses from cooks who were happy to make extra money.  The merchants were called “harlequins” because they dished out food as composite as the dress of the Harlequin character from the Commedia Dell’Arte: an ever surprising medley of poultry, fish, and roast beef bits mixed with various side dishes, and sweet desserts, all sharing a single plate.

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