“Waiter, is this an elephant in my soup?”
What may sound like a Henny Youngman skit, could very well have been actual dialog between a restaurant patron and her waiter. But when the restaurant is in Paris and the language spoken is French, it sounds much more appetizing.
Whether it’s speaking about truffles or turnips, French words flow like silky consommé making the mundane sound magical. In France a simple grilled chicken becomes, Supreme de Volaille. With language and techniques, French chefs elevate food preparation into an art. No longer is food prepared just to sustain the body, it is now capable of enchanting the soul.
But Frances’ culinary life wasn’t all crepes and caviar. As this menu shows, an unexpected dark time was to descend upon Parisian kitchens: as unexpected as Julia Child cooking for Tarzan.
In the winter of 1870, France was at war with Prussia. Paris, the capital of France and the cultural and epicurean capital of the world was a city under siege. The Prussian Army sealed the city off. For 132 days, from September 19 through January 28, with all supply lines severed, Paris was isolated from the world.
Unyielding, the French government and the city’s citizens coped. When supplies of coal and firewood ran out everything combustable was harvested for fuel; trees that lined stately boulevards, to furniture and books. Oil-fed street lamps, unlit and frosted, accented “The City of Lights” nightly descent into winters darkness. Initially life was fatiguing but bearable, however Parisians soon faced the greater threat of starvation.
Their government made a tragic miscalculation in the ability of its military to break the Prussian siege. When it became clear the deprivation would last longer than they estimated, food rationing was rushed into effect. It was too little too late. Soon the city echoed with rifle-fire, as citizens – trying to feed their families – turned manicured parks into hunting grounds for sparrows or crows and horse meat quickly became an expensive delicacy. An estimated 70,000 horses, hacks to thoroughbreds, were slaughtered during those four and a half months.
As the horse population plummeted, sewers and alleyways, with their abundant rat population, replaced stables as a meat market. Rats, however, were difficult to prepare and unpopular with restaurant patrons. They were left for the poor to battle over.
The unmistakable line between poor and rich was never more blatant. Horse meat, traditionally shunned by the rich and a stewpot staple for the poor, was now hoarded by the wealthy and the restaurants they patronized. Destitute families were forced into spending hours in parks and fields – fathers, mothers, children – scraping the earth, digging up roots and plucking weeds, praying to find enough to boil into a broth.
The city’s newspaper, LeJournal, dedicated more and more space to recipes instructing its readers how to prepare rotten food and hard bread. The only plentiful commodity was wine. Far from being the beverage of relaxation and refinement, it was now an anesthesia to silence children’s whimpering and numb the city’s hunger.
The more palatable substitute for rats was dogs and cats. Chefs, always mindful of presentation, often served cat on a bed of greens, surrounded by a dozen mice perfectly prepared medium well. The pet and feral population, however, wasn’t large enough to meet the need for food. The government was forced to make a bizarre decision.
There was a single stockpile of fresh meat still available. Sadly, it was caged at the Paris Zoo. Auctions were held and the high bidders walked away with their winnings. Through inventiveness and extreme butchering skills, Parisian chefs added new dishes to menus; Kangaroo Stew and Roasted Camel, Civet de Kangourur and Chameau Roti a l’anglaise, became some of the exotic fare for those wealthy enough to indulge.
Saddest of all, was the sacrifice of Castor and Pollux. This beloved pair of elephants, said to be brothers – and the zoo’s most popular attraction – were slaughtered in December. Restaurants prepared special Christmas menus starting with a slimy Consomme’ d Ele’phant. Patrons who chose to partake in the feast were left with the memory of an overpriced meal of questionable quality. A generation of children were left with the memory of joyful rides upon the brothers’ backs.
The madness ended when the Prussians, abandoning the slow death of a siege, shelled Paris into submission. The bombardment took just three days before the city fell and France surrendered. Following its surrender, the punch-drunk country staggered towards normalcy and began preparing for what they knew was an inevitability: their next war with the newly formed German Empire powered by the Prussian military. They would have forty-three years to prepare for it.