Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Bizarre Christmas Menu, Paris, 1870.

Today’s Christmas menu is most unusual. It is given in The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A Professional Cook's Book for Household Use (1883), by Jessup Whitehead, and needs some explanation, which I attempt after you have had your vicarious eating pleasure.

Genius in the Kitchen.
Hartford Times.
Another branch of the subject which comes up yearly at the cooks’ ball for discussion by the gourmands is the degree of ingenuity displayed by different famous cooks in devising new dishes and menus wherewith to tickle jaded palates. It is considered that for originality the palm should go to the chef of the French Rothschilds, whose patron in Christmas week, 1870, invited a select party of friends to the following dinner.

Hors D’oeuvres.
Butter Radishes        Sardines         Ass’s head, stuffed.
Puree of beans aux croutons          Elephant consommé
Fried gudgeons                     Roast Camel a la Anglaise
Civet of kangaroo     Roast ribs of bear
Haunch of wolf, venison sauce      Cat with rats
Water-cress salad
Antelope pie, truffled                      Petit pois au beurre
Rice-bakes with preserves
Gruyere cheese
Xeres  Chateau Mouton Rothschild
Latour blanche, 1861                       Rornancee Contil, 1858
Chateu Palmer, 1860                       Bollinger frappe
orti, 1827
Café et liqueurs

This dinner cost the Rothschild’s chef three months’ preparation, besides writing and telegraphing to the different parts of the world, and in money $400 a cover.

The menu is certainly interesting, but - if indeed it is genuine - the explanation of the planning and sourcing of the ingredients given by the author of the book is not correct. From 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871, Paris was under siege by Prussia. By late December, the inhabitants of the city had resorted to eating their way through the Paris Zoo.

In a previous post I mentioned the siege, and included the following note from Le Mars Globe (Iowa) of April 28 1909, we have a story about Paris in 1871:

“Amid the horrors of the siege of Paris in 1871, one Cadol found time to issue a book of recipes for the preparation of the strange fare to which the city was reduced. “Our stomachs are turned into natural history museums” he wrote, “but we must make the best of circumstances and render our food as palatable as we can.” So housewives were instructed how to disguise the flesh of dogs, horses, asses, rats and mice, and were shown that, despite the old adage, one can make an omelette without breaking eggs. The recipe for an eggless omelette was as follows: “Soak an army biscuit in sugared water flavoured with orange flower, chop finely and spread on a hot dish, powder well with sugar, and then pour over and set alight to a liberal helping of rum.” With eggs at $6 a dozen, and rum at little more than its normal price, this palatable imitation of an “omelette au rhum” became a most popular dish.”

There is a little more on food during the siege in the post ‘Not your usual Parisianfare.

There are a number of similar menus flitting around the Interwebs which supposedly represent Paris Zoo dinners around Christmas 1870. They are difficult to research without the necessary time, language skills, and  access to contemporary newspapers, so I make no comment about the authenticity of this particular menu – please just enjoy it as a curiosity!

As far as the individual dishes on this menu go, I am intrigued by the Rice-bakes with Preserves. I assume this is some sort of rice pudding, but so far have been unable to clarify my theory. I do think we need something simple after our virtual feed of elephant and antelope, so how about a nice, simple, and most ethical watercress salad?

Watercress Salad.
Pick out a quantity of nice sprigs of watercress, turn them over in a mixture of three parts of olive oil and two parts tarragon vinegar, with salt; and serve in a bowl.

Pierceton Independent (Indiana) August 25, 1880


Ann Sharp said...

In 1852, my great-great-grandfather wrote from Gold Rush San Francisco to his mother in Delaware that (his family having arrived via the Isthmus of Panama) he'd had his first family dinner and dessert had been rice with home preserves sent by his sister. So this may have been an unremarkable sweet to have after an ordinary meal.

Gillian Polack said...

If you ever want o check these recipes out, I'm willing to provide the language skills!

Gillian Polack (who is still doing food history stuff, in the background, just more quietly and in the interstices of novel-writing - I've got into the bad habit of doing a personal food history for each of my characters)