Our favorite expat/francophile shares an excerpt from his latest A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food ©2017 by David Downie and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
As in earlier days, even in the mid or late 1800s, most Paris apartments weren’t equipped with kitchens. Working people ate at soup kitchens, cheap cabarets, and auberges; or bought cooked food from caterers, rôtisseurs, bakers, and street hawkers of tripe, bouillon, and savory pastries. Jacques Arago explores this “other Paris” in his book Comme on dîne à Paris where “what is natural seems strange and what is strange is incredible.”
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is set in the same city, taking place partly during the 1848 revolution, but if you want to understand where that revolution and the Commune revolt of 1871 came from—the population was reduced to eating horses, mules, dogs, cats, rats, and zoo animals—or why the ancestral hunger of the poor pulsed menacingly in a time of plenty, read Arago’s bizarre food-and-travel book.
“Way up near the summit of rue Rochechouart, to the left, down a blind alley,” writes Arago setting the scene for his chapter titled “Fishing Dinner,” “there’s a big house with a courtyard and garden where the Auvergnats of Paris nest and perch…” The roughshod Rochechouart neighborhood was home then to Auvergne provincials—the future masters of Paris’ cafés and bistros. Nowadays it’s where non-European immigrants live in firetrap tenements. In Arago’s book, day laborers, rag-and-bone men, factory workers, clochards, and others at the bottom of the scale meet in the courtyard of what Arago calls “the Auvergnat’s place” clutching five-centime pieces, the price of a fishing expedition. “A monstrous cauldron half filled with revolting bouillon holds shreds of beef and mutton or more likely, old milk cows and Billy goats, bubbling up to the greasy surface.”
That’s the unchanging menu of the last three generations, served starting at 5:00 A.M. at the Auvergnat’s place. The “perpetual cauldron” has boiled away 24/7/365 for decades. Meat and liquid are added to top it up.
It’s the cruel and unusual method of dispensing the boiled meat that fascinates Arago whose travels took him around the globe among Stone Age tribes and cannibals but never astonished him the way Paris could. Standing before the cauldron, diners pony up, armed with long three-pronged wooden forks. Plunging the forks in fast and deep, if they spear meat, they eat. If they don’t, they pay and try again. And again, until they “catch a fish” or run out of centimes. Regulars who miss three times get the fourth or fifth try gratis, “charity” doled out to the desperate by fellow bottom-feeders.
Across town in the Marais—then a slum—in today’s rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, Arago visits another bizarre eatery for a “syringe dinner.” Judging by the sludge on the ground in the unpaved dining room “you’d think you’re standing in the street on a rainy day,” Arago says. Rounds cut out of a long wooden table hold tin basins roughly nailed down. Stools face the basins— the precursors of the perches in today’s bobo joints and haute “ateliers,” I wonder? The requisite “perpetual cauldron” bubbles away. Hefty waitresses wield a giant syringe sucking up bouillon to squirt into the basins. Those who don’t pay watch their broth sucked up and squirted back into the cauldron. Then they’re thrown out. Pay, and you get a hunk of stale bread to toss in your bouillon. Leaning over, you suck down the liquid and scarf the sops. The second course is boiled beef. The waitresses hand out forks “de-greased with their lips.”
From the Sun King’s table and the dining rooms of Palais-Royal roués, by the 1840s bouillon has become the restorative of the urban misérables soon to be portrayed by Victor Hugo.
Other “perpetual cauldrons” were more appetizing. Disappearing during the Second Empire they were missed by Alexandre Dumas, nostalgic for the excellence of broth derived from constant boiling, the “restaurant” beloved of kings, the quintessence of French cuisine without which there would be no French cuisine, he opined. Replacing these eateries were the famous Bouillon Duval, Paris’ first restaurant chain, founded in 1855. The bouillon is dead; long live the Bouillon!