The cheese woman, or What did people eat and not eat during the Siege of Paris?
Here in France, the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris by the Prussians is largely forgotten — except for one thing: On a mangé du rat — “We ate rat.”
The Siege is notorious for the culinary boundaries it led starving Parisians to cross. But when you look into it a little deeper, you realize that it wasn’t just rat for lunch and some animal from the zoo for dinner.
Learning about what most Parisians ate during the four months of the Siege was a fascinating and unexpectedly touching experience for me. Instead of being an initiation to all the different kinds of meat you can eat, it taught me how surprisingly little has changed in 150 years when it comes to putting together some dinner when the best food is scarce.
Actually, the single best kind of food wasn’t scarce, at least in my sugar-obsessed opinion. Chocolate was still quite obtainable and remained a predictable treat for many Parisians.
That’s not the only thing: Wine, coffee, jams, and sweets were also still in good supply. It’s said that Parisian children could still have their goûter with little change.
Dry goods like rice and even pasta were also able to be found — and then there were canned goods. According to sources like American Ambassador to France Elihu Washburne, canned goods were easily obtained in Paris, but the average Parisian didn’t buy or consume them very often. This made it easier for Americans, who were more accepting and maybe more used to these preserved foods, to find a way to add some variety and traditional sources of protein, fruit, and vegetables to their diets during the Siege.
So, then, what’s the deal with the rat-eating, or the countless sketches and paintings of people waiting miserably on breadlines and in long queues to get their meager ration at the butcher’s?
When it came to having fresh meat and decent bread (this latter being a staple of the Parisian diet, as it continues to be today), that’s where there was a problem. The city had gathered and requisitioned farm animals within its gates and began rationing fairly quickly. But still, with around 2 million mouths to feed, these sources of meat didn’t last long.
The same goes for the grains used to make bread. Bread continued to be available throughout the Siege, but other things were added to it instead of flour. I’ve read that by the end of the Siege, even hay was being used!
The bad bread became so emblematic that souvenir shadowboxes were sold after the Siege that included lists of important battles alongside the price of different types of vegetables (also a rarity), and a small piece of actual bread from the time.
One of the coolest resources I came across while researching Hearts at Dawn is a curious little book — more like a booklet in terms of its length — called La Cuisinière Assiégée, ou l’art de vivre en temps de siège (The Besieged Cook, or art de vivre in times of siege). From what I can gather, this book (credited to an anonymous author) was published shortly after the Siege as a sort of souvenir to raise funds for newly orphaned children. It was also possibly a still-pertinent guide, since the city was being re-provisioned (shortly afterwards, the Commune of Paris would cause more food shortages). It contains a number of recipes for meals and treats that could be prepared despite food shortages….
…although some ingredients were easier to get than others. For instance, several recipes include potatoes, but these weren’t cheap or as easy to come by as they normally would be. In late December 1870, la fête de la charité, a charity ball held by the city’s wealthy to raise money for ambulances (improvised hospitals set up in wealthy households, theaters, and other unusual locales), featured a bag of potatoes as one of the items to be auctioned off.
And then of course there are the sources of meat. Many of the recipes include horse, dog, cat, or rat meat (along with detailed instructions on the best ways to prepare each one — dog needs to be tenderized longer and rat meat can contain trichinosis). But as the table of prices at the start of the book reveals, if you were poor or if you weren’t able to get to a butcher’s who provided these, you wouldn’t be eating them.
So, many of the recipes offer alternative suggestions. For instance, the recipe for boulettes de pomme de terre (potato balls) suggests using leftovers from your recent meal of boiled horse — but any other kind of meat could be substituted.
Meat aside, many of the recipes strike me as terribly modern and very much like something you might throw together if you were hungry but hadn’t gone food shopping in a while. For instance, there are simple recipes like cooking rice in a bouillon of some kind to flavor it. There’s pasta and tomato sauce. Soups can be made with water, bits of bread (the same way we’d use croutons), whatever vegetables you might have at hand, and some garlic for seasoning.
Sometimes, things do get a bit out there, though, like the recipe for riz aux confitures, which is what it sounds like: rice with jam(s) mixed into it. To be fair, the recipe does call for adding additional seasonings, and maybe to a certain extent it was like a fruity rice pudding, but still. It remains jam and rice.
Many of the sources that I used spoke of the fact that of all the letters that remain from the Siege, one of the most common complaints of besieged residents wasn’t hunger but…indigestion. Reading La Cuisinière Assiégée gives you an insight into why. Although many of the recipes would be perfectly fine to eat — very much including pasta and tomato sauce — not all Parisians had access to all of these things, and had to improve in some odd ways. Add to that the fact that while they were eating, not everyone was eating to the point that they felt full, and it was a disaster for the digestive tract.
Some good did come from the Siege’s food shortages, though. The city made rations available to all inhabitants. One source I read remarked on the fact that many of the poorest Parisians ate better than they would in normal times. This is a sad fact, since of course the rations weren’t copious, especially as time went on.
On the other hand, you might be wondering, who was eating the zoo animals? Popular culture pictures starving Parisians storming the Jardin des Plantes and stealing animals to eat, but in fact, the zoo itself began to sell off its inhabitants, mostly to the upscale Boucherie Anglaise. There, people could taste exotic meats of all kinds. Most of it didn’t seem to be very good.
Wealthy Parisians and foreigners who stayed in the city often dined at restaurants, which stayed open. Some politely concealed what was actually being eaten. For instance, “rabbit” probably meant “cat,” since it turns out that the two taste similar. Vegetables weren’t always fresh or of the best quality, even at the finest establishments.
Other restaurants were much more open about the source of their offerings. You can find several menus online that show the joking spirit of many Parisians at the time. The most famous is probably this one, a Christmas Day menu from the restaurant Voisin. Among the offerings are stuffed donkey head, roasted camel, and my favorite, “cat flanked by rats”.
But this menu also shows the way certain mundane things were still easily available. For example, several wines, as well as coffee and liqueurs are listed.
The cheese on the menu, on the other hand, would have been a luxury. Apparently, cheese was one of the foods Parisians missed most.
Sometimes when you research history, you come across something that crosses the centuries and makes you feel so viscerally close to the past. One of these experiences for me came from a scene whose source I regret not noting down.
The author described seeing a woman and her little boy looking in a shop window. “The Siege will end soon,” the mother tells her son, “and then we can eat cheese again!”
This is exactly the kind of conversation I’d have with my son under those circumstances.
If you’d like to learn more about the Siege of Paris, feel free to visit the Resources and Images pages of my website, for links of all sorts. I’ve also linked to a free online copy of La Cuisinière Assiégée. If you don’t speak French, many of the short recipes use simple vocabulary, and so might be able to be accurately translated by apps like Google Translate.
Speaking of free stuff, you can enter to win a free Kindle copy of my novel Hearts at Dawn, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set during the Siege of Paris, at Goodreads. The giveaway starts Monday, May 24 and ends June 14. Good luck!