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When They Ate the Zoo, Nobody Wanted to Touch the Hippo
Feb 11 2014
Food connoisseurs know the great Parisian chef Alexandre Étienne Choron for his Choron sauce. Roughly speaking, it’s a béarnaise without chervil or tarragon but flavored with tomato puree. It’s a culinary rarity suitable for grilled fish—if you fancy showing off as a stylish Francophile. But there was much more to Choron’s fame. His fabled Voisin restaurant on Rue Saint Honoré was where distinguished Parisians went to feel even more distinguished. The restaurant is part of the genetic ancestry of haute cuisine—one of the seven pillars of culinary wisdom. And then Choron is famous for his dishes with elephant meat.
He’s also famous for having cooked and served the animals in the Paris zoo.
During the Siege of Paris in 1870, the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, had crushed the French forces at Sedan, making mincemeat of Napoleon and his unmotivated troops. Wilhelm’s spiked-helmet-wearing troops besieged Paris. France and the useless Napoleon III had declared war on Prussia because of some alleged insults over the succession struggle in Spain, something that makes the invasion of Iraq appear sensible and logical in comparison. The French were getting a serious ass-whooping by the new Krupp cannons and soldiers instilled with the Prussian Military Academy's grisly, blind obedience. The new Europe belonged to Germany; France’s power was forever broken.
Wilhelm and the cynical Bismarck surrounded Paris. The remains of France were going to be starved into submission, and by September 1870 there was a severe shortage of food in the city. In the months that followed, Parisians ate their 70,000 horses, their dogs, their cats, and even the city's rats, which became a common protein on the bistros’ prix-fixe menus. In the days leading up to Christmas, the zoo announced that it could no longer feed the animals. They would have to be put down.
No one could bring themselves to eat the monkeys (too human for most taste buds) or the lions and tigers. The hippo was apparently too disgusting—hippos aren’t very appetizing, as they swim around in their own filth. But chef Choron took care of the rest. He needed the raw ingredients for his version of the Last Supper.
Even amid the bombardments, famine, and extreme state of emergency, Parisians demanded exquisite gastronomy. It was a civilized city's only approach to taunting black cannon steel and Bismarck. For the big Christmas dinner on December 25, 1870, Choron surpassed himself. He orchestrated one of history's most famous menus, which makes even today's avant-garde chefs look wimpy in their efforts to champion muskox, buffalo, or insects. Choron had acquired most of what was deemed edible from the Paris zoo, including the only elephants, Castor and Pollux. The two had been named after the twin sons of Zeus, who allegedly helped the infant Roman city-state defeat their Etruscan rivals back in the day. The elephants suffered a fate that didn’t suit their heroic names.
The menu for which Choron gathered the elite of Paris was more of an ironic and bizarre commentary on war than it is was gastronomy. For starters, he served stuffed donkey’s head with sardines. One can only imagine the donkey head, with its hair pulled off by a red-hot iron, baked slowly, glazed like a boar's head with pins to hold up the ears, prunes for eyes, teeth inside congealed fat, all of it mounted on a bread plinth—a complete mockery of a classic banquet centerpiece. It would have been carved and served with polished silver by waiters in black ties and gloves as white as the snow.
Then it was time for the elephant consommé, a clarified heavy stock made from the largest land mammal—the mightiest of animals reduced to a hot soup. Over the following days, Chef Choron added to his reputation by serving the elephant's trunk with sauce chasseur (hunter’s sauce), and he even teased diners with a special version of beef bourguignon: elephant bourguignon.
Next on the Christmas menu was fried camel à l'Anglaise, kangaroo stew, and bear shanks in pepper sauce. It must have been rather amusing to serve the "wolf in deer sauce": a hunter prepared in the stock of his prey. It was as if the human prey inside Paris, fearing the cruelty of the steely Prussians, wanted to bring the ferocious predators at the city gates to the plate, if not the grave. But the oddest of pairings was the "cat flanked by rats." Picture an entire cat with rats arranged neatly around it. Then followed the crowning achievement of the evening: antelope in truffle sauce. Surely, Choron would have served it using the horns. He was after all an artist.
Outside Paris, Bismarck had a fierce battle with the German field marshall, Helmuth von Moltke, who—either for military or human reasons—refused to bomb the city into submission. Perhaps this was the last remnant of chivalry from a bygone era when one did not blindly unleash weapons of mass devastation on civilians and children. In the end, Bismarck got his way. Kaiser Wilhelm was spineless and impressionable. Bismarck was the new world: industry, the nation state, mock democracy, efficiency, and mass murder. Seventy-two Krupp cannons were unleashed over the city of Paris in the early days of January. It was bombed to the point of surrender in a blaze of shrapnel, which destroyed more of the city than any other war has subsequently achieved.
The Parisians knew what was coming. During Christmas in 1870, they raided their wine cellars for the most precious bottles. Choron’s wine pairing for his famous meal was inimitable. Mouton Rothschild 1846, Romanée-Conti 1858, and Château Palmer 1864 were all part of the selection—the greatest wines from the greatest vintages stored to their climax with the infinite patience of an impotent Swiss banker. It was a wine menu worth a fortune—the condensation of 2,000 years of European agricultural knowledge.
One imagines the Parisian bourgeoisie maintaining their rigid, sophisticated expressions at the zoo dinner while acknowledging the chef with a measured response. The solemn and subtle waiters would deftly navigate a sparkling salon illuminated by candelabras and polished silverware as the Germans surrounding the city loaded their railway howitzers.
Choron’s Christmas meal is grotesque. It’s a twisted, gothic parody of war and gastronomy that have turned each other into absurdities. During the shelling, starvation, and destruction of a country, how can you devote yourself to feasting?
When thinking about the cooked donkey, the bear, and the antelope, the question also remains: Why would you wage wars for no understandable reason or benefit when you can eat, drink, and party so magnificently?
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