The food obsession of today’s Instagrammers is nothing compared to that of 19th-century Parisians, whose gluttony knew no bounds.
Just one example? The 12-person “Club des grands estomacs,” which convened every Saturday to consume a meal beginning at 6 PM with soup, turbot with caper sauce, beef tenderloin, braised lamb, hen, veal tongue, sorbet, roast chicken, creams, pies, and pastries (accompanied by six bottles of old Burgundy per person), only to have another round at midnight with tea, turtle soup, chicken, salmon with spring onions, venison chops with chile pepper, sole with truffle coulis, artichokes with Java pepper, rum sorbet, grouse with Scotch, and rum pudding (accompanied by three bottles each of Burgundy and Bordeaux per person). The club would finish up at 6 AM with an “extremely peppered onion soup” served with savory pastries, four bottles of Champagne per person, and coffee and digestives.
Some would point to the French Revolution, just a few decades before, as the impetus for this rapaciousness. After all, even those whose knowledge of the Revolution is minimal can cite Queen Marie-Antoinette’s derogatory, “Let them eat cake!” upon hearing that the people in Paris were starving. But the truth is a bit more complicated.
While famine did strike Paris in 1788, motivating the Revolutionaries to take to the streets, the Queen probably never uttered this famous phrase so frequently attributed to her. After all, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” had already been attributed to “a great princess” in 1767 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when Marie-Antoinette was only 12. And even more importantly, Paris had been an epicenter of food—and over-the-top meals—long before the French Revolution.
“Large meals, large menus, exist also in the 18th century, in the 17th century,” explains Patrick Rambourg, a historian specialized in cuisine and gastronomy. “It’s not new.”
The 19th century did, however, usher in this particular breed of gluttony due to three major changes to the world of gastronomy concurrent—though not necessarily causally linked—to the post-Revolutionary period.
For centuries, the French had eaten according to the traditions of service à la française, or French-style service, where savories and sweets coexisted on the same table in massive quantities and with enormous variety (think Henry VIII of England). But at the turn of the century, Russian service, or service à la russe, arrived in Paris. This newer style, which remains common in France today, calls for serving dishes in a succession, rather than all at once.
Changing to service à la russe certainly had its benefits: With French-style service, despite menus that were often 30 or 40 dishes long, diners often only got to eat whatever dish had been placed in front of them. In addition, according to Marie-Claire Banquart’s Fin de Siècle Gourmande, eating à la française often meant that diners were eating most of their meal cold.
But there was one major problem with the transition to successive courses, at least as far as some French chefs were concerned.
“French cooks felt that if they abandoned French service and moved towards Russian service, they would abandon the artistic side of cuisine,” explains Rambourg.
In the 18th century, he explains, the artistry of the meal stemmed from a combination of both the presentation of the dishes themselves and their arrangement on the table. And in the 19th century, linking artistry and cuisine was still en vogue: Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the most prominent cooks and pastry chefs of the time, is attributed with calling confectionery “the main branch” of architecture, grouping it with painting, sculpture, poetry, and music as a major element of the fine arts. Carême even invented one of the most excessive creations of the time: the tower of cream puffs held together with spun sugar that John Oliver called a "French freedom tower" and French people dub the croquembouche.
Many 19th-century chefs feared that the artistry of French cuisine would be impeded by this new style of service, which left diners facing a rather empty table instead of one replete with huge roasts, flowers, and countless porcelain dishes. This reticence, according to Rambourg, led to a several-decade period in the early 19th century when “mixed service” was popular. “In order to have both French service and Russian service,” he explains, “Dishes would be placed on the table, as decoration, and hot dishes would be served à la russe.”
This, as one can imagine, led to some truly enormous menus—but, Rambourg stresses, not necessarily all-or-nothing meals, at least not as far as the individual diner was concerned.
“You have to be very careful when you read a menu from this period,” explains Rambourg. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you ate everything.”
Some, however, rose to the challenge of a buckling 19th century table: the bourgeoisie.
While our image of the French Revolution today is of a starving people fighting against the nobility, some theorists claim that well-off merchants and city-dwellers had more than a small role in overthrowing the privileges of the ruling class. Once the advantages of being born into the aristocracy were no longer synonymous with luxury, money became the key to success, and in the early 19th century, rich members of the bourgeoisie wanted to show off—something they did by eating. A lot.
It was at Chez Véry that Balzac, accompanied by his editor Edmond Werdet, enjoyed a meal comprised of 100 oysters, an entire Norman sole, duck with turnips, and a pair of roasted partridges (none of which Werdet ate, as he was suffering from stomach flu at the time).
“When you had the financial means, abundance was the way that you show your social status, show your wealth,” explains Rambourg. “The better you are at entertaining, in the 19th century, the more of a gastronome you are perceived to be, and the more you are perceived as a person who has had success in society.” And this doesn’t just mean that you feed others well, but also that you feed yourself—with profusion.
“The very image of the hearty eater in the 19th century, the image of the bourgeois, of the successful person, is someone who has a belly,” explains Rambourg. “When you look at the iconography of the period, caricatures and whatnot, you often see bourgeois who have had success in society and who have a belly. So that implies that having access to food, to good French cuisine, means you’ve been successful.”
Take, for example, novelist Honoré de Balzac. The author, known for drinking up to 100 cups of coffee every day, was one of the first to feature exorbitant meals in his writing: Over 40 restaurants appear in the pages of his 91 works, including Chez Véry, a restaurant, known for its exorbitant menu that included nine soups, nine pâtés, 25 different hors d’oeuvres, 15 roasts, and no fewer than 28 different types of fish. It was at Chez Véry that Balzac, accompanied by his editor Edmond Werdet, enjoyed a meal comprised of 100 oysters, an entire Norman sole, duck with turnips, and a pair of roasted partridges (none of which Werdet ate, as he was suffering from stomach flu at the time).
The prevalence of places like Chez Véry is the final piece of the puzzle: After all, the restaurant, at the time, was a relatively new invention.
Urban legends would have us believe that the first restaurant was opened post-Revolution by the former chef of an aristocrat. Following the quick escape of this patron to England (lest he lose his head to the guillotine), legend tells us that this entrepreneurial cook opened the very first restaurant in central Paris, inventing the name because he peddled predominantly “restorative” soups (aka the first bone broths).
The reality, however, is that the first restaurant predated the Revolution by quite a few years—but the post-Revolutionary period led to an explosion in their popularity. According to Cuisine à la Française, the 100 restaurants that existed under the French Revolution grew to 600 in the early 19th century and to 3,000 in the mid-19th century. Chefs including Carême put the richest, rarest products on the table—foie gras, truffles, asparagus, langoustine—and dining out (copiously) came into vogue.
“Paris, beginning at the end of the 18th century, becomes covered in restaurants," says Rambourg, "and Paris is transformed into the capital par excellence of Parisian gastronomy, of French gastronomy."