“Whoever did not live in the years before 1789 can never know how sweet life could be!” exclaimed Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord. Up to then, a primary source of happiness in France, certainly for some, was the daily ritual of eating well. In the years following, Eugène Briffault tells us in his 1846 work, Paris à table (“Paris at the Table”), the Revolution’s leaders were remembered “as being sober and showing little concern for the pleasures of the table.” Those who showed, whether by birth or inclination, insufficient civic enthusiasm paid a heavy price. But even when awaiting execution for incivisme, many of Talleyrand’s noble colleagues clung to the last vestiges of that sweet life, ordering salmis de bécasse and bottles of Volnay into their cells. One condemned, the Duc de Lauzun, showed wonderful panache when he invited his executioner, “Take some wine, you’ll need it for the job you have to do.”
Talleyrand was lucky enough to have escaped France during the worst of the Revolution. Many fleeing aristocrats left large household staffs behind, including their cooks and pastry chefs. The more talented of these joined the new restaurant profession, but, given their previous associations, this could be risky. Georges Couthon, a member of the fearsome Committee for Public Safety, pronounced it necessary to inspect the prices of certain restaurants as “those who prepare [expensive] meals and those who eat them are equally suspect.” Revolutionary ardor conquered even those things quintessentially French: Couthon’s and Robespierre’s colleague, George Danton, was guillotined following charges of “bathing in Burgundy and eating game from silver plates.”
After the Revolution burned itself out, France returned to its culinary foundations and built on them so successfully that Paris quickly became the gastronomic capital of Europe. This time, however, eating well was not reserved solely for the upper classes. Fueled by the wealth flowing into France during the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, hundreds of restaurants sprung up in Paris. Le Rocher de Cancale, the Café Anglais with its exotic cabinets particuliers, Cadran Bleu with its even more “mysterious fourth floor boudoirs,” and Véry in the Palais Royale became archetypes for the great restaurant. Chefs like Carême (who claimed that pastry-making was the most important branch of architecture) and, later, Escoffier trained generations of inspired cooks. Grimod de la Renière practically invented the art of restaurant criticism, while writers like Balzac, Brillat-Savarin, and Eugène Briffault himself, perhaps inspired by the tragic poise of people like the doomed Duc de Lauzun, showed the world through their writing how the simple act of eating can reveal humanity at its best and worst.
Little by little, Briffault tells us, the taste for good food and the embellishment of service won over all of society’s classes.
Although Napoleon himself was a simple eater, Briffault tells us, he understood the importance of the table as a negotiating platform and allowed it to be lavishly funded by the Trésor. And nobody was better funded than Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Talleyrand. A remarkable feature of Talleyrand’s diplomatic dinners, says Briffault, was “the art with which these discussions abstained from any openness or spontaneity . . . this was a fencing match where swords crossed with remarkable dexterity.” The benefits for France of Talleyrand’s dinner diplomacy were obvious. After Napoleon was exiled, Talleyrand remained France’s chief negotiator at the Congress of Vienna and, against all odds, successfully negotiated against the Russians and Prussians France’s retaining its 1792 borders.
Little by little, Briffault tells us, the taste for good food and the embellishment of service won over all of society’s classes. “High-ranking officials stood at the head of a trend that the bourgeoisie followed with intelligence, and dinner’s fine times were brought back to life.” The aristocracy slowly returning to France after years in exile may have been surprised by the new manners and customs, but they found that, despite the ravages of the years, France was still the country of civility and elegance. Dining had become the means to make connections and heal old wounds. Not all of those old customs were forgotten, however, as servants still bowed to Louis XVI’s napkin holder in the Tuileries as they passed.
Briffault relates some of the principal features of a good table: made of rosewood or mahogany, positioned in a high, spacious, well-ventilated, two-doored (one for the guests, the other for the servants) room preferably with marble or stucco walls and a marble floor over which is placed (in winter) a soft rug or (in summer) a Chinese mat, covered with a very white tablecloth preferably laid over a woolen mat (or a deerskin if in Germany). No need for perfumed air in the room nor wine carafes on the table as they “remove some of the venerable old age” of the bottles. The “musts” include proper lighting (“candles are the table’s sunlight”), hot plates and iced water, a salt-and-pepper cellar for each guest, as well as four wine glasses. In other words, nothing too lavish, and, in a nice dig, certainly nothing as vulgar as the English penchant for decor “stripped from the land of gold and precious gems”—India.
But accoutrements by themselves are not enough; dinner has to avoid the “exorbitant luxury and extravagant cosmopolitanism” of the age. Style is all. The most effortlessly graceful tables were those of the ancient families. Entertainment in the homes of the “higher ranks of trade and banking,” Briffault confides, had taste and discernment, but “all the conditions of good sense, elegance, and urbanity” were not entirely fulfilled. One can dine well enough at notaries’, barristers’, and doctors’ houses, but one dines best of all at the table of the man of leisure who rises at noon and who “spends the better part of life in an exchange of genteel gourmandizing.”
During his career, Briffault wrote about anything and everything—the opera, Paris streets, the Seine, dominoes, the Duc d’Orléans, and the corruption of the Church for starters. Even in French, Paris à table has the sense of being assembled from bits rather than being written cohesively. Nevertheless, it has abundant charm: its history of dining, its anecdotes of famous personalities from the perspective of their eating habits, the delightful original illustrations by Bertail, and certainly J. Weintraub’s scholarly and amusing footnotes. Easily the best of these relates to the notorious Duchesse de Dino (pronounced dee-noh, a homophone for dit non), who, despite being Talleyrand’s lover, was not averse to making the rounds: “Parisians remarked on the inappropriateness of her new title. The new Duchess of Dino was not accustomed to saying no.”
By the time Paris à table was published, Carême, Grimod de la Renière, and the founding Parisian restaurateurs were all dead, and their extraordinary contributions had evolved into an enriching national business and cultural pride. On the way, perhaps, something was lost—the spontaneity and inventiveness that had made French gastronomy during the Restauration so exciting. Briffault lived through all those years, and his book has a certain odor du temps jadis. Still, what remains in France like nowhere else is that conviviality that the Duc de Lauzun showed at his darkest hour—the spirit of carpe diem in full bloom.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 73
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