Food & the Siege of Paris

The story of Parisians being reduced to eating rats, cats, dogs, and even zoo animals, during the 1870-71 siege, has stuck with me ever since high school history. No anecdote could better represent the city’s suffering than the tale of its epicurean populace being reduced to eating from the gutter. At the same time, the story demonstrates the brave resistance of the Parisians, who did not just eat their pets and pests, but crafted an elegant cuisine from this bad meat. Restaurants served civet de chat aux champignons and gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. A butcher at the St. Germain market put up a large sign announcing his Grande Boucherie Canine et Féline under the words Résistance à Outrance. Without macarons, or even a humble poulet, the people of the city ate with panache.

Long fascinated by this story, I was eager to read the manuscript letter-book of Frank Moore, Secretary to the American Legation in Paris from 1869-1872, while I was visiting the New York Historical Society yesterday. Even before the siege began, Moore viewed the impending disaster in gastronomic terms.

“Paris is at present not only the dust pan of the world but the fry-pan and stew-pan aussi,” Moore wrote to an American in Paris in July 1870, encouraging her to flee the city. Most Americans followed his advice, flocking to Le Havre to board steamers back home. Even Moore’s wife left to seek refuge in the neutral nation of Switzerland. But Moore wrote frequent letters to her, with updates from the kitchen, giving her news of their cook, and sharing his excitement when, in August, he received a delivery of crackers, cheese, and English ham. He still had a good supply of Armagnac on hand, he assured his wife. He would be able to celebrate the victories he hoped would be forthcoming in high style.

In September 1870, the gates of Paris shut, and the siege commenced. The last letter in Frank Moore’s letter book was dated to that morning. He wrote to his uncle describing how the country people who had flocked into the city and were camping on the avenue outside his apartment were “boiling their pots preparing to the early breakfast, and the blue smoke rose as peacefully from the little fires and passed up ward to heaven as quietly as though it did not fear meeting the terrible remains of war and devastation that now fill the air.”

Soon, the winds of war would be inescapable for the residents of Paris. How did Frank Moore deal with the reduction of his little stock of crackers, cheese, ham, and armagnac? I’ll have to track down his letters describing the siege year to find out.


Frank Moore Letter Books, 1869-1875, New York Historical Society

Albert Dresden Vandam, An Englishman in Paris (1893)

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

3 thoughts

  1. I am a member of a Book Club, and have given a series of oral presentations to the members about various aspects of Parisian history. These presentations have been illustrated with PowerPoint slides, many of them drawn from the internet. The club now wishes to publish a book based on these presentations entitled Paris; Six Historical Vignettes. I would like very much to include in the book the illustrations that I used when I presented the material orally. The book will be distributed to the Club members, who will be obliged to pay for it.
    Here is the link to the figure I would like to use:
    I would like your permission to use this figure. If you agree, what should be the wording of the acknowledgement?

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