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Food In France  

Richard Tabler

    When one hears the words French and food together, one generally thinks of gourmet meals at five-star restaurants with champagne, elegant surroundings and rich food.  One would rarely think of old moldy bread, bags of meat scraps, and soup made of sheeps heads.  To most these foods would seem disgusting and inedible.  Yet these are the same foods many of the working people in France ate in the nineteenth century.  For the majority of the people at this time it was a struggle to get by.  They were forced to live on credit, and therefore were rarely able to climb out of debt. They would even have to buy their food on credit from the bakers and the butchers from time to time, and settle their accounts when they were paid at the end of the week.

    The food for most French people at this time was meager.  They usually lived on a diet of bread and some vegetables.  Meat was a luxury item and fairly expensive. People were rarely able to buy enough quality meat to feed their whole families.  Instead they were reduced to buying bags of meat scraps at the butchers.  These scraps would then be used to make a broth to drink or dip your bread into.  "He bought five sous worth of scraps.  That is what they call the little bits of meat that remain stuck to the meat-hanging hooks and that generally smell bad" (Traugott, 253).  Sometimes heads of animals were used to make broth; and often these heads contained maggots.  Wine was usually drunk only with dinner, because it was too expensive to drink with all meals.

      Food was fairly hard to keep fresh in France at this time.  Due to a lack in refrigeration the only way to keep meats from spoiling was to pickle or salt them.  This led to an inordinate amount of spoiled meat being sold.  The butchers needed to recoup their money so they would often sell spoiled meat at a cheaper price.  This spoiled meat could lead to disease and sickness and sometimes death.  Yet most people, if they wanted meat at all, would have to buy spoiled meat.  Lack of refrigeration also led to people buying their meals daily, especially in the city.  They could not just go to the grocery and stock up, because their food would spoil.  They would buy what they were going to eat that day in the morning.

      Life in country could also be difficult.  Just because these people grew their food did not necessarily mean they always had food.  Sometimes they would have a bad harvest and have to buy wheat for bread.  "On top of that, the harvest had been bad, we did not have enough wheat to last until the following summer..." (Traugott, 213).  When this happened farmers were often forced to put themselves deeper into debt just to survive.  The farmers did not always have meat either.  They were not able to afford enough livestock to slaughter for meat.  They had to have their livestock for things like wool, milk, and cheese.

    Life for the middle class was not nearly as difficult  These people were often able to afford decent food at reasonable prices.  They were able to afford meat and wine with all their meals.  The middle class usually had fresh bread, vegtables, and cheeses to eat as well.  They were not reduced to buying scraps of meat.  They could afford to eat a good quality meal most of the time.  "They liked to set a fancy table, and eat like very rich people. They always served the choicest tidbits at their table and all the money they earned was spent on feasts...." (Traugott, 367)  

    Food in France during the 19th century was not as wonderful as people's modern
conceptions of French food would suggest.  It was often just enough to get by.  People could easily fall ill due to contaminated food.  Very little went to waste either, it was just simply to hard to provide for ones family if food was wasted.  Some people were reduced to going door to door begging for food. "I told him that I was a traveler and that, driven by hunger, I had come to ask him for hospitality" (Traugott, 267).  So in conclusion, life was by no means easy for the French working-class in the 19th century.  Feeding oneself could often times be quite difficult.

 

 

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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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