The longer one lives in Paris, the more one realizes how little you really know about the city and its rich history.
Take the case of Castor & Pollux. These were two famous elephants who lived at the Jardin d’Acclimatation over in the 16th arrondissement. Today it sits next to the Fondation Louis Vuitton. But at that time, in 1870, it was home to many an exotic animal.
For this episode 64 of Local GOODfood+wine, the wrap up to our Season 7, we’re delving into a page of culinary history, namely Parisian culinary history. This podcast will be brief and somewhat gruesome. Listeners beware…
The time is 1870, winter. That was the Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army had surrounded the city and was starving its citizens into surrender and submission.
Now, right about here, I’d like to offer listeners a fair warning that anyone who is an animal lover, animal rights activist or vegetarian is likely going to find this story rather upsetting…
OK, so that said, let’s continue with the fate of our two elephants, Castor & Pollux rumored to have been brothers, and so named after the Greek twin sons of Zeus. This is the story of their fate at the hands of the Parisians of 1870.
I must say, too, that I find it rather strange that in all my culinary research on France, French cuisine and the history of Paris, I had never come across nor heard about this story. And it’s not just some farfetched, anecdotal story, it is historically accurate, with many contemporaneous accounts of the sad fate of these two elephants in the winter of 1870. In other words, the truth of the story is undisputed.
The only element of the story which is somewhat disputed is whether the elephants lived in the Jardin d’Acclimatation or the Jardin des Plantes. I am going with the Jardin d’Acclimatation, because it’s the facts that the city of Paris acknowledges as accurate and it can also be verified on this site, which you will find hotlinked in our show notes.
Le mieux est de donner la parole au reporter du Rappel, le 23 mars 1871:
Les éléphants, les hippopotames, les rhinocéros, les bisons, les buffles, les zébus, les yacks, etc., qu’on avait dits passés de l’état d’herbivores à l’état de rosbeefs, se portent généralement fort bien. Ils ont bien un peu souffert de la mauvaise qualité de la nourriture et de la rigueur de l’hiver; mais au total trois ou quatre au plus sont morts de maladie. Les éléphants, buffles, etc., tués et mangés provenaient du jardin d’acclimatation.
It’s also what is cited in the photo you can see here in our podcast show notes taken recently on the Place de Bastille which shows a butcher, Henry Champy, ready to butcher a rat. The story next to this photo recounts that it was this man who, after the Siege of Paris, worked to get the butcher shops regulated again after they ran amok butchering more or less any moving, breathing animal during and after the Siege of Paris. Rats, cats, dogs and kangaroos included. But, I digress. This episode is about Castor & Pollux, the two elephants from the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
Now, shall we start with…
A Brief History of the Siege of Paris
On September 19, 1870 the Prussian Army encircled Paris. The Parisians were able to hold out until the 28 of January 1871. That was after Otto von Bismarck had ordered 3 days of shelling the city, having lost patience with his upper command’s tactic of a mere siege and waiting for surrender. During those months in between, as food became scarce and winter set in, Parisians turned to the animals they kept at their zoos as a source of food, two of which were the beloved elephants, Castor & Pollux.
According to newspaper accounts from those days, Castor was the first to be executed. It was on the 29 of December, 1870. The bullet was 15 cm long and he was shot at a 10 m. range. Pollux suffered the same fate the next day, the 30th of December.
exemple le menu d’un restaurant parisien pour le 25 décembre 1870, qui propose entre autres : âne, éléphant, chameau, kangourou, ours, loup et antilope, ainsi qu’un très appétissant « Chat flanqué de Rats »…
A butcher by the name of Deboss (also spelled Deboos) from the Blvd. Haussmann’s ‘Boucherie Anglaise’ (English Butcher Shop), is who bought the elephant carcasses. Their trunks, considered a delicacy, fetched the price of 40 francs a pound. The rest of the elephant flesh went for 14 francs a lb. As comparison, a dead rat in those days could be bought for 60 centimes, and a live one for 1 franc.
The very fashionable Café Voisin on the rue St. Honoré in those days, served up the butchered elephant meat to its free spending, upper class clientele. The stewed meat was served in a Madeira sauce or ‘en boudin’ meaning prepared in its own blood. The taste became infamous. And subsequently, many complained that elephant meat really wasn’t very tasty meat and that it was quite oily. But that Christmas season, it was featured on several of the chicer café and more expensive holiday meal menus.
Castor & Pollux weren’t the only ‘menagerie’ animals to be executed. The following animals also suffered this same fate, and were served up as Christmas Dinner delicacies that cold and severe winter of 1870 during the Siege of Paris: donkey, bear, wolf, antelope, camel, kangaroo, deers, yaks and zebra and the particularly appetizing ‘Cat stuffed with Rats.’
The only zoo animals to escape the butcher’s knife was the hippopotamus, who, at 80,000 francs on its head, had a price beyond the reach of the butcher’s executioner; the lions and tigers, deemed too dangerous; and the monkeys, seen as too closely resembling humans.
Sadly, no, I am not making this up. It’s all there in the history books. It’s even written and illustrated in plain black and white on the official Paris website, Paris.fr.
And now, too, just in time for Bastille Day 2021, this life sized metal monument, shown in the photos here, has been attached to the iron gating that guards the Bastille square from the metro tracks below. It pays homage to the man, M. Champy, who tried to enforce some kind of regulatory requirements on the Parisian butcher shops after the free-for-all laid down by the Siege of Paris in the winter of 1870.
Interestingly, you can still find the rare butcher shop in Paris where they sell horse meat. It is strictly regulated and there is a depiction of a horse’s head over the shop to indicate that they are licensed to sell horsemeat. However, aside from a sudden boom in 2013 sparked by the rogue horsemeat found in frozen lasagna scandal, the practice of purchasing and consuming horse meat has been in severe decline following WWII.
Snails, called escargots in French, on the other hand, are not in decline. Frog’s legs can still be found on some menus in France, mostly in the countryside, too, but that is also declining in frequency. However, it is not for us to judge, is it? Perhaps one of these days in the near future we will all be ordering up fried grasshoppers and beatles to go with our ice cold beers and think nothing of it.
In any case, dear listeners, I hope this hasn’t been too upsetting a podcast. Though upon reflection, I don’t know what is more inhumane, killing elephants just for their tusks and leaving their carcasses to rot in the hot desert or jungle sun? Or killing animals to survive a tough winter while your city has been put under siege by an invading army?
In any case, I suppose this isn’t a fate that any human or animal would suffer if we all ate a plant-based diet.
Speaking of which, I highly recommend the film, The Last Pig. It is a documentary film about a pig farmer who turns to vegetable farming after he can no longer emotionally endure the pain of selling his precious, intelligent, affectionate pigs to the slaughterhouse. You will find a link to that film in our show notes at LocalFood.wine under episode 64 of Local GOODfood+wine podcast.
Have a great rest of the summer everybody! See you back here at Local GOODfood+wine, the podcast, in September.
Music: ‘Fairly Odd Perspective’ by Lowther and Bryan, courtesy FreeSoundTrackMusic.com
Books: Blood In The City – by Richard D.E. Burton https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctv75d5nx
Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy
Consolidation in the agricultural industry is making it too hard for small family farms to survive. Farmers are squeezed between concentrated market power in the agricultural input industries — seed, fertilizer, feed, and equipment suppliers — and concentrated market power in the channels for selling agricultural products. As a result, farmers’ share of the value of their agricultural products has decreased, and poultry farmers, hog farmers, cattle ranchers, and other agricultural workers struggle to retain autonomy and to make sustainable returns.
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