Oh, to have lived in the Bastille


Any loss of liberty is, of course, devastating. But if you have to be in jail, it turns out the Bastille wasn’t such a bad place after all.

Before its 1789 liberation, which marked the height of the French Revolution, the Bastille was run as if the prisoners were guests of the king. In one sense, any prisoner is a guest of the state, but in pre-Revolution France they really meant it.

A typical meal at the famed prison might include “green pea soup, a joint of fowl, sliced roast beef, meat pie garnished with sweetbreads, cock’s combs [the part on top of a rooster’s head; it is considered a delicacy], asparagus, mushrooms and truffles, sheep’s tongue en ragôut, biscuits, fruits, a bottle of Burgundy, and Mocha coffee.”

That quote and the information comes from the fascinating 1968 book The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages. It’s a book I’ve had for years, but have never much looked at until now, and I’m glad I did. It is filled with extraordinary and wonderful tidbits such as this: In just three months — that’s 90 days — before the Bastille fell, one of its seven inmates managed to drink 12 bottles of brandy, 121 bottles of beer, and 167 bottles of wine.

Another prisoner collected silk shirts. His collection grew to 162, which he then wove together to form a rope and used to escape. Sadly, he was caught within a month.

Also from the book:

• On an ancient Greek kylix (a wide cup for drinking wine) there is a picture of a man recovering — slowly, it appears — from a night of excess. On the floor next to his bed is a large vessel for, um, the inevitable result of too much wine.

Why that particular image would be on a goblet for wine is beyond me. Actually, why any artist, even an ancient Greek artist, would bother to create such an image is beyond me. It does not look as if it is meant to be cautionary in any way, it just looks like the artist is depicting a normal and perhaps even necessary part of life.

• “Rice was as basic to the Oriental diet as bread was to the European meal,” the book says, “but its cultivation was a far more demanding task.” We will overlook the Eurocentric attitude of 45 years ago to examine this fact: The cultivation of rice really was a far more demanding task.

The book shows a series of 12 illustrations engraved by an Englishman in the 18th century showing just how demanding it was. The rice farmers first cultivate the paddy with an ox and a plow, sow the seeds during flood times, prepare to transplant the seedlings, plant the seedlings, reap the harvest, bring in the sheaves (without apparent rejoicing), thresh the stalks, break the husks, sift, winnow, and grind the rice before finally offering thanks.

• The 14th century epic, The Decameron, includes the story of a man who was rejected by the woman he wishes to marry. As illustrated in a gorgeous painting by Botticelli, the young man holds a feast for the woman and her family to press his case. The book sums up the story by saying, “after a fine meal and a scarifying lesson about the eternal damnation of cruel women, she willingly capitulates.”

• Pope Alexander VII gave a banquet to honor Queen Christina of Sweden in 1655. That meal was only the third time in history that a pope had dined with a woman. Although she was a queen, and the meal was to honor her, she was seated at a table considerably lower than his and off to the side.

• Europeans began craving spices from Asia in the fifteenth century, before their medical knowledge caught up to their ambitions. On the sea voyages from Portugal to India to bring back spices, one out of every five sailors died from scurvy. Eventually, the Portuguese (among others) realized that citrus fruits kept people from getting the disease. So they grew oranges and limes on the tiny island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Ships would stop there, load up on citrus fruit, and sail away.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.