Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

What the Bohemians Ate

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illustration from Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme

 The Bohemians ate well when they had money and poorly when they did not; they ate in jocular company at cafes and in the "comfort" of their own attic lodgings. Their menu varied from extravagant delicacies to prosaic staples, but every meal featured good conversation with friends.

The most famous café frequented by Bohemians was the Café Momus from Scenes de la Vie de Boheme; it was later mentioned in the opera La Boheme as well. It was a real café where Murger and his comrades spent much of their time. Alexandre Schanne, the model for the novel's Schaunard, wrote that "at closing time this refreshment housekeeper and courtier of the Muses would stand beside the counter smiling or not at the customer, according to whether the latter was a wielder of the pen or the brush" (Murger xviii). The four main characters of the novel frequent the Momus until they are no longer permitted on the premises on account of their overdue bills. Inside, they took over a room of the café "where forty people might have been accomodated, but they were usually there alone, inasmuch as they had rendered the place uninhabitable by its ordinary frequenters" (123).

Eventually, Murger writes, the café's owner appears to present the four Bohemians with a list of grievances. Though also very humorous, these also present a view of what café-goers expected from a restaurant:

  • Rodolphe takes all the newspapers to his own room so that other café-goers are "in utter ignorance of political affairs" (124)
  • Rodolphe and Colline play backgammon "from ten in the morning till midnight" (124), using the only board in the café, so that no one else can have an opportunity to play.
  • Marcel brings his easel and paints to the café, "forgetting that [it] is a public place" (124). Sometimes he even brings nude models of both genders!
  • Schaunard advertises music lessons by inserting "in the lantern which serves the establishment for a sign a transparency with this inscription: 'course of music, vocal and instrumental … apply at the counter'" (125).
  • The Bohemians bring their own wine and coffee to the café and so they never purchase anything.
  • One waiter was so "corrupted by the discourse of these gentlemen" (125) that he sent love poetry to the wife of the owner!

The main beverage drunk at cafes was coffee; very few alcoholic beverages, excepting punch and mulled wine, were ever consumed. Smoking, on the other hand, was prevalent; "the pipe, now replaced by the cigarette, was in high esteeem; the students even made it an accessory to their costume, and when it was not in their mouths, they wore it in their buttonhole" (Murger xx).

Knowing the various cafes took time, but was a valued skill. In Les Miserables, Hugo writes of one member of the Societe de l'ABC: "He was one of the students who had learned the most during their course at Paris; he knew that the best coffee was to be had at the Cafe Lemblin, and the best billiards at the Cafe Voltaire, that good cakes and lasses were to be found at the Ermitage, on the Boulevard du Maine, spatchcocked chickens at Mother Sauget's, excellent matelotes at the Barriere de la Cunette, and a certain thin white wine at the Barriere du Compat" (570).

One of Thackeray's characters, Philip Firmin, ate at a restaurant called Flicoteau's:

"There, for an expenditure of seventeen sous, Philip sat down to the enjoyment of the soup, the beef, the rôti, the salad, the dessert, and the whitey-brown bread at discretion. He would have been poor in the Rue de la Paix; he was wealthy in the Luxembourg quarter."

   Day-to-day bohemian meals depended on the current financial state of the diners. When Rodolfe in Scenes de la Vie de Boheme was feeling especially generous, he treated his friends to lobster. ("Under the pretext that he had studied natural history, Schaunard suggested that he should carve it" [157].) This gathering also included many sorts of wine, such as "three bottles with red seals … three bottles with green seals … one which by its neck topped with a silver helmet, [which] was recognized as belonging to the Royal Champagne Regiment - a fantastic champagne vintaged at Saint Ouen and sold in Paris at two francs a bottle …" (157). On another evening, however, the Bohemians are left with only thirty sous with which to feed themselves dinner; they eat "three dishes most symmetrically arranged - a dish of herring, a dish of potatoes, and a dish of cheese" (271).

 Illustration by George du Maurier, from Trilby


When she was spending most of her time with Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird, Trilby did their cooking, as shown in the illustration above. "She would fetch their food and cook it, and lay the cloth, and even make the salad" (du Maurier, 60). Her traditionally feminine actions won the hearts of the trio, who appreciated her for her domestic talents nearly so much as for her cheerful conversation.