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
- 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"
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" .) 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).
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