Issue 35 Dust Fall 2009
Ingestion / Pulling a Rabbit out of a Cat
Rebecca L. Spang
“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.
In late May 1838, the Paris press was rife with alarming headlines. “Horrible massacre of the Innocents! Blood, blood, and still more blood!” screamed the often rather stodgy Constitutionnel, while the Gazette des tribunaux (which reported legal cases) whispered of the mounting terror occasioned by a series of dastardly killings.1 As these and many other graphic accounts made clear, Paris was once again awash in blood—cat blood, that was, for brave police commissioner Vassal had apprehended a gang of cat butchers who made their living selling cat pelts to furriers and feline filets to the gargotiers who operated the city’s cheapest restaurants.
This tale—replete with severed heads, melting fat, and fur-strewn floors—was reprinted by at least eight of the major Paris-based dailies, with the notable exceptions of the Moniteur universel and the Journal des débats (the government’s official and quasi-official organs). Why such widespread coverage?
As a historian of restaurants, I was initially inclined to see public fascination with the arrest and trial of Brutus Bezoni’s gang as fueled by the strict separation of dining room from kitchen found in most restaurants—a yawning divide traversed only by the waiter. Never meeting, or even glimpsing, the cook, and seeing his or her dinner only in its fully sauced and prepared state, how was the ordinary restaurant customer to discern all of the plat du jour’s ingredients?
Gibelotte de lapin, like other stews, posed a particular problem of interpretation: made from a rabbit cut into small, uniform pieces and simmered with bacon, mushrooms, eels, and onions in white wine and bouillon, the gibelotte appeared on the customer’s plate coated in a flavor-masking sauce.2 Though the dish’s name referred to its primary ingredient (gibier means “game,” and lapin, “rabbit”), the sauce was its exemplary feature. Unable to penetrate the “fiery hell” of the restaurant kitchen, how was the eater to know what mysterious rituals had been performed in the preparation of his or her dinner, which animals sacrificed to what unknown gods? While printed menus bearing the words gibelotte de lapin seemed to offer the diner some assurance, guides to Parisian life insisted that in all but the most expensive restaurants, menus more closely resembled works of escapist fiction than accurate renderings of the kitchen’s contents. Fish on the menu, but none in the kitchen; rabbits on the menu and cats in the stewpot—such were the hazards to which restaurant dining exposed the unwary eater.3
Doubts about restaurateurs’ honesty were widespread. Yet something made this one case of fraud a particularly compelling news item in the spring of 1838. If the cat had long been condemned to a rather liminal position in European society,4 the substitution of cats for rabbits during the reign of Louis Philippe (1830–1848) was a far from marginal subject. Across a host of genres, from Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “Peines du coeur d’une chatte anglaise” (“An English Cat’s Broken Heart,” in which a rakish French tomcat tells a horrified rooftop audience of the suffering inflicted on his friends and relations by unscrupulous restaurateurs) to fashion writing and boulevard dramas, swapping cats for rabbits came near to being a cliché during this period. Gibelotte de lapin was, according to many authors, a slightly special dish, but it nonetheless formed the staple diet of littérateurs.
The 1838 scandal was hardly the first time that the rumor of cat stew drifted across Paris. Nor was it the last: cat eating would become an emblematic activity of the Prussian siege of 1870–1871, and of the privations endured during the World Wars. In 1872, Pierre Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle offered as its sample usage of the word gibelotte the truism: “cats lost in Paris are unfailingly consumed in the form of gibelotte,” while Joseph Favre’s Dictionnaire universel de cuisine pratique (1883) commented that the rabbit’s cleverest trick had been to convince the cat to replace him in the stew pan.5 But none of this can account for the many columns of print devoted to the felicides of 1838.
In the oft-told tales in which rabbit stew was really cat stew, there existed at least a starkly simple correspondence. The restaurant patron was instructed that lapin, in the context of the menu, always meant chat—the signifier might seem a bit arbitrary, but it was stable. In the echelon of rabbit qualities established by the emerging nineteenth-century discourses of “taste,” however, this potentially reassuring certainty was lost. Within the gastronomic hierarchy, lapin actually referred to a whole spectrum of animals with fuzzy tails and floppy ears. Without even getting into the technical terms for newborns, young ones, and adolescents, nineteenth-century rabbits were ranked on a scale of flavor and cost from semi-wild warren rabbits (whose flesh was said to nearly resemble that of hares) to hutch rabbits to those raised in the city in empty barrels, never seeing sun or sky. In this continuum, in this class system ranging from independent country-living aristocrats to an oppressed, tenement-dwelling proletariat, the cat could be seen simply as the very last rung on the rabbit ladder. In the market and in the kitchen, “identity” resulted not from some one-to-one relationship, but from the work of differentiation.6
The rabbit hierarchy mimicked the social structure of rabbit eaters. So while an unsophisticated gourmand might contentedly eat a stew made of any sort of rabbit, balking only at cat, the finicky gourmet would rebel at the thought of anything but a semi-wild rabbit, fattened on herbs and aromatic grasses. The line demarcating edible from inedible varied from eater to eater and from context to context—what might seem, in a cheap eatery serving meals for two francs, a reasonably good cut of meat would be immediately rejected in the private dining rooms of an opulent restaurant (where the eater would be lucky to find a single menu item, much less an entire dinner, selling for two francs). “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are,” Brillat-Savarin had written in 1826, but how to apply that maxim if one did not know what one was eating?7
As Sandy Petrey has noted of another famous July Monarchy scandal—the caricature of King Louis Philippe in the shape of a pear—simply saying, “The king is not a pear” made it possible for future speakers to use pear to refer, in fact, to the king.8 In November 1831, editor and artist Charles Philipon was on trial in Paris, charged with having committed “outrages against the person of the king” by depicting Louis Philippe busily obscuring the unfulfilled promises that had brought him to power the previous year.9 Defending himself, Philipon protested that while the figure he had drawn and published might look like the King, resembling that august personage and being him were two very different things indeed. To support his point, Philipon quickly sketched a version of the offending portrait along with three other images. The second drawing looked like the first; a third version resembled the second; and a last like the third—yet who would say that the final one was the King? Instead, as Philipon told the court: “It’s a pear!” Since everyone knows that a pear cannot be king, Philipon continued, everyone must also know that the figure in the caricature was not Louis Philippe. Appearances, the cartoonist argued, are deceiving.10
Brought together in order to be kept apart, king and pear were henceforth inseparably linked, as connected by the denial of identity as by its assertion. So, too, the gastronomic guide and the rabbit-raiser’s handbook brought together all sorts of small quadrupeds in order to tell them apart. But because of the on-going deferral of mammalian identity, and the ever-growing specificity of the rabbit-eating market, the rabbit itself was no fixed quantity. Rather, subject to substitution, fraud, and replacement (and to the culinarily sensible practice of using locally available ingredients), the rabbit had a sort of slipperiness rarely considered characteristic of fur-bearing mammals, one that even allowed cats to function as ersatz rabbits.
In the late 1830s, rabbits were just as much in the French news as cats; so much so that one newspaper jested, “It is clear that from now on, the Criminal Court will only consider matters concerning rabbits and pseudo-rabbits,” and in January of 1838 (five months before Bezoni’s trial), the theatrical journal Le Corsaire declared: “Never have rabbits made so much noise.”11 Just what were rabbits doing in the winter of 1838 to make so much noise? It was not so much that the rabbits were being loud, as that a great deal was being said about them and attributed to them. The government’s budgets for both 1837 and 1838 had included the not insignificant sum of 70,000 francs to reimburse the Crown for rabbits killed on royal lands during the revolution of 1830. (As they had been during the turmoil of 1789, game animals were among the first victims of the July Revolution.)12 The Ministry of the Interior had tallied 100,000 rabbits “missing” from the royal forest in 1837, and estimated their value at 14 sous each. While one opposition newspaper quite legitimately inquired how the government had gone about counting “missing” rabbits, the budget item nonetheless remained.13
At the same time, the Crown gave only a measly 12,000 francs as its contribution to the relief of the poor of Paris in the horrible winter of 1837–1838.14 In 1836, the zoologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s tender concern for the living arrangements provided for the newly-arrived orangutan at the Jardin des Plantes had already led more than one republican to quip that Louis Philippe’s regime was better for wild animals than it was for people. The discrepancy between the sum to be spent on the Paris poor and that spent on rabbits only reinforced this point. As cats had replaced rabbits in so many stewpans, so rabbits had replaced people in the monarch’s heart and budget calculations.
The first substitution, that of cats for rabbits, was technically fraud—the latter, scandal, but one given a particular twist in the pages of the era’s best-known illustrated newspaper, Philipon’s new satiric daily, Le Charivari. Its pages full of “letters from the Crown’s rabbits” in 1837, Le Charivari was also no stranger to the subject of cat stew. Several years earlier, in the spring and summer of 1835, nearly every week had seen a new mention of gibelotte de chat. In its first lengthy exegesis of the cat-rabbit problem, Le Charivari used this rumor to political ends, in an article accompanying a lithograph titled “Hunting Hares for the Castle’s Table.” This image showed three figures—easily recognized by even the most unsophisticated reader as King Louis Philippe, his sister Adelaide, and the cabinet minister Montalivet—on the roof of the Tuileries Palace, hunting cats. Adelaide, in the lower left, grabs at the tail of a fast disappearing tomcat; in the lower right, Montalivet (wearing a chef’s bonnet) strangles a luckless feline; at the peak of the roof, Louis Philippe, his belt hung with dead cats, leans comfortably against a chimney as he strangles yet another—the scalp-seeking savages of James Fenimore Cooper had come to life on the palace roof tops. Somebody, the article said, is stealing the cats of Paris; and, as the rumors about vanishing children in the 1750s had suggested that human babies were being sacrificed so that the ailing King Louis XV could bathe in their blood, so now the cats were disappearing to go in the palace’s stewpans. By implication, the July Monarchy was so stingy, so eager to drain its people of all they had, that it was even willing to take their cats.
After the passage of the strict censorship laws of September 1835, no more images of the king’s cat hunting, per se, appeared. The government’s censors, we might conclude, could only protect Louis Philippe by prohibiting depictions of cats, rabbits, and pears as well. Only a week into the new press regime, a proposed caricature on pet keeping in Le Charivari was banned, so the editors claimed, because a sitting rabbit, viewed from behind, was said to resemble a pear too closely. The work of satire, like that of the market, depends on substitution and exchange.
When the more “serious” dailies of 1838 reported the cat butcher’s trial, it was as if their columns had been invaded by the allegorical animals and satirical stews of Le Charivari’s bitter counter-discourse. And yet Le Charivari’s explicit political reproach (made before September 1835) was modified and recast. In the widely circulated accounts of cat murder in the rue l’Hôtel de Ville, narrative asides warning readers of the grisly scene behind the as-of-yet-unopened door combined with references to “shadows,” “corpses,” and “maniacal laughter” to reframe the great kitten fricassee not as satire directed against a political regime, but as a parody of crime reporting, a mockery of murder.
So how then, finally, to understand this episode? Was Brutus Bezoni a real live perpetrator of the criminal acts satirically predicated of the King? Was his trial a referendum on the government? I doubt it. But it seems certain that an image—that of the duplicitous cat-serving cook—that first entered one organ of the daily press (Le Charivari) as focused political commentary then re-emerged elsewhere expressing more general social anxiety about the deceptiveness of appearances and the potential duplicity of the marketplace. The image had not been emptied of its political significance; in fact, the widespread attention to the trial and accounts of gastronomic fraud that followed it actually allowed a yet more subtle piece of commentary. In 1843, Le Charivari compared Louis Philippe’s regime to a 32-sous restaurant—insinuating that the King’s was a cat-serving establishment, one where the seeming cornucopia of the printed menu only veiled the corruption in the kitchen.
If the implications of this parallel had been universally agreed upon, if there had been the sort of commonality of understanding that would allow us to say that “Brutus Bezoni symbolized Louis Philippe,” or that lapin always meant chat, then these images and commentaries would have attracted the censor’s scissors just as quickly as that poor martyred rabbit whose only crime had been to look a bit pearish. But it was the pear that at this point had become the icon of caricature, the symbol of satire, if you will—so while pears were relentlessly hunted and destroyed, commentary nevertheless survived, striking a tone that often seemed an odd combination of Aesop’s fables and La Cuisinière bourgeoise.
Rebecca L. Spang teaches history at Indiana University. Her book The Invention of the Restaurant (Harvard University Press, 2000) has appeared in Portuguese, Brazilian, Japanese, Turkish, and Greek editions. She is currently interested in money.
Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, and many generous individuals. All our events are free, the entire content of our many sold-out issues are on our site for free, and we offer our magazine and books at prices that are considerably below cost. Please consider supporting our work by making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.
© 2009 Cabinet Magazine