Two menus occupy special places in my heart and in my home. They couldn’t be more different.
When in Rome
The first is a colorful, poster-size graphic from Da Meo Patacca, a memento from a first “Roman holiday” when I was 21. I still smile every time I look at it, remembering how impressed I was with the white-shirted waiter who unfurled the almost three-foot-long roll of paper with a deft flick of his wrist. I don’t remember the food of that long-ago dinner table, but I can’t forget the experience, and the framed menu has graced my kitchens and pantries for longer than I care to admit.
The classic restaurant is still serving its traditional fare in Rome and, by all accounts, still delighting tourists from all over the globe. It is now possible to purchase the extravagant vintage menus on ebay or etsy, and I suspect that many, like mine, are still kept as keepsakes.
I treasure the memory; I also delight at the items priced in Lira. A mixed salad for 250, garlic bread at 100, saltimbocca a la romana at 950, gelato for 300 and a bottle of wine at 2500 – dinner easily required counting out bills running to multiple thousands! Truly, that was culture shock. However, the exchange rate at the time was around 600 Italian Lira to a single U.S. dollar. My dinner, I am sure, was quite a bargain! I returned to Da Meo Patacca a few years ago and came away with a later version of the menu, this time with prices in Euros. I also took away a renewed appreciation for this lively eatery that has served generations of diners during its five decades of operation. I know there is better food in this ancient city, and trendier trattorias. But this is a tradition of sorts and, on a pleasant evening, the patio is friendly, the wine is abundant, and the music can be fine!
Viva la France
The second menu is not as vibrant in color, but it boasts fascinating pastel drawings of animals around its edge – elephant, bear, camel, kangaroo, cat and rat – along with frivolous hot air balloons floating over the countryside. It is dated “25 Decembre 1870 – 99eme Jour du Siege” from Voisin in Paris. It is in French. And, no, I did not eat there. Rather, I was entranced by the images and by the subject.
I have loved this menu for years, knowing it was not a real menu. I thought it was simply a quirky take on French culture and paid little attention to the actual items: Haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce, Cat flanked by Rats. Jugged Kangaroo and Elephant Consomme. Among the Hors d’Oeuvres: Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines. It includes other food choices as well: Wild Mushrooms Bordelaise and Rice Cake with Preserves. Again, I thought, a nod to French ingenuity, or an attempt to be entertaining. I thought nothing of the English translation at the bottom of the poster. I investigated no further, and simply enjoyed the artwork of my charming wall hanging. Until just recently.
The Back Story
Around Christmas, I happened across a blog post with an intriguing title. With an audible gasp, I realized that it was the story of my menu. I now know about the Franco-Prussian War, about the long and celebrated history of Voisin Restaurant, about how adaptable French cuisine can be, and about the suffering and endurance of a proud people during hard times. I know about how a renowned chef was truly creative and managed a Christmas dinner that must have been quite a treat for wealthy diners, and that at least one other restaurant routinely served equally bizarre dishes. By discovering the history of “my menu,” I have gained a new understanding of life, and of war and survival. During this siege, not even the well-to-do were spared hunger and deprivation.
The City of Light has known some very dark times. The French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871, when the citizens of the city were truly half-starved. I still love the depictions of the animals in their faded watercolor reality. But I will never again look at this menu in quite the same way. And I now view history very differently.
Learn more about the war, the zoo and the dinner.
Also included, between the French and English versions of the historic menu, is a letter to “Dear George,” signed “See you in Boston. Hopefully, Charles.” Perhaps it’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Or not.
Among other things, the letter states: “The Prussian encirclement of Paris is now so complete that no word is getting out except by carrier pigeon or balloon. As the besiegers have become increasingly adept at shooting down the balloons or tracking them to their destinations, the government will probably soon abandon the balloon service.”
It continues with the odd statement: “I think you will enjoy the enclosed Christmas menu from Voisin’s where I dined yesterday. As you can see, hunger forgets squeamishness.”