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November 5th, 2014

The Esper Machine

BY Christian Ford

When you spend your days foraging for obscure corners of the history of food, it’s surprising to find one of those obscure corners in your own memory.  In the early 1970s, the child version of me found myself in Europe with my family.  My memories are scattered and patternless, but there’s one of a long-gone restaurant in Paris that has held on with particular tenacity.

The place was called Le Drouot, and we’d found it in the pages of a Fromer’s Europe on X-Dollars a Day, back when x was equal to a number that would allow more than 48 hours on the continent.  The copy told us that Le Drouot, and two sister establishments whose names I don’t quite remember, were French “working men’s” restaurants, where unpretentious but authentic French food could be had, quickly and for a price.  So, one day, we made the journey to a corner near Rue Richelieu and Blvd. Des Italiens.

I remember an unprepossessing door on the street and a steep and narrow flight of stairs.  At the top, there was a landing that served as a voluminous coat room.  Then, beyond the next door, was the dining floor itself.

It was immense.  On the street below were a variety of modest shops and establishments, but here on the next floor up, there was nothing but Le Drouot.  The exceptionally high ceilings were held up by columns decorated with worn gilt reliefs, and arrays of white glass globes filled the space with light, but what struck me most were the tables.  There were rows and rows of them, long and identical in white tablecloths that I would discover were not cloth.

The waiters were lean, all wearing long white aprons beneath a tight, pocketed waistcoat, a rondin.  Our waiter lead the way at a walk brisk enough that you had to lean into the turns.  We were shown to a table already occupied with four or five people, and it was instantly clear that every seat was to be filled, no gaps allowed.

The menus were tall and thin, and jammed with columns of items,  shoehorned in just we had been.  The waiter didn’t return to take your order, he expected it the moment you sat.  My mother, the sole French-speaker among us, fended him off long enough to decode a few menu items.  When he took our order, he never wrote it down.  Instead, he kept our orders, along with the four dozen or so others he was responsible for, somewhere in a steel trap memory.

While waiting — briefly — for our food to arrive, I glanced around.  We were clearly the only travelers in the place.  There was a faint commonality to the rest of the clientele, the details of which I can no longer find.  Maybe it was a style of dress, a somberness of color, or more likely it was a manner, dinner as a task, albeit a welcome one.  Some conversed in moderate tones, but many did not.  Seated cheek by jowl, it only slowly became apparent how many of these men in the crowd — and they were all men — were dining alone.

My memory has, I know, combined the two or three meals we ate there into a single melange dominated by two vignettes.   The first was watching a waiter delivering food — a serving cart’s worth of crockery balanced on two arms as he wove through the throng at something just short of a trot — and feeling childlike glee at discovering someone had incomprehensibly ordered lamb brains.  The three perfectly formed cerebellums rocked side to side on their plate, edible bobble-heads riding to their destination of… our table.   Yes, we were the ones who had placed the incomprehensible order.  We’d ordered lamb, but didn’t quite realize just what part — which, it turned out, had quite a nice taste.

The other involved a clear case of waiter error — a younger waiter who had not yet developed the bulletproof recall of his superiors, but who compensated with epic hauteur.  He didn’t like being told he’d gotten it wrong, not least because this was the kind of place where any mistakes would be deducted from your paycheck.  The Headwaiter, stone-faced as a hanging judge, silently listened to both sides of the disagreement and then convicted the waiter.  Our man didn’t take it with any more poise than he’d shown the rest of the evening, snatching the offending dish off the table and slamming the spoon into it.  Really slamming it.  So hard, in fact, that the spoon ricocheted, arcing over our heads towards the next table, where it plummeted directly into another man’s bowl of soup.

The Soup Eater raised his baleful gaze to the waiter, and then leaned back, waiting for him to remove the second dish of the evening to be deducted.

To the young me, it was all great stuff; nothing like this ever happened in restaurants back home.  But the pièce de résistance was the bill.  “L’addicion, s’il vous plaît,” produced not a written tab but a swiftly wielded pen, which slashed down to write the price of each item on the (paper) tablecloth, and then tallied it with equal velocity.  When cash was tendered and change made from the pockets of the rondin, we stood and the paper tablecloth was snatched from the table, revealing a fresh one gleaming beneath it, one of an entire evening’s supply, ready and waiting.

That’s what I remember.  But that’s not where it ends.  Because there’s another way of looking at this memory, of examining the fragments of preserved experience not from within my personal narrative, but in the larger context.  It’s a little like the Esper Machine in Bladerunner, the device our hero uses to look around inside a printed photograph, rendering unexpected secrets from the fabric of the self-evident.

When I run my memory through the Esper of experience and research, I find that my traveler’s tales were also glimpses of a world that was winking out.  Le Drouot, you see, was one of the last survivors of a kind of restaurant that had been born in nineteenth century Paris.   They were known as bouillons, a word deriving from the the verb “to boil,” and referring to a kind of broth-based soup.  They arose in the 1855, brain-child of a French boucher by the name of Pierre Louis Duval, who was looking to serve the workers of the market halls good-quality food, served quickly and inexpensively.  In nineteenth century Paris, one of the biggest cities on earth, and teeming with workers from all over the country, many of whom lived in garrets with no means of cooking, Duval’s was an idea whose time had come.

At their peak, nearly 250 bouillons thronged the city.  Duval’s initial simple menu evolved in an endless list of choices and I don’t think this was an accident.  The customers of the bouillons, men drawn from the all corners of la France profonde by the gravitational pull of the center, had left behind the only worlds and lives that they had known.  But here in small type were memories to order, reminders of the tastes and smells that once meant home.

A few, such as Bouillon Racine, were gloriously done up in high Art Nouveau in order to appeal to a higher class of customer, people who had been born to the center.  But most bouillons remained what they had always intended to be, unpretentious, efficient and above all, modern.

That, I think, is the trick here, to see how my window into the past was, to the people who first encountered it, a window into the future.   The romantic place that Paris holds in our cultural imagination makes it hard to see that this city is also where the modern, industrial, consumer-based society was born.

You can think of the bouillons as some of the first chain restaurants, or even as the prototype of fast food and that right there — speed — might be heart of it.  Every recollection I have of Le Drouot is washed with a sense of brusque velocity.  The spacious room, the filigree of adornment, the traditionally attired waiters, all of it subtly warred with the the simmering acceleration of the place.

Speed was — and still is — associated with power and status.  Here, elbow to elbow in these dining halls, these men who worked harder than almost anyone alive today in the Western world has ever worked, found a seat for themselves, where the tablecloth was clean, where the light was bright, where the surroundings were done up in the latest fashion, and where they were fed with alacrity.

In the nineteenth century, speed hadn’t yet revealed its true nature as a means of squeezing more out of everyone below for the benefit of the few above.  It was still masquerading as the dominant theme of the better world to come and at the bouillons, the working men could (as long as they were the customers and not the staff) be the beneficiaries of all this speed.  And it helped, too, that after a 12 or 14 hour shift, you didn’t give up much of your sack time to eating.

I didn’t see any of that, of course, didn’t know that the restaurant had been there longer than any of the staff or customers had been alive, that it was part and parcel of a social station that they were born into.  I look back on the experience with a kind of wistfulness, a desire to be able to revisit it.  But in so doing, I fall into the trap of romanticizing what I glimpsed, of overlooking affliction because it comes dressed so picturesquely.

There are a few bouillons left, and they still shove the customers out and still write on the tablecloths, but they bear the same relationship to the place I visited as Civil War re-enactors bear to the Battle of Gettysburg.   No, the true mantle of the bouillon has passed to another establishment.  Starbucks is the model, but any of its boutique coffee followers — good and bad — are all part of the same.  Like the bouillons, they offer a small luxury, one that doesn’t cost too much in time or money and one which provides (for the customer) a brief respite from the speed of modernity.  Now, as then, the respite is an mostly illusion, but on the whole, I do wonder if maybe our predecessors in the bouillons had it better.

At least they got dinner.


The Esper Machine by Ridley Scott, Syd Mead and Lawrence Paull with Dehub
Bouillon Menu by Fred Chiang
Bouillon Check by Fred Chiang
Bouillon Chartier by Gabriel Tudico
Marchand d’abat-jour, rue Lepic by Eugène Atget
Bouillon Racine by Ophelia Noor