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Old 12-18-2010, 08:33 AM   #1
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Default Jacques Offenbach v. Supersize American Food

Apparently supersize American portions are nothing new. It's also fun to contrast New World and Old World customs.

Through friendly persuasion and the offer of truly big bucks, German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach was enticed to visit the United States in 1876 to conduct at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, plus concerts in other cities. Here are his first impressions of his hotel in New York City in May 1876. He was overwhelmed by American hospitality, to say the least. The following year Offenbach wrote a book about his visit, which was very well received in France.

Excerpt from: Jacques Offenbach: Offenbach en Amérique: Notes d'un Musicien en Voyage [Offenbach in America: Notes of a Travelling Musician], Paris, 1877. This is my English translation. Offenbach was a colorful writer, so for those who can read French, his original is below.
Quote:
CHAPTER III. NEW YORK — GILMORE'S GARDEN. (excerpt)

Here I am in New York.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel where I have descended well deserves some words of description. One has no idea in Europe of this kind of establishment. One has everything at hand. One finds in every room a dressing-room, bath, and a mysterious place that the initials W. C. designate sufficiently.

The ground floor of the hotel is an immense bazaar, a commercial city, in which all trades are represented. There is the hair-dresser of the hotel, the hatter of the hotel, the tailor of the hotel, the pharmacist of the hotel, the bookseller of the hotel, even the boot-black of the hotel. One can enter the hotel as lightly dressed as Adam before the apple, as long-haired as Absalom before the tree, and depart as respectably as the famous Comte d'Orsay of fashionable memory.

One finds everything in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, everything; excepting, however, a polyglot. The polyglot is completely missing. Among the two hundred waiters in the service of this gigantic establishment, one searches in vain for anyone who spoke French. This is not very pleasant for those who do not know English. But in return, what comforts!

For twenty dollars, you have a bed-room and salon, with all the accessories which I have come to enumerate, and the right to eat all the day. From eight to eleven o'clock is breakfast; from noon to three o'clock is lunch; from five to seven o'clock is dinner; from eight to eleven o'clock in the evening is tea. To take your repast you find a communal hall on the first floor. Scarcely have you arrived at the entrance of this immense gallery where fifty tables are methodically arranged, but a lively maître d'hôtel comes to you, and designates the table where you must be seated. Do not try to resist, do not have any fantasies, preferences for one corner rather than for another, one must yield, this is the rule. The maître d'hôtel is the maître de l'hôtel. He will seat next to you whomever he chooses, and you have nothing to say.

Then you are seated. The waiter does not ask what you would like. He begins by bringing you a large glass of ice-water; for there is one thing worthy of remark in America: it is, that, on the fifty tables which are in the hall, there is not one where one drinks anything but ice-water; if by chance you see wine or beer before a fellow diner, you can be sure that it is a European.

After the glass of water, the waiter presents you the list of the eighty dishes of the day. — I do not exaggerate. — You take your menu and choose three or four; and — this is the comical part of the thing — all you have ordered is brought at once. If by misfortune you have forgotten to mention the vegetables which you desire to eat, one brings to you the fifteen vegetables inscribed on the bill-of-fare, all together. By such fate you find yourself suddenly flanked by thirty plates, soup, fish, meat, innumerable vegetables, sweets, without counting the rear-guard of desserts, which are always composed of a dozen varieties. All is arranged in battle before you, defying your stomach. The first time, it gives you vertigo and removes every sort of appetite.
For those who can read French, here is Offenbach's original:
Quote:
CHAPITRE III. NEW-YORK — LE JARDIN GILMORE (extrait)

Me voici à New-York.

L'hôtel de la cinquième avenue où je suis descendu mériterait bien quelques mots de description. On n'a aucune idée en Europe de ce genre d'établissement. L'on a tout sous la main. On trouve attenant à chaque chambre un cabinet de toilette, un bain, et un endroit mystérieux que les initiales W. C. désigneront suffisamment.

Le rez-de-chaussée de l'hôtel est un immense bazar, une ville marchande où tous les corps de métiers sont représentés. Il y a le coiffeur de l'hôtel, le chapelier de l'hôtel, le tailleur de l'hôtel, le pharmacien de l'hôtel, le libraire de l'hôtel, même le décrotteur de l'hôtel. On peut entrer dans un hôtel aussi peu vêtu qu'Adam avant la pomme, aussi chevelu qu'Absalon avant l'arbre, et en sortir aussi respectable que le fameux comte d'Orsay de fashionable mémoire.

On trouve tout dans la cinquième avenue hôtel, tout; excepté pourtant un polyglotte. Le polyglotte fait complètement défaut. Parmi les deux cents garçons qui font le service de ce gigantesque établissement, on en chercherait vainement un qui parlât français. C'est bien peu commode pour ceux qui ne savent pas l'anglais. Mais en revanche, que d'agréments.

Pour vingt dollars, vous avez une chambre à coucher et un salon avec les accessoires que je viens d'énumérer, et le droit de manger toute la journée. De huit à onze heures, on déjeune, de midi à trois heures, on lunche, de cinq à sept, on dîne et de huit à onze heures du soir, on prend le thé. Pour prendre vos repas, vous trouvez au premier une salle commune. A peine apparaissez-vous à l'entrée de cette immense galerie où cinquante tables s'alignent méthodiquement, qu'un grand gaillard de maître d'hôtel vient à vous et vous désigne la table où vous devez vous asseoir. N'essayez pas de résister, n'ayez pas de fantaisies, de préférences pour un coin plutôt que pour un autre, il faut céder, c'est la règle. Le maître d'hôtel est le maître de l'hôtel. Il fera asseoir à côté de vous qui bon lui semblera et vous n'avez rien à dire.

Donc vous prenez place. Le garçon ne vous demande pas ce que vous voulez. Il commence par vous apporter un grand verre d'eau glacée; car il y a une chose digne de remarque en Amérique, c'est que sur les cinquante tables qui sont dans la salle il n'y en a pas une où l'on boive autre chose que de l'eau glacée; si par hasard vous voyez du vin ou de la bière devant un convive, vous pouvez être sûr que c'est un européen.

Après le verre d'eau, le garçon vous présente la liste des quatre-vingts plats du jour. — Je n'exagère pas. — Vous faites votre menu en en choisissant trois ou quatre, et — c'est ici le côté comique de la chose — tout ce que vous avez commandé vous est apporté à la fois. Si par malheur vous avez oublié de désigner le légume que vous désirez manger, on vous apportera les quinze légumes inscrits sur la carte, tout ensemble. De telle sorte que vous vous trouvez subitement flanqué de trente assiettes, potage, poisson, viande, innombrables légumes, confitures, sans compter l'arrière-garde des desserts qui se composent toujours d'une dizaine de variétés. Tout cela rangé en bataille devant vous, défiant votre estomac. La première fois, cela vous donne le vertige et vous enlève toute espèce d'appétit.
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Old 12-19-2010, 08:13 PM   #2
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Sounds more like a modern day cruise ship!

Thanks for posting. I enjoyed it.
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Old 12-23-2010, 01:22 PM   #3
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Instead of too much food, here's something from the other end of the food spectrum which also took place that same year. Richard Wagner inaugurated his Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany in August 1876. Many noted figures attended, including 3 distinguished composers who wrote lengthy articles for newspapers in their own countries: Camille Saint-Saëns, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg. In their reports about the performances at the festival Saint-Saëns fared pretty well, but Tchaikovsky and Grieg were subjected to some memorable food fights in a town unprepared to handle so many excitable visitors.

Warning: some of the scenes depicted might alarm those with more sesitive stomachs.

Excerpt from The Bayreuth Music Festival, by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Russian Register (Русские ведомости), Moscow, Russia, 14 August 1876
Quote:
I decided to go for a stroll around the small town. All the streets were filled with bustling crowds of tourists who all seemed to have a restless expression on their faces, as if they were looking for something. Within half an hour or so this look of preoccupation on everybody's face was no longer a mystery to me and had without any doubt appeared in my own countenance too. All these people hastily scurrying about the streets of the town were seeking a way to satisfy the strongest of all needs for any living creature — a need which even the thirst for aesthetic delights cannot suppress. They were looking for food.

The small town had managed to squeeze together and make room for all the visitors requiring accommodation, but it was unable to feed them all. Consequently, on the very day of my arrival there, I learnt by experience what it means to struggle for a piece of bread. As there are very few hotels in Bayreuth, most of the visitors had taken lodgings in private houses. The hotel restaurants open to the public simply couldn't cope with this multitude of hungry people. Each slice of bread, each mug of beer has to be taken by force, by means of incredible exertions and tricks, all requiring a patience of steel. And even if you are lucky and manage to get a place at a restaurant table, the coveted dish that is finally brought to you by the waiter looks as if it had been worked upon previously by several other forks and knives. The most chaotic uproar reigns in these restaurants. Everybody is shouting all at once. The exhausted waiters pay not the slightest attention to your legitimate demands. Indeed, it is a question of pure chance which dish you are finally served — if any at all.

Next to the theatre, a huge marquee tent has been set up to house a provisional restaurant which promises a good meal at two o'clock for all comers. However, negotiating your way through this maelstrom of starving humanity and actually getting something to eat requires real heroism and unflinching courage. I have dwelt so long on this matter deliberately, so as to show my readers what the most pronounced feature of the music-lovers who had gathered in Bayreuth consisted of. For the whole duration of the first series of performances of Wagner's tetralogy, the predominating interest for everyone turned exclusively upon food, by far surpassing in importance any artistic interests as such. People talked much more about beefsteaks, cutlets, and fried potatoes than about Wagner's music.
Excerpt from Richard Wagner and the Ring of the Nibelung (1876), by Edvard Grieg
Bergenpost, Bergen, Norway, 14 August 1876
Quote:
I will leave it to the Germans to fight over who is right. (I say "fight over" because, unbelievable as it sounds, questions like this are regularly decided at the Wagner Restaurant not over but with beer tankards. The one who has been rendered unfit for battle by getting hit on the head with one of the well-known, massive Topfchen has obviously lost.)
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