For Christmas dinner in December 1870, the Paris restaurant Voisin publicized a menu that careened well past the limits of adventurous gastronomy. Among the entrées were kangaroo stew, elephant stock, stuffed donkey head, and bear chops roasted with pepper sauce.
The protein on Chef Alexandre Étienne Choron’s line-up was courtesy of the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a Paris zoo that had sold its menagerie to the restaurant. This unfortunate turn of events arose from wartime desperation, which had led to food supplies being cut off and residents turning to extreme measures.
In order to survive, Paris would have to eat its zoos.
An Unrestricted Diet
The dark chapter in the city’s otherwise renowned food history began in September 1870, when German forces aligned with Prussia to seal off Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. When Emperor Napoleon III attempted to move against Prussia, he was captured—leaving Paris vulnerable. That's when the Germans decided the best way to take control of the city was to effectively starve its residents into submission by cutting off its supply lines. By the time the siege was complete, railroads and telegraph lines had been interrupted, turning Paris's occupants into unwitting prisoners.
Henry Labouchère, a French news liaison for England, was on location when the siege began and wound up becoming a war correspondent. Of Paris’s mood, he wrote:
“Paris, once so gay, has become as dull as a small German capital. Its inhabitants are not in the depths of despair, but they are thoroughly bored. They are in a position of a company of actors shut up in a theatre night and day, and left to their own devices, without an audience to applaud them or to hiss at them."
The most pressing problem was not boredom but sustenance: The Germans hoped a starving Paris would be a compliant Paris. The Ministry of Agriculture had stocked up on livestock while they could, but the supply quickly dwindled.
Hoping to ration the remaining cattle, Parisian officials allowed food markets to begin selling the meat of domesticated cats and dogs as well as horse meat, a lean protein high in healthy fats that was a common source of food in the 19th century (though it’s generally never been part of America's diet).
The city couldn’t afford to be selective with a horse’s byproducts, either. Horse blood was used to make pudding. The meat was braised, boiled, and turned into soup.
Labouchère was one of the individuals sampling the equestrian eats. “I dine habitually at a bouillon,” he wrote. “There horseflesh is eaten in place of beef, and a cat is called rabbit. Both, however, are excellent, and the former is a little sweeter than beef, but in other respects much like it; the latter something between rabbit and squirrel, with a flavor all its own. It is delicious. I recommend those who have cats with philoprogenitive proclivities, instead of drowning the kittens, to eat them. Either smothered in onions or in a ragout they are excellent.”
Labouchère was, in fact, seemingly delighted in how events had revealed to him the pleasures of taboo dining, becoming something like the Guy Fieri of donkey soups.
“This siege will destroy many illusions, and among them the prejudice which has prevented many animals being used as food. I can most solemnly assert that I never wish to taste a better dinner than a joint of donkey or a ragout of cat—trust me.”
As many as 65,000 to 70,000 horses were consumed during the Siege of Paris. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the collective appetite of a city walled off from food supplies.
In some ways, it was perhaps inevitable that eyes would turn toward a most plentiful supply of meat that could be found virtually everywhere in Paris: rats. The animals were considered a bit of a delicacy—while some Parisians opted for cat or dog at 20 to 40 cents per pound, rat meat fetched 50 cents.
Despite the cost, there was a kind of stigma surrounding ingestion of the pets and rodents. “In the rue Blanche there is a butcher who sells dogs, cats and rats,” Labouchère wrote. “He has many customers, but it is amusing to see them sneak into the shop after carefully looking around to make sure that none of their acquaintances are near.”
Labouchère added that, of dog dishes, poodle was reputed to be best. Bulldogs, however, were “coarse and tasteless.”
Elephant in the Dining Room
As the siege entered its fourth month and residents continued to become acclimated to alternative dietary choices, the zoos in the city were running low on feed for the elephants, donkeys, kangaroos, peacocks, and other animals that populated their grounds. So zoo animals that were no longer sustainable became a resource for the city’s few open restaurants.
This was how patrons were given menus like the one from Voisin, with its elaborate preparations of zoo attractions. (One could still, however, get the filet of mule or dog cutlets.) Not even Castor and Pollux, a famed elephant duo, were spared; their trunks commanded the highest prices.
Making the best of a horrific situation, Parisians seemed to consider the ingestion of these respected animals a kind of cultural milestone, though not much of a dining experience: The meat frequently had to be cooked over a lamp due to a lack of fuel.
“Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner," Labouchère wrote. “Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants from the zoological gardens, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef and mutton.”
It’s believed that only lions, tigers, hippos, and monkeys were left alone, owing either to the difficulty in killing them or a guilt in the fact monkeys had qualities similar to humans.
The Prussians finally breached Paris in January 1871 by lobbing shells into the city, resulting in more than 400 casualties and, ultimately, Paris’s surrender. The Franco-Prussian War ended a few months later, though one imagines the memory of roast ostrich would linger for quite some time.