Today’s weight-obsessed gastronomes, ever mindful of carbohydrates and calories, generally demur when dinner rolls are passed their way. Yet history reveals that such reticence is unusual. Centuries ago, the attitude prevailed that a meal without bread was no meal at all. Even kings made a show of their baked goods. When in 1663 Transylvanian Prince Mihály Apafi invited the entire Ottoman army to dine with him after a battle, he rolled out, among other tidbits, two-score enormous boules. So impressed with this display was the Turkish world traveler, Evliya Celebi, that he recorded it in his journal. “The meadows were covered with Hungarian carpets,” he writes, “onto which forty giant loaves were placed.” The king’s means of conveying the loaves to the hungry soldiers Calebi found equally impressive. “Each one had to be drawn on an oxcart,” he continues, for “each … was twenty paces long, and five paces wide, and as high as a full-grown man.”
Did the muffin boy trudging through London’s dark, dank streets ever curse the hot, buttery wares that forced him outdoors? Perhaps, though the thought of going penniless no doubt bedeviled him more. And perhaps as means of consolation his mind would settle on a remark made by Charles Dickens, who found that a cold night did wonders for the streets of London. Such wonder-working happened, he wrote, when “just enough damp” fell from the sky to “make the pavement greasy without cleansing it of any of its impurities.” If that falling damp also made the gaslights glow brighter and the small shops that lined the street “more splendid,” then so much the better.
Whether congregating in the Café de Paris on the Boulevard de Italiens or the Cabaret de la Mère Saguet at the barrier du Maine (a favorite of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas’), Parisians of all ages and walks of life made a point of conspiciously sipping coffee or cocoa as regularly as their circumstances allowed. They did this not merely to get a jolt of caffeine, but to see and be seen. “We require publicity, broad daylight, the street, the cabaret,” M. Alfred Delvan writes about himself and his fellow urbanites in his Histoire Anecdotique des Cafés et Cabarets de Paris (1862), “well or ill, we desire to exhibit ourselves from home.” Delvan considers this desire the sine qua non of the Parisian character. “We delight in attitudinising,” he continues, “in making a show of ourselves, in having a public, an audience, witnesses of our lives.”