23, 000 for lunch? This was the banquet of the century

117 years ago, French authorities put on an epic culinary display, Jane Hanks revisits the day’s events

20 December 2017
By Jane Hanks

On September 22, 1900 a huge banquet for nearly 23,000 people took place in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. The guests were the mayors of France, the hosts were the President of the Republic, Emile Loubet and the Prime Minister, Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau and it took place during the Universal Exhibition. 25,000 invitations went to mayors from all over France, Algeria and the colonies and 22,965 attended. Among the guests were also members of parliament, senators, judges and army chiefs.

Huge banquets were fashionable at the time but this surpassed anything ever seen before. The quantities of food, people and materials needed for the organisation show what an undertaking it must have been.

There were 700 tables, each one 10 metres long which could each seat 32 to 36 people. That is 7km of tables. They were placed under two immense marquees made especially for the occasion. The longest measured 521 metres and was 28.5 metres wide.

A catering firm, Potel et Chabot (which still exists today), was hired to provide the meal and they took on 3,500 cooks, 21,870 waiters and 1,215 maîtres d’hôtels for the occasion, a record they say is yet to be beaten. The success of the banquet gave them huge recognition and they were subsequently hired by heads of state the world over – and still are.

For the place settings there were 7km of tablecloths, 125,000 plates, 55,000 forks, 55,000 spoons, 60,000 knives and 126,000 glasses. Six bicycles and one car were used to pass on orders as quickly
as possible.

The vast quantities of mouths to feed did not mean there would be less to eat for the distinguished guests. There was a nine-course menu using only the finest ingredients. However, the organisers made sure they did not have to worry about keeping dishes warm by providing a cold meal.

This was the menu:

Hors-d’Oeuvre
Darnes de Saumon glacées Parisienne (Poached salmon steaks, served cold with vegetables and mayonnaise with herbs )
Filet de Bœuf en Bellevue (a dish created for Mme de Pompadour in the 18th century at her chateau at Bellevue. It is a cold dish consisting of a fillet of beef in jelly)
Pains de canetons de Rouen (probably a type of duck paté)
Poulardes de Bresse rôties (The prestigious Bresse chicken simply roasted, but presumably served cold)
Ballotines de faisons Saint-Hubert (Poached, stuffed, white pheasant breasts served cold)
Salade Potel (a salad named after the catering company but there are no records to say what it consisted of)
Glaces Succès – Condès (Ice-cream, but the flavours are not known)
Dessert

To provide the menu in such quantities required 2,000kg salmon, 1,430 pheasants, 2,500 chickens, 1,200 litres of mayonnaise, 10,000 peaches, 1,000kg of grapes and 3,000 litres of café.

There was no holding back on the wine either, with an allowance of more than one bottle per person. There were 39,000 bottles in total, of which 1,500 were fine champagne. The wines were Preignac, Saint-Julien, Haut Sauternes, Beaune Margaux, Jean Calvet 1887 and Montebello Champagne. The cooks and waiters were not forgotten as 3,000 litres of red were set aside for them.

During the meal there was entertainment provided by the Comédie Française and the National Acadamy of Music and Dance, who sang the Marseillaise at the start and performed dances and other choral works during the meal.

A strong and united France
For the President, it was an occasion to show that France was a united and strong nation despite an attempted coup d’état the year before and the Dreyfus Affair, which was a political scandal that was dividing popular opinion.

Alfred Dreyfus was a young soldier of Jewish descent who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in 1895 for spying. It took several years to clear him and there were fierce arguments between his supporters and those who were against him.

The banquet came after one of the many Dreyfus trials. This one had resulted in another conviction and a ten year sentence. Dreyfus was not fully exonerated until 1906.

Paris was buzzing at the time as there was the huge Exposition Universelle which celebrated the new century. This had started on April 14 and continued until November 12 – the eyes of the world were on France. Nearly 50 million people visited the exhibition and several countries had their own pavilion. It was a showcase for the modern world with inventions such as diesel engines and escalators and new cultural innovations such as talking films on display. It was the perfect backdrop to show what France was really capable of.

The date for the banquet was chosen for a reason. It was the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic 108 years earlier on September 22, 1792.

Reaction to the event
There was wide coverage in the newspapers of the day. La Croix reported that there was the “plus franche cordialité” – the “most open show of hospitality” – and that the President avoided politics in his speech and concentrated on unity when he said “It is national by the number and the character of its members.”

The Revue Municipale of Paris reported that the meal took place under “un splendide soleil” and that the public were keen to witness the event. “From nine o’clock onwards, they pressed feverishly against the fence. They wanted, at the very least, to see the spectacle of the knives and forks placed in perfect order on the perfectly white tablecloths. And they also wanted to welcome the mayors, who, while waiting for the start of the meal, were walking around the Tuileries.”

The paper reports that there was an air of good humour “And you felt that really, on this great day, everybody was enjoying themselves.” The article goes on to describe the decorations in the marquees, which were simple but emphasised the values of France. On the wall was a modern tapestry called the “Armes de la République”.

A facsimile was set at each plate. The design showed two shields symbolising Truth and Justice. At their feet there was a lion representing strength, with two children. The cockerel, the symbol of France, dominated the image and it held another child in its arms singing the Republican slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

The 90-minute meal began at midday.

French mayors still meet

In 2017, there were 35,416 communes each with their own mayor and in November the Association des Maires de France held its 100th annual Congress. Over the four days there were about 30,000 present and though they did not all sit down together for a meal, they did come together for a panoramic photo (above), each one with their tricolour sash.

The event was held at the Porte de Versailles in Paris. Every year there is an opportunity for the mayors to meet and the aim is to allow them to speak out and talk with political leaders. The Association des Maires says mayors have lost confidence in the government, as there are too many new measures they see as unfavourable to communes, the particular grievance being inadequate funding. Many of the government ministers were present and the Congress was closed by the President, Emmanuel Macron. There was a special exhibition tracing the history of the AMF and the one hundred congresses that have been held since the first one in 1916.

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