RENDERED 5: Arlequins (Harlequins)
"Parisian street food" during La Belle Epoque, and the invisible women who served it up
From the mid-19th century to early 20th century, food vendors called marchands d'arlequins sold plates of food at Les Halles food market in Paris for a few cents apiece. These cheap meals were composed of scraps of leftovers from the tables of well-to-do Parisians, and served a huge variety of customers. These vendors were often women. This month, I'm investigating the story behind these "harlequin meals."
I often stumble upon the subjects for this newsletter by chance. A random anecdote can lead me down a rabbit hole, which brings me to a subject I wish to research and share with you.
Today's subject came from a conversation with my husband. A discussion about the police led him to remember a book he'd read by Yves Pagès, entitled L'homme hérissé: Liabeuf, tueur de flics (The Thorned Man: Liabeuf, Cop Killer). It is a novel based on the true story of Jean-Jacques Liabeuf, a shoemaker whose girlfriend was suspected to be a sex worker, who was sentenced to 4 months in prison under charges of procuring (aka. pimping). Upon his release, he decided to take revenge for this injustice by arming himself with spiked armbands and weapons, and attacking two police officers near Les Halles in Paris, killing one and injuring the other. He was sentenced to the guillotine in 1910, and died at the age of 24, despite a massive public outcry against his execution.
Liabeuf's story touched on the struggle of those in the working class who were subject to police harassment, and distrustful of those in power. This was La Belle Époque, a period associated with economic prosperity, an explosion of culture and innovation, art nouveau, can-can dancers at Le Moulin Rouge, and all that jazz. However, it wasn't so "belle" for everyone. French imperialism was carving up territories abroad, and a large population of French citizens were struggling with poverty at home. They did not share the same enthusiasm for "La Belle Époque," and it isn't surprising that anarchism was a popular movement among the Parisian working class.
A passage in this novel about Liabeuf describes his living conditions. To spend as little money as possible, he ate arlequins or "harlequins": leftovers, scraps of food recovered from bourgeois tables and refashioned into dishes that were sold for a pittance.
French law referred to those vendors as marchands de viandes cuites (sellers of cooked meats), but really, they sold leftovers (referred to as rogatons in French, or more popularly, using the slang arlequins).
Every morning, the harlequin seller (or someone working with them) would make the rounds to collect leftovers from the previous night. Their clients included ministries, embassies, high-class hotels and restaurants, and even bourgeois homes. The food would be transported in a closed cart that had ventilation slats, tossed in pell-mell at each stop, and finally taken to their stand at Les Halles for cleaning and sorting. The sellers would separate bones from meat, pâté from vegetables, and fish from hors-d'oeuvres, arranging the food on plates, all done out of sight of the customers. The more appetizing morcels of food were laid on top of each dish, in the hopes that hungry passers-by would be tempted to part with a few pennies (or sous) to buy a plate.
But it wasn't just those who were hard-up for cash that found themselves at the harlequin sellers' stands. Even penny-pinching rich people would furtively stop by to get a meal for a good deal.
Those morcels of food that weren't as appetizing for human customers could also be sold as a treat for rich ladies' pampered lapdogs. Once all the food was sold, bones would be sold to gelatin-makers, and once the gelatin was extracted, they were resold once more to bone char manufacturers. Not one scrap of food went to waste.
The harlequin was a stock character from Italian theatre (commedia dell'arte). Originally, he was a poor country boy, wearing a colorful, patched costume. He eventually took on the characteristic rhombus-patterned onesie (for lack of a better word), the mask with exaggerated arched eyebrows, and the slapstick. Over the years, the character's popularity spread and was adapted into theatrical productions in France and England.
Harlequin meals were patchworked together, varied and multicolored, much like the clothing of the character.
The word "Harlequin" is from Old French Herlequin/Hellequin, or leader of a band of demon horsemen. This may come from Middle English Herle king, a mythical entity identified with Woden (aka. Odin).
Food markets at Les Halles ran almost continuously from the 10th century to 1969. This was the place that connected Paris with the rural lands surrounding the city. For both political and practical reasons, the success of Les Halles was primordial; it had to be immune to periods of scarcity, as well as extreme price fluctuation.
It was where mass food consumption was made possible, and the marker that evidenced how well the State could organize the flow of goods, and feed the people of Paris.
During the mid-19th century, Les Halles was reimagined as a large iron-and-glass pavilion to house food sellers, in a high-ceilinged structure. It was better for the flow of customers, more hygenic (better air flow), but also allowed for better surveillance: The Man could keep an eye on merchants' prices and public behavior more easily.
With this structure came new rules: the most profitable positions were reserved for men who had good credit. Women were limited in their choice of positions, despite being the majority of the merchants working there. They could only pass their business on to their own daughters, and the cops were always on the lookout to eliminate "immoral" behavior. In those days, just being a young female assistant working at Les Halles made you suspect. These policies gave men more job flexibility, which may explain why a majority of marchands d'arlequins were women, and often older women.
From 1183 to 1969, Les Halles served as the central market of Paris, where fresh food was sold. The food market was moved to a suburb of Paris in 1969, and the 19th-century buildings (built between 1854 and 1866, with 2 reproductions from 1936) were torn down in 1971. The area was rebuilt into a giant, partially-subterranean shopping center and major metro hub, which opened in 1979. It failed to gain popularity--in fact, it garnered a reputation for being unsafe, a hub for drug dealers, and overrun with fast food restaurants. It was renovated again in the early 2000's, reopening again in 2016. Today, it is a major transit hub, and a mélange of thousands of people pass through it every day. It is the crossroads of Paris, where the vivid diversity of the city can be felt.
It is currently called Westfield Forum des Halles (thanks, corporate interest), and the current web site mentions nothing about its history or legacy.
In an 1854 account of his exploits around Paris entitled Paris anecdote, journalist Alexandre Privat d'Anglemont relates a story about meeting a bijoutière or marchande d'arlequins, one Mother Maillard. He learned that she had a contract with the dishwashers at many grands restaurants. To augment their pitiful wages, they agreed to sell the leftovers from the night by the bucketful, 3 francs per. It was from these buckets of food that Mother Maillard would compose her harlequin dishes. The bones, trimmings, and peels were sold separately, as was grease, which would be sold to lampmakers.
These harlequin sellers were well-compensated for their hard work. There was a fair profit to be made from this physically demanding work--Mother Maillard made enough to help establish her four daughters in their own careers. She is the only marchande d'arlequins that I was able to find mentioned by name.
The French public in general is sensitive to the problem of food waste, and supportive of measures to reduce it. French supermarkets since 2016 have been prohibited from discarding food that could be donated. But waste in other sectors still needs to be addressed: restaurants account for 14% of all food waste in the country; agriculture represents 32%, followed by food processing (21%). 1 in 5 people in France struggle to have enough food to eat every day, so there is much progress to be made.
Some viewed these harlequin sellers, and those who frequented their stands, with upturned noses. Critics saw the meals, and the people who ate them, as shabby and ragtag. But contemptuous judgment aside, these types of sellers were common in the 19th to early 20th centuries. The excess of the bourgeois tables trickled down to the harlequins. These meals were piecemeal, unpretentious, and mixed into one heaping serving, which represented the opposite of the haute-cuisine bougeois eating customs.
Professor Janet Beizer, who is currently working on a book about these "harlequin sellers," is credited with coining this term in English. She has found numerous postcards featuring pictures of these women, but never their names or their stories. The photographs seem to treat them and their customers as a subject of curiosity, for the bourgeois gaze.
These nameless women fed people of all walks of life, who were as diverse as the city itself: starving artists like Picasso and Apollinaire rubbed elbows with laborers like Liabeuf, anarchists with conservative gawkers, and everyone in between. Their stands were to Les Halles what Les Halles was to the city of Paris--the nexus of food, gender, class, and politics.
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"Ces métiers oubliés du Paris d'autrefois." Paris.fr, Updated 4 March 2021.
de Saint Sauveur, Charles. "Liabeuf, l’ouvrier devenu symbole du petit peuple après avoir «dégringolé» un policier." Le Parisien, 13 January 2019.
Du Camp, Maxime. “L'ALIMENTATION DE PARIS: II. LES HALLES CENTRALES.” Revue Des Deux Mondes (1829-1971), vol. 75, no. 4, 1868, pp. 885–916. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44728157.
"The Halles (Paris)." Britannica.com.
"Is France’s groundbreaking food-waste law working?" PBS Newshour, 31 August 2019.
"Marchands d'arlequins : revendeurs de restes de repas des tables riches." France-pittoresque.com, 27 February 2018.
Pagès, Yves. L'Homme hérissé: Liabeuf, tueur de flics. L'insomniaque: Montreuil, 2001.
Privat d'Anglemont, Alexandre. « Paris anecdote » 1854. Bibliothèque nationale de France, gallica.bnf.fr.
TenHoor, Meredith. “Architecture and Biopolitics at Les Halles.” French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 2, 2007, pp. 73–92. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42843502.
Wakefield, Tanu. "Recycling food in 19th-century France: Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q&A." Medium.com, 18 January 2017.
"‘Why the French Hate Doggie Bags’ – In Conversation with Janet Beizer." Liverpool University Press Blog, 26 February 2020.