By Kristen Howard
A team of students working under Nathalie Cooke, Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) is attempting to unravel the mystery of an illustrated French picnic menu.
The menu portrays a couple in fashionable Regency-era clothing – him, a tailcoat and striped waistcoat with top hat, and her, an elaborate spotted yellow dress with full sleeves and matching hat with trimmings – who have travelled to a forest scene in a single horse and buggy. Their picnic basket is accompanied by a baguette, several bottles of wine, and a pug.
This menu is much more than it seems: although it seems to describe a “déjeuner sur l’herbe” in 1830, we soon realized this was not the case: the printing house indicated on the menu – Stern – did not open until 1834.
Édouard Manet’s famous painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was not completed until 1863, after which the phrase became evocative. Is this menu and its comparatively modestly dressed female protagonist (indeed, she appears to be sporting a wimple) an allusion to the nude figure in Manet’s painting?
Finally, the menu’s artist, the French impressionist and modernist Henry Morin, whose signature can be seen under the horse and buggy, was born only in 1873. The menu must, therefore, have been created long after the 1830 date indicated in the text.
If we turn to the food items on the menu, we find even more to question: the courses are described curiously as prologue, résistance, and pour la fin, rather than the phrases we expect on a menu (e.g., potage, entrées, and entremets). There are certainly metaphorical aspects to food and drink items on this menu; for example, Chablis “de la bonne année”, “liqueur de Vespétro et de parfait amour”, and “beaucoup de bonne humeur”.
We think this curious menu may come from a fictional meal, perhaps well-known at the time that Morin was painting, or perhaps from the children’s magazine Mon Journal for which Morin was the main illustrator between 1897 and 1925. But to add to our confusion, the menu has been reprinted at least twice that we know of: first with artwork in F.G. Dumas’ Almanach des gourmands (1904)(see the image below), and again – but only the food items – in celebrated chef August Escoffier’s Le livre des menus (1912). In Dumas’ book, the menu is attributed to Philéas Gilbert, a French chef who worked with Escoffier on his famed Le guide culinaire (published 1903).
This menu, then, was well-known to some of the most famous chefs at the turn of the twentieth century, but remains mysterious to us. What we have yet to discover is if this menu was for an event (real or fictional), when it was created, or how widely known it was. Solving this mystery would certainly leave us avec beaucoup de bonne humeur – in high spirits!
F.G. (François Guillaume) Dumas, Almanach des gourmands. Fondé par Grimod de la Reynière en 1803. Continué sous la direction de F.-G. Dumas. (Paris: Librairie Nilsson, Per Lamm, successeur: London: Nilsson Co., 1904), p. 133. Digitized by Johnson & Wales University Library