La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.
From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.
Coffee as aphrodisiac
In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.
By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.
Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?
In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).
Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.
The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.
Gourmandise and Gourmandine
Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.
Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.
Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.
Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.
Couture, Coco and Colette
The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”
Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.
Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?
Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.
Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.
Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris