Reading and Eating Paris


On Food

All images from Hazel and Hewstone Raymenton’s travel journal, England and France, July 1914. By permission of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.


Memories of Paris are entwined with its eateries. From Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to expatriates’ essays in the New York Times following the terrorist attacks in November 2015, writers have shown how their lives in Paris are marked by its restaurants, bakeries, and markets. Hemingway’s account of his postwar Parisian life uses food to define his days, his success, and his relationships. His struggle to find outlets for his fiction is linked with the tantalizing “bakery shops” that “had such good things in the windows and people [eating] outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food.” He recounts meeting authors and artists for aperitifs or champagne, explaining that “drinking wine … was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.” He wrote in cafés amid the “smell of café crèmes.” A century later, news of the November attacks brought nostalgia for one writer, who, no longer in Paris, recalled the market “beckoning with the smell of roasting chickens” and “the flash of bright fruit against stark winter skies.” Another essayist described his decision, days later, to seek out the farmers and vendors of his local market. Its reopening, he wrote, reflected the resilience of Paris: “the market will be a celebration of the city itself, unvanquished, animated and always hungry.”

For those who come to Paris as either actual or armchair tourists, guidebooks discuss how and where to savor the city’s food. Galignani’s 1830 guide for English-speaking visitors, as David McCullough observes, promised readers that French cafés and restaurants, characterized by elegance and quality, were superior to those of London. The Galignani guide explained everything from pricing to the Parisian habit of “lounging away nearly the whole of the day in cafés” to the French dish of “fried and fricasseed frogs,” which, readers were assured, “are an acknowledged and exquisite luxury.” Reading has long been a prelude to eating well in Paris. 

Although McCullough notes many Americans’ appreciation for French food, readers did not always respond with simple enthusiasm. Annotations in a restaurant guidebook by a pair of readers in the 1920s create a guide within a guide, an account of their growing familiarity with Paris and its cuisine. The readers were Hazel J. Raymenton and her husband, Hewston Knight Raymenton, known as Remy. When they married, in October 1912, Hazel became part of a New England upper-class family, as Remy was the son of a Worcester doctor and a Yale graduate. Their marriage was announced in the Emerson College Magazine, among other publications. One, with the headline “Bride Gifted in Elocution,” noted Hazel’s degree from the Emerson College of Oratory. The Boston Evening Transcript also reported that “Mrs. and Mrs. Raymenton start at once for a trip through France, Italy, and England.”

While no record of that trip exists, the couple kept a diary that details a second European trip two years later, beginning in 1914 in England. The initial pages of their joint travelogue provide dates and places of embarkment and arrival, cities and churches visited, with further descriptive details. The diary includes mementoes, like a feather from the Sherwood Forest, and magazine clippings about the venues they visited.

Their travel plans brought them to Paris in late July 1914, which they hailed as returning to a familiar and lovely setting. They would revisit “their old favorites” in the Louvre, and Hazel would buy “a lovely hat at my old shop in the Rue del Opera.” Their first full day in Paris, though, was spent window shopping and church visiting. “Later,” she wrote, “we tackled the Champs-Elysée, where we accidentally sat down for ten minutes to watch the crowd and give Remy a chance to abuse me for wearing shoes that hurt me.” Breakfast in bed—“as usual”—and drinks in “the open air” or in parks with ducks and musicians offered her solace amid crowds and dark, musty museums. Remy singled out Parisian cuisine, praising a dinner at Viels as being “very fine as is usual in France, the home of the world’s best cooks.” For several days, their stay continued this way: expensive afternoon coffee, exquisite dinners, and observations about the city’s cultural highlights. When a late-night burlesque show prompted Remy to proclaim, “Paris is quite as wicked as I had expected and decidedly too fast for me,” Hazel made him claim the remarks as his own judgment, rather than one they shared.

Unrest following the assassination of the socialist Jean Jaurès and a run on French banks after France declared war on July 28 did not, initially, disrupt the Raymentons’ plans. Within days, however, money matters became acutely difficult, along with anyone’s ability to travel within or outside of France. When Germany declared war on Russia, Hazel’s complaint that “all of our waiters and cooks have gone to war, so that we are forced to eat outside” sounds like a line lifted from a Downton Abbey script. Once the sight of “very weepy” women “kissing the men goodbye” replaced views of landmarks and gardens, Hazel seemed to realize the significance of the events they were witnessing. She declared that she had “no idea what will become of us” and that she would not write any more without calm and perspective. Although Hazel no longer wrote in their diary, Remy continued to document their experiences in Paris during the first days of World War I and their passage back to the United States. At home, the Raymentons resumed a life both social and supportive of the war effort, and as soon as practicable, they embarked on another European vacation.

Along with other Americans who had first seen France in the 1910s, they returned to Paris in the twenties. This time, Hazel and her husband traveled with Le guide du gourmand à Paris. This guidebook was a small volume of little more than a hundred pages that was revised and reprinted some five times between 1922 and 1929, first in French and then in English. The book gives no explicit account of its revisions, but some editions include forms for reader feedback that could be sent to the publisher to inform future editions. These versions also include a questionnaire that asked whether the book had been helpful, whether the reader liked its organization, and what he or she would exclude or add; all these pages remain in the two copies the Raymentons owned. Its pages describe the food one might eat; the availability of house wine or pre–World War I vintages, depending on the site; the presence of journalists, businessmen, and attractive women among one’s fellow diners. Published pseudonymously, the small book is associated with Robert Burnand, a French historian who published numerous books about Paris, such as Everyday Life in France from 1870 to 1900, under his own name.

The Guide touted itself as an informed, insider’s guide. It promised quality rather than venues already in the public eye. Burnand argued that little-known eateries would not be compromised by any popularity that might ensue from his readers’ patronage, suggesting instead that readers and extant customers were all “people of taste.” The Guide was organized into four main categories based on the cost of dining, with others for “food shops,” “foreign cooking,” as well as nearby cities and foods from notable regions, such as Alsace and Burgundy; an index clustered eateries by destination and neighborhood. At times, the descriptions verge on rhapsody, calling to mind “the beautiful butter … and all the other good things that hail from the rich valleys of the Seine” in Normandy, the “illustrious vintages [of Burgundy] of which one can hardly speak without emotion,” and the “wonderful rosy hued Rhone wines, born of the soil of Provence and the powerful sun of the Vivarais.”

When Hazel and her husband came back to Paris after the war, they bought Burnand’s guide in both French and English. Their heavily annotated 1925 French edition of the book documents their renewed familiarity with the place whose food they had loved before, showing them as readers of both Burnand and the city itself. Where the earlier diaries were a conversation between husband and wife about their discovery of a storied city, marginalia in their French copy of the Guide show them as readers, eaters, and writers in dialogue with Burnand’s words and judgments. The nature of their remarks suggests educated and spirited reviewers who rewrote the Guide to reflect their own taste and knowledge. 

Hazel and Remy systematically sought out restaurants in the Guide, checking off each visit and noting changes of address or closures. They had their favorites, praising the “good food, good wine, careful service” at Radié, and they echoed Burnand’s spare praise of another restaurant’s “public élegant, salle charmant” with the assessment that it was indeed a “thoroughly delightful restaurant.”  They critiqued the interior of Laroche, which Burnand described as a small, humble restaurant offering provincial dishes near the Bon Marché, finding it “so clean and bright it looks like an operating room.” Despite the atmosphere, Remy conceded, it had “good food.” Occasionally, they seemed puzzled, asking, “But who wants Norwegian food?” about a Scandinavian place on the rue Vavin before conceding that it had a “good bar.”

More often, though, they responded to Burnand’s assessments with assertive evaluations of their own. They were not afraid to revise their opinions, as in the case of the Grill Room on the Place Saint-Michel, where initially they liked the food and disliked the service. Later, Remy scratched through their first impressions and penciled in what they found notable after revisiting the restaurant. Sometimes, the response is a colloquial rejoinder, as when they met Burnand’s enthusiasm for La Poule au Pot with the dismissive “It used to be good but is steadily going downhill,” or his praise of Au Petit Marguery with “a miserable place.” Where Burnand classified Maxim’s as a “luxurious restaurant,” the Raymentons argued that it “lives on its reputation.”

If Hemingway regarded Paris as a moveable feast, an experience that endured and ennobled the visitor even after leaving the city, Hazel and Remy seemed determined to return and to immerse themselves in it after fleeing during the first days of the Great War. That war, historian Margaret Macmillan has observed, left its mark on Paris, whose streets, even in the peace that followed, included refugees, wounded veterans, and damage to landmarks from Germany’s long-range “Paris guns.” In his preface to the Guide, Burnand quoted a statesman who said, “Peace must be a perpetual creation,” and the same was true of Le guide du gourmand a Paris, he wrote: the problem is “that which we wrote may be true at the moment, and no longer be a month later.” His tone signals a need for maintenance and rebuilding, even of things made of words, and Hazel and Remy, with theirs, contributed to this effort to ensure that the best of what Paris had to offer would be known and celebrated. With Burnand and other postwar visitors, the Raymentons sought to enjoy and to ensure the record of Paris’s culinary heritage.

My visit to Paris last year, with my husband and mother, coincided with the Bastille Day attacks in Nice. In Paris, on July 15, I woke to the headline “Gagner la guerre” and images of helmeted soldiers in Le Figaro; I ate a breakfast of pain au chocolat and café au lait and went out into the city. At Notre Dame, police carrying automatic rifles walked among the crowds outside the church as Mass took place inside. The doors of the Musée d’Orsay closed as the city paused for a commemorative moment of silence. Later, I boarded a train after a day at the national library and found myself in a car with a trio of French police in protective gear and carrying arms; back at our hotel, the television recounted the details of an ax-wielding attacker on a German train.

 The effect of reading what others have written—the memoirs and the guidebooks and the photo essays—is that visiting Paris for the first time is revisiting it. Other writers’ impressions encourage us to seek out special places, to read menus in hopes of a particular dish, and to leave us laughing with recognition and wonder when we find ourselves standing at a landmark we weren’t looking for but found anyway. Yet even as I approached an old corner restaurant and wondered if it might be in Hazel and Remy’s guidebook, a block or so later, everything—the guide, the terrorists, the crowds of tourists and the late July heat—would be forgotten at the sight of a dragon-carved stone doorway or a small, peaceful garden. The great duality of Paris—the way its history forces you into the present, the moment of your witnessing it for the first time—made sense of the Raymentons’ attempts to relish their time in a threatened city a century ago.

When we came across a St. Germain bistro in a cool, shaded alley, its appeal was immense. With my first bite of risotto aux asperges at a small table propped up by a stack of coasters along a cobbled street that had been the site of events of the French Revolution, the Raymentons’ words came back to me. They had written wistfully about L’Étoile du Nord, calling it “a splendid restaurant,” and Remy added, “If I lived in the Quarter, I fear I should eat nowhere but here.” Years later, at an entirely different restaurant, his words were still true. The creamy risotto and the clear, crisp wine were all I wanted, so I raised a glass, across the years, to Hemingway and to Hazel, and all the writers whose words wrought this city for me before I had a place at one of its tables.


Jennifer Burek Pierce lives and writes in the Midwest. She is on the faculty of the University of Iowa and is the author of What Adolescents Ought to Know. Her next project is a book called Readers, Writers, Citizens