Chicory and pear- a French restaurant dinner in 1942

I was recently writing a scene where the protagonist enters a French restaurant in 1942.  He’s a downed American pilot attached to the RAF (see Long Way to Thunder Bay excerpt) trying to reach Spain.  He has cash and speaks a little French.  Not possessing ration coupons, he fishes out 500 francs to pay for his meal – hoping this is sufficient to appease the ‘patron’. I mentioned to friends in Paris, Fabien and Agnes, that I was concerned about this scene.  I did not know whether my protagonist was paying way too much.  He might pay a little over the odds, but would 500 francs have been a small fortune in 1942?  Would that amount of money have drawn unwanted attention to him?

The answer appears to be yes, according to:   http://quotidien-parisiens-sous-occupation.paris.fr/detail_238

 Agnes kindly found the above photograph of a Parisian Restaurant (Le Quercy) menu from August 1942.  Itemised in detail, it provides a fascinating insight of the cost and composition of restaurant meals.  The three meals listed cost less than 20 francs each.  Certain items appear only to have been available ‘sous ticket’ (with a restaurant ticket or ration coupon that customers would have secured in advance with their identity cards from official Government agencies).  Other courses appear to have been paid by cash without ticket.

Most noticeable is the absence of meat from the three meals detailed.  Sauteed green beans, chicory ravioli, pears, and chicory in ‘jus’ all feature.  These are foods that would have been grown in and around Paris, and presumably were in season in August.  Other courses included soup or vegetable salad.  My guess is that these would have been….chicory.

In fact, the scarcity of food and monthly ration allowances had plunged by the second half of 1942.  The German occupiers and Vichy regime were tightening their grip on the French people, and on what they consumed.  At weekends therefore, Parisians took to their bicycles or to trains, and headed into the countryside to buy food.  They returned home on Sunday evening, to dodge the German checkpoints set up to catch black-marketeers.  The owner of the Restaurant Le Quercy may himself have run this gauntlet.  Farmers, hitherto perceived as peasants, gained a new elevated status.  City dwellers looked on jealously and hungrily at the butter, cheese, eggs, chicken, hams and other luxuries the farmers produced, and paid high prices to return home with even a few hundred grammes.

Returning to my fictional scene, 500 francs would have been a little much to pay in an ordinary restaurant.  But I sense that to eat chicken, butter and ham, city people with the means to do so, would have paid many times the official price.  Some did so, at clandestine black market restaurants, hidden away in the basements of unassuming private residences or in alleyways in Montmartre.  Yet for most people, chicory and pear would have been all they could afford.  And that is if they ever went to a restaurant at all.

6 thoughts on “Chicory and pear- a French restaurant dinner in 1942

  1. Accepting that the pilot had “cash”, but under his conditions it would be not only be limited but would in all probability have to last ,and be spent carefully as he wasn’t to know how long he would be stuck in France, I think 500 Francs is a bit excessive for a meal. After all 500 Francs was a lot of money in 1942.

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    • Yes, agreed. I have decided that he pays 200 francs. Still loads, but he has thousands with him and is also, he hopes, buying silence from the patron about his lack of ‘tickets’ or ration coupons.

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    • Hi George, Hi Stuart, Hi all! Cheers from Paris! Please do not forget that the Franc was divided by 100 in 1958, according to the Rueff-Pinay Plan, and its adjustment to the Deutsch Mark. Until the changeover to the Euro was complete, my parents (born in the 1940s) still used to convert the prices in old Francs. So 500 news francs = 5 old ones. It gives headaches, I know.

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      • Thanks Fabien. I also recall people of the older generation in France saying that something cost ‘10,000 anciens francs’ and whistling at this enormous amount. In Britain we moved to decimalisation in about 1970, but it took a generation for people to stop talking about sixpences, shillings, and half-crowns. My father however, is so old he remembers the barter system before money was invented.

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  2. Hi Fab et all
    Good to hear from you Fabien.I hope you are all well. Tout va bien chez moi.
    On the book front, 200 francs seems more realistic and stiill at that time ,a reasonable sum of money.
    Palpi Leasage always converted back to old francs as did many older people here with Pounds Shillings and Pence when we went over to decimalisation. I still think there was nothing wrong with the Barter System. A side of bacon could get you a week’s stay in a chamber d’hote .Ca arrive avec nous anciens de guerre !

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  3. http://les-sanglots-longs-des-violons.eklablog.com/le-marche-noir-c17787024

    With thanks to Agnes Heller Buisson in Paris for the research, if you click the above address, you will see a very interesting blog (in French) on food, wine, restaurants, the black market etc, during the occupation.

    One of the most terrifying features: customers were limited (officially at least) to one glass of wine per person in restaurants. Proof, were it needed, that war really is hell.

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