18th century P.O.W. Antoine Parmentier
with Potato Soup
(e-SoupSong 27: July 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME, a young French apothicaire sous-aide joined the army of Louis XV to battle Frederick II's Prussians in Westphalia. In the course of this Seven Years War (1756-1763), he was wounded; he was taken prisoner 5 times; and, as a prisoner of war, he was given 3 squares a day...of potatoes.
You know, potatoes--that New World vegetable, related to deadly nightshade, that every good Frenchman knew caused leprosy. Or was poisonous. Or was food for pigs. Or was just plain awful: in the words of Legrand d'Aussy, "The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality of this food, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households...."
This was mid 18th century France, half rooted in superstition and autocratic imperative, half "enlightened"; addicted to bread; constantly at war; a ferment of revolutionary ideas and scientific inquiries. And Antoine-Augustin Parmentier--for that was the apothecary's name--was a man of his times...and then some.
Born in Picardy, on the Somme River at Mondidier, he was orphaned at an early age. Too poor for school, he was apprenticed at 18 to a pharmacy in Paris, hence to the army and the battlefields of Germany. There, on an all-potato P.O.W. diet, he passed his days examining potato plantings in Hanover, thinking about la guerre, about la vie, and about the chemistry of food.
At war's end, he returned to Paris with ambition on his mind. Off duty, it was study, study, study, until he finally secured the plum post of "Apothecary" at L'Hôtel des Invalides, the King's showcase for old soldiers and military honors. But how to move ahead from there?
Fate took a hand. France's wheat crop failed, and bread--the French staff of life, the very soul of its cuisine--disappeared from boulangerie shelves. There was panic in the streets, prompting l'Académie de Besançon in 1769 to offer a prize for the best study of "food substances capable of reducing the calamities of famine." Parmentier, who had never stopped his quest into the chemistry of food nor forgotten his belly full of potatoes in Germany, entered the competition. Three years later, Examen Chymique des Pommes de terre swept the gold...and brought him to the attention of Buffon, Voltaire, and, yes, Louis XVI, newly ascended to the throne with his madcap wife Marie Antoinette.
It wasn't until the next famine in 1785, though, that France unconditionally surrendered to his potatoes.
How'd he do it? It was a well conducted campaign.
First he breached the royal ramparts. Would His Majesty have the kindness to observe the beauty of flowering potatoes? Louis XVI reputedly popped one in his buttonhole while Marie Antoinette gaily secured a bouquet of them in her bosom.
Then he sent artillery rounds of potatoes into genteel society, staging elaborate "potato theme" dinners for the movers and shakers of the day--including, apparently, America's rakish new diplomat, Ben Franklin. These extraordinary affairs featured potato soup, potato entree, potato entremets, potato salad, potato bread, potato cake, and potato cookies, all topped off with a potato digestif. Imagine.
Next he deployed a Trojan Potato to break the resistance of the peasantry. Louis XVI gave him 2 hectares of military land near Paris, at la plaine des Sablons à Neuilly, to grow potatoes. Patrolled by day by Royal soldiers, the plot was left unguarded at night, irresistibly drawing the locals who stealthily harvested the apparently forbidden fruit to savor over a home fire.
Above all, big-hearted guy that he was, Parmentier launched a fleet of potato soup kitchens in Paris, deploying bowls of rich, steaming potato soup into the hands of the starving masses. Louis XVI was delighted: "France will thank you some day," he said, "for having found bread for the poor."
What could top this? Surely end of story. Mais non. Parmentier had many more potatoes in his pockets. And in 4 short years, when all hell broke loose, Parmentier was there with them in hand.
That darling of the Royals was on the spot when Parisian mobs broke into l'Hôtel des Invalides to drag its arms and cannon off for the 1789 Bastille assault...and in no time his treatise on "Growing and Cooking Potatoes" was for sale at all the best Republican bookshops. He was there when Parisians cried "La Liberté--et les Patatas" in the streets. He was there, after Louis and Marie's heads had rolled, when the Committee of Public Safety planted seed potatoes in the ornamental gardens of the Tuileries Palace. And, being French, he was likely growling, "Mon Dieu, you go too far!" when the Paris Commune blessed potatoes as "Revolutionary food" and made their consumption compulsory.
If Major Parmentier of the Royal Army had saved France with potato soup, so had Citizen Parmentier. And Napoleon was appreciative. In no time it was Parmentier, Health Advisor...then Parmentier, Member of the Academy of Science...then Parmentier, Pharmacist of the Armies...then Parmentier, Inspector-General of the National Health Service. Napoleon had no sooner created the fabled Legion d'Honneur in 1802 than he pinned one on Parmentier's breast.
An extraordinary life at an extraordinary time. Parmentier died happy and old in 1813, just months after Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow. What more could a man ask than to rise out of poverty through the engines of education and science...to consort with Kings...to survive the Revolution and be honored by an Emperor? Okay, maybe in his heart of hearts he always wanted to be a star. In a sense, he came close. Interred at Pere Lachaise cemetery, Division 39, place 56, he's just a short walk away from the bones of rock star Jim Morrison.
Apothecary, Scientist, Reformer, Hygienist, Humanist, and Agriculturist, Parmentier lives on in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of his countrymen...every time they dip into a fragrant bowl of Potage Parmentier.
Garnish: chopped parsley or chives
- 3 cups leeks, white and tender green parts, sliced
(although not original to the recipe, the soup is enriched by sautéeing the leeks in 3
- Tablespoons of butter as a first step)
- 4 cups potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 8 cups water (chicken stock is not orginal, but is awfully good)
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 6 Tablespoons heavy cream
In a Dutch oven, simmer the potatoes, leeks, and salt in the water until all are very tender--about 50 minutes. Puree the mixture, then correct seasoning. When ready to serve, stir in the cream, ladle into bowls or a tureen, and decorate with herbs.
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Pardon, mesdames et messieurs, I just can't bring myself to stop here. Not now, not in the heat of this dogday summer afternoon in Washington, DC, when the entire overheated city and political process could use the cooling elixir of vichyssoise.
Brilliant French chef Louis Diat--who created crème vichyssoise glacée in New York City of all places--ate hot potato soup for breakfast every day of his childhood in the tiny village of Bourbonnais Montmarault. Oh, how he loved it. In fact, the first dish he ever cooked on his own, at the age of 8, was leek and potato soup. Parmentier would have been so proud.
By 1900, Diat had apprenticed in Moulins, then--following in Parmentier's footsteps--was off to Paris to learn the regal craft of haute cuisine...and he practiced these arts at the Ritz Hotels in Paris and London. But then, revolution! César Ritz guillotined the old regime of fantastically elaborate dishes and extravagant feasts. He sent Chef Diat to New York to raise the revolutionary standard of exquisite flavor, texture, and simple excellence at the spanking new Ritz-Carlton. Death to exotic affectation! And so, ultimately, vichyssoise was born. Diat says, "I remembered how mamam used to cool our breakfast soup, on a warm morning, by adding cold milk to it. A cup of cream, an extra straining, and a sprinkle of chives, et voila, I had my new soup. I named my version of mamam's soup after Vichy, the famous spa located not 20 miles from our Bourbonnaise home, as a tribute to the fine cooking of the region."
Garnish: chopped chives
- 3 large leeks, white parts only, washed well and sliced thinly
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 cup whipping cream
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat, then stir in the leeks and saute at a very low temperature, stirring occasionally, until they are golden. Add the stock, potatoes, and salt--bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer for 40 minutes. Puree, then press through a sieve to get a very fine texture (twice, to please Diat). Return to the saucepan, add the milk and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, stir in the cream, adjust for seasoning (cold soups should be slightly overseasoned), and chill overnight.
When ready to serve, ladle into serving cups and sprinkle with chopped fresh chives. Chef Diat recommends that you serve it in an elegant 2-handled consommé cup...but nested glass bowls, with shaved ice in the bottom cup, are just adorable.
Best regards...and bon appetit!
Resources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; Richard Cobb's Voices of the French Revolution; Louis Diat's Gourmet's Basic French Cookbook; W. Scott Haine's The History of France; Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; Larousse Gastronomique; William H. McNeill's "How the Potato Changed the World"; Antoine Augustin Parmentier's Les pommes de terre; "Portraits de médecins"; Waverly Root's Food; Scribner's Dictionary of Scientific Biography; and an assortment of excellent news articles and websites.
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NEXT MONTH: Vendetta Soup