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Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q&A: Janet Beizer on the history of leftovers


A postcard image of the marketplace in Paris, where lower classes would purchase the leftover food scraped from the plates of upper classes.
Photo Credit: 
Image courtesy of Janet Beizer

Professor Janet Beizer teaches nineteenth and early twentieth century French literature and cultural studies at Harvard University in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. She is currently a Martha Sutton Weeks fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. While at the center this year, Beizer is working on a book project tentatively called The Harlequin Eaters: The Patchwork Imaginary of Nineteenth-Century Paris.

The concept of “Harlequin Eaters” refers to the practice of reassembling dinner scraps cleared from the plates of the wealthy to sell, re-plated as “harlequins,” to the poor. Originally a slang term referring to the plate of leftovers from fancy dinners that was sold down the social ladder as scraps for the poor, the “harlequin” was popularized by midcentury. The success of this practice depended on a sizable upper class and lower class gathered in one urban space: Paris. Beizer investigates how the alimentary harlequin and the Commedia dell’arte Harlequin character, similarly patch-worked, evolve analogously in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Together, they prepare modernism’s aesthetic of fragments, collage, and metamorphosis.

Beizer has published broadly on the connections between literature and cultural history; gender and representation; medical culture; travel and its compulsive double, fugue; and alimentary poetics. Her other books include Thinking through the Mothers: Reimagining Women’s BiographiesVentriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France ; and Family Plots: Balzac’s Narrative Generations.

Recently Beizer talked about her research at the Stanford Humanities Center:

As a specialist in nineteenth-century French literature, what intrigues you about the history of the harlequin eaters and this practice of eating?

The history of the harlequin eaters for me is above all a kaleidoscope of stories. The concept of the alimentary harlequin not only takes meaning from other uses of the term, for instance, the Commedia dell’arte Harlequin character, but also anything mixed, patchworked, scrappy, that can be represented as harlequin-like: think of harlequin as an adjective. Also, thinking just about the alimentary harlequin, there are many stories about this kind of eating that can be told from very different perspectives and using different affective tones. The typical bourgeois novelist or journalist who wrote about the practice in the nineteenth century (and on to the present) spoke with contempt and ridicule of both the practice and the clients. For the less affluent eating these dishes, there were other responses, different kinds of affect possible: aspiration toward the food of the rich, and indirectly, toward their privileges; fantasized knowledge of the arcane Other taken in with the food; revolt against one’s ordinarily very constrained material circumstances. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists and writers took the aesthetic of the patchwork and the kaleidoscopic as an ideal: emblem of revolt, of nonconformity, of otherness.

How did the postcard image of “The Harlequin Merchant” (1905) shape your inquiry into food culture in France of the period?

In fact, there are dozens of postcard photographs under the title of “The Harlequin Merchant” or something close to that; the harlequin was a familiar part of market life in the mid to late century, and around the time postcards caught on as a mode of modern communication (after 1870), images of the harlequin merchant, client, and phenomenon became fairly common. Initially, I sought detail of the food on the plates in the various harlequin merchant images — but eventually realized I wasn’t going to find it; the clients and sellers of harlequins were at least as much the focus of interest as the plates themselves. I realized that the poor who ate other people’s used food were objects of curiosity (and contempt) for bourgeois viewers.

Since the alimentary harlequin takes its name from the Commedia dell’arte Harlequin how exactly are they linked? How does the harlequin concept usher in Modernism?

Commentators from the nineteenth century on, up to today, tend to assume the alimentary harlequin takes its name from the resemblance of its piecemeal, ragtag aspect to the checkered costume of the Commedia dell’arte Harlequin figure.

Scraps and fragments of fine French cuisine, as it was being formulated and codified during this nineteenth-century period, trickled down from the tables of the wealthy to the mouths of the poor for the good reason that lavishness and ostentatiousness and excess was the name of the game in upper-crust circles. There is also a darker truth, which is that the description of the harlequin plate as scrappy, messy, hodgepodge also corresponded to bourgeois descriptions of the harlequin clients, members of the lower classes down on their luck, reduced to eating leftovers of their “betters.” Time and again journalists and novelists describe the harlequin clients (and sellers, for that matter) as raggedy, uncombed, slovenly, badly put together.

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, artists and writers such as Picasso, Apollinaire, and later, Nabokov, reappropriated the figure of Harlequin, the valet-clown-fool, as rebel artist, non-conforming human, marginal. Picasso and friends would have been eating harlequin plates at this time, when they were starving artists for at least a period of a few years, in Paris. I want to argue that there’s a longer-term connection to be established from the Commedia dell’arte Harlequin to the food harlequin to modernism’s rebel harlequin, and that the food harlequin plays a role of emblematic revolt against bourgeois attempts at the degradation of this way of eating and also of these eaters.

Along with the postcards and literary allusions to harlequins that you have researched, what other sources are you consulting to write your book? Have you visited archives and, if so, what kind of sources have you examined or would like to find?

I’ve worked quite a bit in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, which has a wonderful collection of nineteenth-century books about small trades and tradespeople (what the French call “les petits métiers”: street trades such as mustache trimmers, lemon zest collectors, ragpickers, sweets sellers, finger and toe-nail cutters, and, of course, harlequin sellers). There was recognition, in the second part of the nineteenth century and very early twentieth, that these street trades were part of a disappearing way of life, and this generated a lot of ink in the service of what I like to call “nostalgia books.” Also the BHVP has some archival material — unpublished papers by some of my literary sources, such as the writers Eugène Sue and George Sand, whose work includes harlequins of various sorts (alimentary and theatrical). What I’ve yet to find, either at the BHVP or the BNF (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), or anywhere else, is testimony from the clients of harlequin sellers themselves, who were probably ashamed, illiterate, or preoccupied with simply earning a living, and would not have had as a priority to recount their experiences.
I’ve also visited a number of museums in England and France, and will go to a few sites in Italy, to see pictures of the Harlequin character. And each time I go to Paris I spend time in the wonderful Picasso Museum in the Marais, because Picasso was inspired by the figure of the theatrical Harlequin, and the aesthetic inspired by the scrappiness of both the alimentary and theatrical figures. (And I work with some writers, like Balzac and Zola, whose work is so well published that I need only go to bookstores or libraries!)

Has your research changed the way you think about your subject matter?

Most people I tell about the harlequin institution (meaning the institutionalized selling of leftovers) have a reflex “uggghhh” reaction, and I remember that at the beginning I did as well. But as the project evolved and I thought more about it, I began to feel this wasn’t fair: eating, like other aspects of culture, is class-bound and culturally determined, as is taste (aesthetic and sensory) and it’s from a very privileged standpoint that one feels that eating leftovers is appalling.

I began to question why the harlequin would be alluring to people not in a position of power and privilege, and I don’t mean only because it was a last resort and that they were hungry. I’m thinking more about the fantasy of sharing the “high life,” of participating in haute cuisine, which was in the process of being codified during the nineteenth century (and by the way, probably much because the concept was popularized through all strata of society by the harlequin).

I think too about the differences between lower class eating habits, necessarily entrenched in substantiality and variety, as opposed to bourgeois and upper class “refined dining” that depended on discretion, on order and sequencing of dishes. I’ve thought too about the fact that there’s an implicit association of the poor with garish colors, uncouth, brutish manners and taste, and mixing rather than discriminating. All of these suppositions about “the people” are projected onto their eating practices to make a derisory picture of their feeding habits, epitomized in a sense by harlequin eating. So I’ve learned to be more reflective about how ideology informs representations of taste, and how cultural presuppositions are projected onto histories and stories.