- The Erotic Poetry of Begué’s Breakfast Register
For the buttoned-up middle classes of the late nineteenth-century United States, the city of New Orleans served as a getaway destination where they could loosen their collars. Beginning in the 1880s, railroads and steamships operated tourist lines to the Crescent City, encouraging customers to make pleasure trips there (Gotham 55). New Orleans was famed both for its French-influenced gastronomy and for its rampant sex trade, two indulgences that were closely linked in the Anglo-American imagination. Restaurants had been associated with prostitution since they originated in late eighteenth-century Paris, clustered around the Palais Royal, a common site for commercial sex (Spang 210; Gonzales-Quijano 2–3). French restaurants in particular carried a sexual frisson, and many of the earliest French restaurants in English and American cities, such as Kettner’s in London and The Poodle Dog in San Francisco, had cabinets particuliers, or private rooms, where men could dine with women who were not their wives. New Orleans restaurants did not need private rooms to be eroticized; their location in that notorious city was sufficient. The famous Breakfast Register of New Orleans’s most beloved late nineteenth-century restaurant, Begué’s, offers eloquent—and sometimes not so eloquent—evidence of the erotic thrills that visitors associated with eating in the city (fig. 1).
Begué’s, located across the street from the historic French Market, at the corner of Decatur and Madison Streets, opened in the early 1880s and became famous among tourists even before the 1884 World’s Fair was held in New Orleans. Its proprietors were Hippolyte Begué, a butcher originally from Gascony, and his wife, Elizabeth Begué, née Kettenring, a Bavarian immigrant. Mme. Begué, as she was known, did the cooking, while M. Begué worked the front of the house. The restaurant initially served the butchers of the French Market, offering a multicourse “second breakfast” at 11:00 a.m., after their stalls closed (Tooker 52–53). A precursor to the modern brunch, this meal echoed the Bavarian tradition of “brotzeit,” or a snack of bread and cheese or ham, eaten an hour before noon. Mme. Begué’s menu, however, was more French than Bavarian, and centred each day on a large omelette stuffed with robust fillings, such as fried oysters, veal and mushrooms, and sweetbreads (Fertel 64). Begué’s also followed the French model of serving wine with the meal, which stretched for three to four hours, often leaving [End Page 187] the diners more than a little tipsy. Tourists who took the night train from Chicago could step off their Pullman sleeping cars at Union Station and go straight to Begué’s to begin their New Orleans escapades with a bang. A meal at Begué’s, as one enthusiast described it, was “three hours of fun, eating, drinking and smoking” (“Noted” 4).
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Almost as famous as the omelettes and wine at Begué’s were its breakfast registers, great leather-bound rosters in which customers were encouraged to leave spontaneous verses after their meals. When the Southern Pacific Railroad published a pamphlet of Mme. Begué’s recipes in 1900 to sell to [End Page 188] tourists, half the pages were given over to poetry reprinted from the registers. The cookbook even had as its frontispiece a picture of a young couple, likely newlyweds, sitting together on a train reading the book together, with lines printed below that went, “A little book / About a cook, And viands in array; / If thou’lt peruse, / Thoul’t not refuse / To breakfast at Begue” (Begué et al.). The pleasures of Begué’s were equal parts textual and gustatory (fig. 1).
Customers enjoyed leafing through the pages of the breakfast registers and reading lines left by previous diners before they composed their own. There were famous names to be found, such as Eugene Field, Ellen Terry, and F. Marion Crawford. Diners sometimes commented on the verses...