The Corn on the Cob Debacle

Some of the anecdotes I have found in the course of my research have been amusing and revealing. None more so than this one from 1866, which I mentioned in my post about Jane (Thorn) de Pierres. It is such an insight into the tone and day to day court life of Napoleon 111 and Empress Eugenie.

This memory was recalled by Lillie Moulton, an American singer in Paris, married to Charles Moulton. I’ll follow this post with an anecdote about her first encounter with Herman Thorn, a decade before. It may well explain the tone of this story, and Lillie’s subtle disapproval of Jane Mary.

Some of the people noted at dinner are the very famous builder/architect Baron Haussmann and the Duke de Persigny of whom Napoleon said: “The Empress is a LegitimistMorny is an OrleanistPrince Napoleon is a Republican, and I myself am a Socialist. There is only one Bonapartist, Persigny – and he is mad!” (Wiki).

Lillie Moulton

Lillie Moulton’s letter:

DEAR M.,–We were invited to go out to Fontainebleau yesterday for dinner. We found it a very hot ride from Paris, and really suffered in the crowded train. When we arrived at the station we found a coupe from the Imperial stables waiting for us, and an extra carriage for the maid, the valet, and the trunk, which contained our change of dress for dinner. I wished that the coupe had been an open carriage. I love to drive through those lovely avenues in the park. Princess Metternich suggested that we should take some green corn with us, as the Empress had expressed the wish to taste this American delicacy, and I took some from Petit Val. On reaching the palace we were met by the Vicomte Walsh, who led the way to the apartment of the Baroness de Pierres, one of the dames d’honneur of the Empress (an American lady, formerly Miss Thorne, of New York), who was expecting us.

You may imagine my astonishment at seeing her smoking–what do you think? Nothing less than a real common clay pipe, and you may imagine her surprise at seeing me, followed by my servant, who carried a large basket containing the corn. I told her about it, and that I had brought some at the instigation of the Princess Metternich, in order that the Empress could try it. She seemed to be delighted at the idea, and exclaimed, ”We must get hold of the chef at once and tell him how to cook it.” She rang her bell and gave the order. Promptly Monsieur Jean appeared in his fresh white apron and immaculate jacket and white couvre-chef .

Baroness de Pierres and I surpassed ourselves in giving contradictory directions as to the cooking of it. She thought it ought to be boiled a long time, while I maintained that it required very little time.
”You must leave the silk on,” said she.
”Has it got silk?” asked the bewildered chef.
I was of the opinion that the husks should be taken off.

“By no means!” she declared, and explained that in America the corn was always served in
the husk.
The chef, trying to analyze this unusual article of food, lifted one of the ears from the basket and examined it.
”En robe de chambre, alors, Madame!” said he, and looked dismayed at these complications.
”Yes,” she replied, ”just like a potato– en robe de chambre .”
We could hear him as he left the room, followed by the basket, muttering to himself, ”Soie! robe de chambre! Soie! robe de chambre!” in his most satirical tone.

I began to feel a little nervous about it myself, and wondered if for this broth there had not been too many cooks.
We went out before dinner to see the famous carp; I looked in vain for the one with the ring in its nose. At dinner, besides the Household, were the Princess Mathilde, Monsieur Ollivier, Monsieur Perriere, the Duke de Persigny, Baron Haussmann, and several statesmen. The corn came in due time served as l´egume .

I was mortified when I saw it appear, brought in on eight enormous silver platters, four ears on each. It looked pitiful! Silk, robe de chambre and all, steaming like a steam-engine. Every one looked aghast, and no one dared to touch it; and when I wanted to show them how it was eaten in its native land they screamed with laughter.

Baron Haussmann asked me if the piece I was playing (he meant on the flute) was in la-bemol?
I looked to the Baroness de Pierres for support; but, alas! her eyes refused to meet mine and were fixed on her plate.
I tried to make the corn less objectionable by unwrapping the cobs and cutting off the corn. Then I added butter and salt, and it was passed about; first, of course, to the Emperor, who liked it very much; but the Empress pushed her plate aside with a grimace, saying, ”I don’t like it; it smells like a baby’s flannels.”

Duke de Persigny

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