Champagne, Oysters, and Philosophy

Salon til the break of dawn. Source: picture alliance

In his 1882 classic of German literature “Schach von Wuthenow,” Theodore Fontane paints a detailed historical picture of Prussian aristocracy, and with it, the important function of the salon in German society. One of the work’s main characters, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, offers a succinct but accurate definition of the social get-together: “Gentlemen,” he said after a meal with his illustrious male guests, “we have dined well, but what we lack are the women, and along with them the wine, the effervescence of our life.”

Food, wine, intellectual exchange and a co-ed atmosphere – these were the four pillars of salons that came to define the lives of thinkers, philosophers and artists in past centuries. Equally as important, salons became the forum in which the emerging bourgeoisie and gentry would interact – a form of gathering created and promoted in particular by women.

Historically, salons drew their vitality from the mixture of guests. In her essay “De l’esprit de conversation,” French author and salonnière Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) insisted that a good salon ignites sparks of wit among guests. Potsdam-based historian and salon expert Brunhilde Wehinger explains that this intellectual flourish “can be compared with the exhilaration that champagne imparts to those who know how to enjoy it.”

Salon culture spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming an alternative to the often stiff gatherings of courtly society.

Indeed, champagne fits the salon’s noble beginnings. One of the first salonnières is said to have been the Marquise de Rambouillet who, in early 17th century Paris, regularly organized gatherings for a circle of like-minded aristocratic and bourgeois guests. Salon culture spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming an alternative to the often stiff gatherings of courtly society. Initially, salons were mostly held in the elegant drawing rooms of private homes (“salon” means “large room”). Importantly, hosts invited not only aristocrats, but also scholars, artists and men and women of the “third estate,” i.e. those not received at the royal court but whose company was sought out because they were interesting and eloquent. So it perhaps comes as no surpise that salons functioned as a key source for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideals.

The first Berlin salon was held in 1780 by Jewish intellectual Henriette Herz. It was an act of frustration. Her older husband, a medical doctor, gave lectures about the natural sciences and Enlightenment philosophy in his private chambers, inviting only men. In response, Ms. Herz withdrew to another room, where she assembled a mixed circle of literati and scholars, including Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schlegel, and brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt. In other words: the foundation of the Prussian intellectual class.

Similarly renowned were the gatherings of fellow salon host Rahel Levin, who was also Jewish. It was not by chance that Jewish women played such a special role. They were largely excluded from society events, so often resorted to hosting intellectuals themselves, though around 1800, they didn’t call their evenings “salons,” a term which arose later. Instead, they called the gatherings a “circle,” or a “Thursday.” Guests were allowed to bring along interesting acquaintances and were encouraged to read from works of literature and discuss the news of the day. The culinary offerings were sometimes spartan, and some guests mockingly pointed out the “thin tea and thin slices of buttered bread,” though often coffee, lemonade and pastries were made available. Importantly, it was never clear in advance how many guests would attend and when they would arrive. “Hosting a salon also always meant improvisation,” writes Petra Wilhelmy-Dollinger, the author of one of the subject’s standard work, “The Berlin Salons.” Guests weren’t chained to a fixed seating arrangement but could mix freely – in contrast to courtly banquets or the “deplorable custom of the long supper.”

It was not by chance that Jewish women played such a special role. They were largely excluded from society events, so often resorted to hosting intellectuals themselves.

Many a salonnière developed a culinary “specialty of the house.” At the salon of Hedwig and Marie von Olfers, this was blancmanger, a sweet almond jelly. Over the course of the 19th century, the meals became more substantial. Henriette Mendelssohn, a daughter-in-law to the famed Jewish intellectual, Moses Mendelssohn, complained that the dinners were ruining her financially. But her husband didn’t seem to care: “In the wink of an eye, he has once again invited several notable figures on Sunday; and there I am once more vis à vis pastries and pheasants and oysters ….”

Early salons would not have been conceivable without food and drink, which engendered a feeling of togetherness, a relaxed atmosphere and, insofar as they didn’t lead to extreme drunkeness, a readiness for cultural exchange. Long ago, Theodore Fontane already observed: “What food is on offer is actually the most important question for lovers of culture.”

Over the past fifty years, the salon has often been pronounced dead. But in Berlin, salon offerings today are lively and diverse affairs. Along with decades-old institutions such as the Literary Salon of Britta Gansebohm, there are many salons held in private apartments and houses. Earnest political and literary debates are conducted in at the Salon Kufsteiner Straße. Others are dedicated to music, such as the Blaue Rabe of Christiane Droz in the city’s Schöneberg district, where cake and fruit salad are served with an afternoon concert. Composer Tatjana Komarova offers fellow musicians from her artists’ agency a stage in her Wilmersdorf apartment; afterwards, borscht or cabbage soup is served along with Russian salad and a Lithuanian specialty made from potatoes, eggs and bacon. When the author Nicki Pavlov invites people to the SÜ36 Artists’ Salon at her home in Berlin-Zehlendorf, the guests bring along their own dishes. Salons don’t have to be expensive for hosts, and often, guests make financial contributions for the artists and the food.

And until today, most salons continue to be organized by women. Prince Louis Ferdinand would have felt quite at home.

This article originally appeared in Handelblatt’s sister publication, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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