Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Parisians are chomping at the bait to see the opening of Pixar's Ratatouille in cinemas on August 1. Of course, Remy, the endearing hero of Ratatouille, isn't the first adorable rat to become popularized in contemporary culture. Remember dear Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows?

It demonstrates that anthropomorphizing just about any rodent will make the audience coo. Think Pépé le Pieuw, Fievel, Mickey, Rocky, and Jerry (or was it Tom?).

And of course, lest we forget those handsome rogues in the Rat Pack, here are the bad-boy darlings of Hollywood and Vegas, who gave the rat a decidedly hip image in the 1960s.

So, of course, this got me thinking. Why did Pixar concentrate on a rat as the symbol of Paris for the film?

The answer, naturally, has been there all along. Ever-wacky, my mind turned to contemplating Real Rats in Paris.

Warning: Stop reading right here if you have a queasy stomach. See you at the movies August 1!

A bit of rat history. It is now famously known that flea-infested rats were the sneaky culprits of the Black Death in the 14th century. In Paris the plague killed about 800 people a day, ultimately reducing the city's population by about 50%.

What a difference five centuries can make. During the terrible winter of the Siege of Paris in 1871, food was in such shortage that desperate, starving citoyens killed and ate rats. Recipes for preparation of various tasty rat dishes abounded. Rat paté apparently became so popular on restaurant menus that even the price of rats skyrocketed.

Le vendeur des rats pendant le siege de Paris, at the Musee Carnavalet.

Just a year later, once the food shortage passed, carnivorous Parisians had presumably returned to consumption of more standard fare. Rats were happily repopulating Paris, notably the area around Les Halles. (All that excellent market garbage for them to feast on!) To provide Paris with a much-needed service for rat control, Maison Aurouze opened its doors on 8 rue des Halles.

I am morbidly fascinated with Aurouze. One of those "only-in-Paris" curiosities, Aurouze is, er.., thriving today, still located in the same building where the fledgling family-owned store began in 1872. The house speciality is still deratisation, but they are purveyors of all manner of contraptions to help Parisians get rid of any unwanted creatures, from moths to ... bigger furry pests. The vitrine of Aurouze is unlike anything I have seen in the western world. Neat, orderly rows of mummified 80 year-old rats hanging in formation.

Dusty but winsome taxidermied rats jitterbugging on the floor. Rats, rats, and more rats.

The first time I happened to pass the shop and spotted the window display, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Not as dead as those rats, of course.

Rat art. Only in Paris.

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