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Just desserts

17 April 2010

Yesterday was the anniversary of another great event in Mexican history… the start of the Guerra de los Pasteles — the world’s longest, and messiest argument over a restaurant bill.

In 1832, the French proprietor of a Tacuba pastry shop owner — one Monsieur Remontel — complained to the his government that Mexican military cadets had stiffed him for a dessert bill.  OK, maybe the cadets had coffee, and it’s not unknown for teenage boys to scarf down massive quantities of food, but the 600,000 peso claim seemed, oh, shall we say, rather fanciful, even to then President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana.

But it seemed logical to the French… but then, what the French want  is logical.  With Napoleon Bonaparte having sold off the last French possessions on the American mainland, and  post-Napoleonic France  looking for new markets, and some way to open trade with the new American republics, shooting your way in was as logical as anything.  It wasn’t right that the Mexicans also shot a Frenchman in 1832, but he was a pirate, so that was an absurd reason to make demands on Mexico.  But,  upholding the honor of French pastries… making that logical is easy as pie a la Descarte.

Stiffly worded notes meandered back and forth for a couple of years (punctuated by breaks for lunch, dinner, siestas and — of course, dessert:  diplomatic crises moved slowly in those days), the French finally giving Mexico a deadline of 15 April 1838 to pony up for the dessert tab.  To which the Mexicans said, “mañana“.

The French took that literally.  On 16 April  the French fleet blockaded Veracruz.  And on 17 April 1838, La guerra de las pasteles commenced.

After a few months of shouting insults at each other, punctuated by occasional cannonball, the French had the… er… gall…  to send a negotiator who not only demanded the 600,000 pesos again, but also demanded a Treaty of Friendship Commerce and Navigation Rights.  And special rights for French businesses (they wanted to sell more pastries).  Don Luis G. Cuevas responded by suggesting that Vice-Amiral Charles Baudin should engage in an improper and violent relationship with his female parent.  Or words to that effect*.

Pour la gloire de  pâtisseries,   30,000 French sailors and marines were called to join the fray.  On 27 November, it got serious.  The French occupied San Juan de Ulúa and President Anastasio Bustamante declared war.  General Santa Ana, down the road at Mango de Clavo, Veracruz state, was laying low after managing to lose Texas and looking to rehabilitate himself showed up in Veracruz offering to join in driving the pesky bill collectors out. I don’t know if the Prince de Joinville had studied the Battle of San Jacinto (when the Mexican Army was caught napping… literally … by the Texans, which the Texans claim was the battle that won their independence) but Santa Ana never made the same mistake twice (he made new and different ones every time). The French amphibious assault was before dawn on 5 December 1838 when the Mexicans were asleep.   Santa Ana was ALMOST caught, but, still in his underwear, escaped from a French ranger team sent to capture him and even had time to grab his his uniform and sword as he escaped from an upstairs window.

Santa Ana found time to get properly dressed, and rally the Mexican troops to drive back the French landing. The French ships covered their men’s retreat. A cannon-ball  killed the horse Santa Ana was riding and the five guys next to him. He’d lose his left leg below the knee and a finger to shrapnel, but his reputation was restored, and he was set to return to power and lose even larger chunks of Mexico in the future.

The French — with Cartesian logic — gave up on landing, but figured a artillery bombardments would do the job, so the Mexicans just withdrew out of cannon-range and waited. And waited. Until…. 9 March 1839 when a British fleet — probably looking for a decent place to get a meal — came sailing into Veracruz. Thinking the whole thing very, very silly, Admiral Richard Packenham managed to sit down the French and the Mexicans and hammer out an agreement.  The Mexican paid the 600,000 pesos (they’d get it back with interest from foreign tourists over the long run), the French sailed home vowing revenge for being made to look like fools, and… Mexico City pastry shops are run by the Chinese.

* Based on what is known about the intrigue surrounding la guerra de los pasteles, the following is a reasonable accurate recreation of the event:

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nery permalink
    26 April 2010 7:48 pm

    I remember ….

    Death to France!

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